Despite the overcast sky, there's a halo shining on the picnic table at Pinkerton’s Barbecue. Tyme Powell contemplates a generous platter of pork ribs, brisket, potato salad, pulled pork, chocolate cake, sweet tea, and the usual accoutrements. She pokes a little here, tweaks a little there, then stands up and snaps a photo of her lunch.

“When I’m starting out, I evaluate what’s on my plate and how I can place it better so that it will look more presentable,” she says.

Powell’s food styling strategy today involves condensing two trays worth of meaty goodness to one as a way of contrasting the varying colors and textures. She wants her light projecting from the side to reduce the amount of shadows and to ensure the most mouthwatering results. 

A former professional food photographer, Powell relaunched her @htx_bites Instagram account in February. She’s part of the ever-growing segment of Houston-area food enthusiasts showcasing the city’s nationally recognized culinary scene on social media. 

But, as we know, Instagram is a source of concern, sometimes scorn. At the beginning of the foodstagram craze, backlash was swift. New York Times food critic Pete Wells lamented chefs who prioritized photo-worthy fare over flavor. More recently, as the scene has shifted to better accommodate the visual medium (say, the influx of neon signs tailor-made to be a photo backdrop), thinkpieces have pondered the role of the “influencer,” and if it’s becoming harder for consumers to trust the content they’re consuming. Or, to put it simply, are we relying too much on Instagram?

Maybe, says some, we needed something like Instagram.

“It has really democratized what’s been going on. Back in the olden days, you had food critics talking about food, and magazines and newspapers were the only sources of food photography,” says Albert Nurick, founder, publisher, and managing editor at local food blog H-Town Chow Down (@htownchowdown). “They were the only places where you saw what a dish looked like or what a restaurant looked like.” 

Nurick’s food photography and writing career began in the mid-1990s, a time before Yelp and listicles telling diners where to eat. He appreciates how Instagram has expanded the conversation about what to eat.

“Nowadays, it’s constant,” he says. “You see it all the time, and you’ll meet some interesting people virtually online via Instagram whose palate and vision you start to learn to trust. They post up something new that looks exciting and you immediately want to go check it out because you know you had great experiences with stuff they recommended in the past.”

One of Nurick’s favorite aspects of working in food photography is receiving messages from fans and friends who pop out to try new dishes, restaurants, and entire styles of cuisine because of him. In that sense, the field is larger now, with Nurick and other food bloggers and influencers simply adding to the opinions already in the ether, often turning followers onto new cuisines and restaurants. For example, foodie Carlos Cooper says he started experimenting with cooking the Quebecois comfort food poutine after a trip to Tub's Poutine, which was influenced by his feed.

It goes the other way, too, with restaurants garnering big followings that bring consumers closer to their daily operations. Pondicheri has a lush Instagram following of more than 10,500, meaning its chef, James Beard semifinalist Anita Jaisinghani, can draw more people to its thoughtful fare from the Indian subcontinent. 

“[Our Instagram] just keeps growing, and people look at what we’re doing and what’s new, and I feel like our content has been getting better and better,” says Jaisinghani. “It’s true, original, and relevant to what we do.”

Though she appreciates “a pretty picture,” Jaisinghani prefers that visitors to Pondicheri’s Instagram dig deeper, “whether it’s a little tip on how to cook something or information about an ingredient that they could use, [or] ways to eat.” She notes that with interest in food growing at such a “rapid” pace because of social media-based food photography, she has more drive to “give something that means something to people.” 

In the end, the consumer has to make the decision, and as usual, research is a consumer’s best friend. Yes, some influencers aren’t transparent about their sponsorships, and yes, that dish being photographed might not be very tasty. But it’s the internet—it’s easy to find multiple opinions on a restaurant or eatery. That doesn’t mean Instagram is useless; in fact, it may be the opposite, providing a massive outlet to continue the legacy of sharing cuisines and stories, in the process opening up more opportunities for creatives and restaurateurs alike.

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