Why hipster food has gone viral — and when it will end
By Patrick Wood
You don’t have to be a member of the inner-city hipster set to have sensed there’s something of a food revolution going on.
Almost weekly now social media is buzzing with the latest #foodporn trend that is taking extravagance and indulgence to the next level.
Think “freakshakes” and deconstructed coffees. Flowers scattered over bacon and eggs, and syringes loaded with caramel and then stuffed into donuts.
Don’t know what an “ethereal” ice-cream is? You’re about to find out.
It’s all leading some to cry of hipsterism run riot, while others are more than willing to snap, like and share the culinary curiosities.
So what’s driving this craze, who is benefiting, and where will it all end?
Why are we seeing these food trends now?
In a word: Instagram.
The ability to take a quick photo of your food and share it before tucking in has driven chefs to create ever-more elaborate designs, according to food writer Dani Valent.
“If we go back to the Middle Ages or Victorian times and there’s always been this sort of high-end feasting aspect,” she said.
“But now it’s very much driven by social media because we’ve got this shareability of food.
“We haven’t yet learnt how to share aroma or taste via social media, so presentation is privileged.”
But Ms Valent said there was more going on here, and reality cooking shows like Masterchef also had to bear some responsibility.
“The whole idea of ‘plating up’ and that presentation is crucial is definitely hammered by Masterchef,” she said.
“I don’t think people will put up with food that doesn’t look good anymore because standards have risen.”
It also goes beyond just mere looks to a more tactile fascination with food, especially when it comes to the syringe donuts.
“This is an extension of the creme brulee — [like] we have shattering the top of that crust,” Ms Valent said.
“The skill of squirting sauces into our food is something we perhaps never thought we would need.
“We thought we were OK with cutlery, we can use chopsticks. Did we know we would be using syringes to help us with eating?”
Does any of this actually matter?
If you’re a restaurant owner looking for an edge, then the answer is definitely yes.
The truth is it’s become a game-changer for many cafes.
Andrew Savvas is the owner of Melbourne cafe Kitty Burns and said at one point he spent $2,000 a week on small flowers and petals to sprinkle over dishes — many of them brunch items.
“We were the biggest cafe/restaurant in Melbourne for flowers,” he said.
“That’s 100 per cent visual.
“We were getting rose petals, violas, you name it we had it. It makes such a difference.”
Mr Savvas said it soon became a point of difference between his cafe and his competitors and he found people were going out of their way to see the designs.
“If you see a dish without the flowers after seeing one with, [it makes a] world of difference,” he said.
“It’s a destination cafe. We don’t have passing foot traffic, we don’t have that on-street advertising, so people have to know about us, see us on Instagram, see us on social [media] and go, ‘That looks great, looks pretty’.”
Mr Savvas said his cafe didn’t rely on building a loyal local base and instead relied on social media buzz and eye-catching designs to bring in customers.
“Being in this estate, the apartment buildings, you would think that the residents would be our number one customers, but they’re not unfortunately,” he said.
“We rely on a lot of people wanting to have a look at what we’re doing.”
And Ms Savvas knows that keeping up appearances isn’t just for the likes of Hyacinth Bucket, it’s a motto that guides his cafe and many of his competitors. So the pressure is on.
“It goes back to the difficulty of creating a menu because we want things that taste good, but we also have to cater for the Instagrammers,” he said.
“So for example we’ve been playing with our latest menu for the past month or so, and again if there’s something I’ve seen similar to what’s being presented we’ll just scrap the idea and start again.”
So are these trends just for foodie snobs?
Actually Ms Valent argues that the reverse is true — this is taking the spectacle of food that was once only found is top establishments and bringing it to the masses.
“It’s a trickle-down thing: It comes from fine dining and then it gets broadened out and broadened out,” she said.
“What it does is it brings that event food, or food that makes people excited, it brings it to the mainstream.”
For Ms Valent this is an exciting development and one not to automatically scoff at.
“From a $3 coffee or an $8 milkshake, everyone is able to have something that’s spectacular and be able to share it,” she said.
“I don’t think that spectacle is the preserve of fine dining or people who can afford to spend a couple of hundred dollars on dinner.”
And there is certainly plenty of spectacle on offer for less than $10.
Ethereal ice-cream (essentially ice-cream in a cone surrounded by fairy floss) is proving popular, while colourful takes on something as established as a latte is also turning heads.
Emily Coumbis is a barista at a Brisbane cafe and this year began experimenting with rainbow designs in coffee foam.
She has amassed more than 16,000 followers on Instagram since April and has begun offering tutorial videos on YouTube.
“People just come in with their phones on Instagram and ask ‘can we have this?’” Ms Coumbis said.
“We had a whole group of people from Singapore come in the other day and they all got rainbow coffees.
“They all got their phones out, I had like seven people around filming me at the same time.”
OK, it’s a thing. But will it last?
It’s certainly possible, but Ms Valent thinks we’re already seeing a shift away from designs that value look over taste.
Google Trend data shows searches for “freakshakes”, “cronuts” and the once-popular “nutella” have all started to decline after surging in the past couple of years.
And while a new trend might be just around the corner, there is a tendency for a severe social media reaction when people feel an idea has gone too far, as the Melbourne creators of the “deconstructed coffee” discovered earlier this year.
“It’s a thing for picky drinkers,” said Lisa Wearmouth, the manager of the Melbourne cafe that found infamy after a Facebook post of the brew went viral.
“When you get someone that comes in and orders a long black with milk on the side, generally they wanted a long macchiato — but they want to choose how much milk they want to put in that coffee.”
Ms Valent said presentation would always be important but it had to be balanced.
“We want things to look pretty and we want to eat with our eyes as well as our taste buds, but presentation overwhelming taste is going to slowly fade,” she said.
“So what we’re going to see next is cafes starting to strip things back, which is already happening in fine dining.”
“People are coming back to this idea that it needs to delicious, that needs to be the first thing.”