Photo By Justin Schuble
Instagram influencer Justin Schuble's photo of the grilled cheese at the upscale diner Community.
It’s 3 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon at Community, an upscale diner in Bethesda’s Woodmont Triangle. The few customers at the bar pay little notice to Justin Schuble, the 22-year-old confidently setting up his camera tripod in the middle of the restaurant. Then, a server delivers an open-faced cheeseburger to his table. Schuble assesses it briefly and assembles it, fluffing the dill pickles, razor-thin onion slices, slab of hothouse tomato and thicket of shredded lettuce. He picks up the construct and holds it at arm’s length just above eye-level, his hand barely visible. With his other hand, he grabs his Sony Alpha A6000 digital camera, brings it to his face and snaps a picture that more than a hundred thousand people could potentially see.
“I mastered holding up a sandwich and getting the shot at the same time—it gives the feel that I’m about to eat something. I do some overhead shots, but people get really excited about in-the-hand, gooey, drippy photos,” says Schuble, a Georgetown University senior from Potomac.
He’s the founder of Instagram account DCFoodPorn, which has 114,000 followers and counting. A pictureof bacon-wrapped jalapeños and duck nachos at Bethesda’s Gringos & Mariachis garnered more than 2,024 likes, and a post showing the chocolate-drizzled churros at TapaBar on Fairmont Avenue received 177-plus comments.
Schuble is known as an Instagram influencer. Restaurateurs like Mark Bucher, a Community co-owner, are thrilled by the idea of having a tantalizing picture of their food in front of so many eyes. “You eat with your eyes,” says Bucher. “Millennials get information in a millisecond and it has to be eye-catching or they’re just not interested. A great shot of the Washington Monument may get a few likes, but grilled cheese coming apart? That gets tons of hits.” (16,552 views in six days, to be precise.)
But does that translate into customers in seats? “That's the billion-dollar question,” Bucher says. “There’s no way of knowing that.” (Full disclosure: Bethesda Magazine hired Schuble to take photos of Community dishes for Bethesda Beat’s First Take column online.)
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Photo by Skip Brown
Justin Schuble frames a shot of the fried chicken sandwich at Owen's Ordinary.
At first, chefs resisted the idea of their guests taking pictures of food, says José Andrés, whose restaurant empire includes Jaleo in Bethesda. But now, it’s an accepted practice. “Phones are part of who we are now and [taking photos] is how we express ourselves and capture an ephemeral moment. It has a lot of value. It captures the heart and spirit of something that is about to disappear.”
Presentation is important, but it takes more to elevate it to art, says François Dionot, the founder and director of L’Academie de Cuisine, a cooking school in Gaithersburg.
“We Frenchmen have always been associated with food and sex. Presentation is like an attraction between two people. We are attracted by a dish. If it looks very, very good, we are attracted. If it smells good, it’s a double attraction. If it tastes good, that’s art. When a chef can achieve presentation and taste, hopefully they get Michelin stars, like Aaron [Silverman] with three and Nick [Stefanelli] with one,” he explains, referring to L’Academie graduates who recently earned kudos from the world-renowned Michelin Guide for their D.C. restaurants. Silverman earned two stars for Pineapple and Pearls, and one for Rose’s Luxury; Stefanelli received one for Masseria.
Kensington resident Robert Wiedmaier, the chef-owner of RW Restaurant Group, which includes fine-dining mecca Marcel’s in the District, and Mussel Bar & Grille in Bethesda, recalls nouvelle cuisine in the ’70s and ’80s. “Everything was about the look then and not about the taste—a piece of poached lobster and three peas. Chefs were thinking, ‘Food is art.’ ” It didn’t last very long, he says, because they forgot that the food had to be delicious.
Peter Chang, the Sichuan chef and multi-outlet restaurateur, whose fine-dining restaurant Q by Peter Chang opens in Bethesda this spring, says (with his daughter, Lydia Chang, translating for him): “Food that has a great photo does not mean it tastes good. Taste doesn’t transfer to images. It may attract someone to come in, but what brings them back? So we focus more on the taste than the look, but we’re looking for that balance.”
The advent of social media has been a game changer for restaurateurs, even if it took some longer than others to come around. Wiedmaier says his wife, Polly, told him “ ‘this is the way of the future.’ She has the managers taking pictures of every dish I put up and they have to be good pics so she can put them on Instagram and Pinterest.”
Where Polly recognized the power of Instagram as a resource, so did Schuble. “When I first started DCFoodPorn, I was only posting things that I was eating, but I have gotten to a point where it’s a resource for people and they expect to see all types of food,” he says. That means, for example, posting pictures of dishes with dairy and gluten in them, which he avoids. The most important factor: The dish must look terrific.
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Photo by Justin Schuble