Much has been made of the way that Instagram, by emphasizing the visual, has affected food trends and restaurants. There are countless accounts devoted to beautiful food, showing plate after plate of photogenic meals. I myself follow quite a few chefs and restaurants on Instagram, watching what they’re cooking and how they present it.
It’s easy to complain about the new obsession with appearance rather than taste, or to label Instagram as “good” or “bad” for food. Instagram is shallow, of course, but it is also just one tool among many to connect with customers. As one of my former chefs would remind me, if my plating grew sloppy, “customers eat with their eyes first, mouth second.” Popular food-centric accounts reflect the fact that the visual has always mattered in restaurants, and especially in fine dining.
Enter Rick Venutolo.
Someone recently pointed me to Rick’s Instagram account, a subversive take on the perfect Instagram-worthy plate. Rick posts photos of his meals, after he’s eaten them. His feed is a series of empty plates, baskets, and bowls. There are bones, containers, and dribbles, but no recognizable food. His Instagram bio tagline self-deprecatingly sums it up: “This is so dumb. Why would anyone do this?”
Rick’s photos push back against prioritizing aesthetic over taste, or stepping out of a moment to document the moment. But there is something else in his feed that is more beautiful, more laudable to me: all of his photographed plates, baskets, and platters are clean. There are tidy piles of bones, or scraped out sauce cups, but for the most part, he has eaten everything on his plate. He is visually documenting his membership in what my mother used to call “the clean plate club”.
At my restaurant, I get a glimpse of who, exactly, is in the clean plate club. I cook your dish, and then I watch it walk out of the door. I never get to see you eat the food. I don’t hear what you say, how you react, or what you grab first. But, later, I see your plate come back in the kitchen. There will be a server balancing it on his arm as he unloads the leftover food and dishes into the dish pit.
It’s then that I see what you did, or didn’t eat. I always talk to the server, because I want to know if there was something wrong with my cooking. What made them avoid all the olives? Why did they leave those greens on their plate? Why didn’t they finish the snapper? And why don’t they want to take any leftovers home? The server frequently has no constructive criticism; more often than not, the customer simply seemed sated with what they had eaten and then left the rest.
There is food waste in every step of the restaurant industry. Food spoils, or fails to meet certain standards during harvesting, packaging, transportation, storage, and preparation. Some food waste is seen as inevitable in our current system, the product of long supply chains and unrealistic expectations in the industry. But food waste is an enormous contributor to methane emissions, food insecurity, and misused natural resources. There are so many ways to cut down on food waste in the restaurant industry, from buying more locally to composting food waste during kitchen prep. It’s is a pressing topic worth examining in detail (anyone want to see Wasted! with me?), because food waste can be stymied at many different points in our food system.
But, tonight, as I watched servers throw away meticulously prepared vegetables or the last delicious bites of uneaten pork, I kept returning to that last link in the long chain of food production to food consumption: the customer. Who is reminding the customer that they are part of the food system as well? And that, by being conscious of what and how they eat, they can affect a change?
“Finish your food” is something you say to children, to picky eaters and spoiled youngsters. Rarely is it promoted as a value for adults. After all, we can make our own decisions, order our own meals, and act on our own dietary preferences.
But our choices, as diners, as consumers, matter. The pursuit of a clean plate will change the way you eat at a restaurant, how much you order and how you think about your meal. It will change your food waste footprint. This is why I love Rick’s Instagram account: this man is glorifying, and beautifying, cleaning your plate. Perhaps he is just one very, very hungry man who finds it easy to finish his meal. But he also makes it look enviable.
The next time you’re at a restaurant, take a moment to think about what you are going to order, and what will be left after you are full. See if you can visualize yourself, as an adult, being a member of the clean plate club. If you need some motivation, do like Rick does, and take a picture afterwards for Instagram. Write what your meal was, in the caption. Make everyone you know jealous of a meal so good, you had to eat every last bite.