I’m sitting across from Ben Hon, better known by his 34.4k followers on Instagram as @stuffbeneats, inside the Vietnamese restaurant Madame Vo, a local East Village hotspot whose menu featuring long-standing family recipes never fails to draw long lines.
We’re taking photos of the carefully arranged dishes in front of us, I with my iPhone 6 and he with his large Fujifilm camera complete with a set of three lenses. Next to us, two girls are pointing and whispering, until one of them turns to me and asks:
“Are you two food influencers?”
I look at Ben with a mixed expression of pride and alarm and expect him to answer, but he’s focused on getting the perfect macro shot of the bánh xèo—a Vietnamese egg crêpe stuffed with onions, beansprouts, sautéed prawns, and pork belly. So I turn back to them and answer, “Yeah, we are.” I then clarify: “He’s the professional, I’m the amateur.”
Braised Pork and Egg | @littleapple_eats
It’s my first meal with a well-known New York City “food influencer”—a relatively new term prescribed to those who share photos of food with loyal #foodporn fans and, if deemed “popular” enough, are often tapped by restaurants, bars, and food and liquor brands to promote special menu items in return for complimentary meals, private event invitations, or brand sponsorships. As this Bon Appétit article points out, restaurants are increasingly realizing the importance of “Instagrammability” when it comes to business success among millennials, and all the recent food fads, from Black Tap’s massive milkshakes to Pokee’s sushi donuts to Do’s cookie dough ice cream san”do”wiches, are riding this rising tidal wave of “food aesthetics.” Restaurants are increasingly giving influencers such as Ben a “seat at the industry table,” and as an avid food lover and blogger myself, I was both ecstatic and nervous to finally find a seat of my own.
Goi Dudu (Papaya Salad with Basil and Poached Shrimp) | @littleapple_eats
Lemongrass Tofu Vermicelli Bowl | @littleapple_eats
And so, sitting with Ben for the next hour and a half over a steaming bowl of short rib beef pho, lemongrass tofu vermicelli, crispy bánh xèo, braised pork and egg, salt toasted soft shell crab, and many more dishes prepared for us by Jimmy, owner of Madame Vo and Ben’s good friend, we discussed the importance of sharing food with others, the personal motivations behind it, and the important responsibilities that come with it.
Most of our conversation was driven by my own questions, including:
What advice—technical, personal, or anything else—would you give to someone who’s just starting out in the food photography scene?
What motivated you to start your food Instagram, and how did you get to where you are now?
What do you do when you’re not thinking about, talking about, or eating food?
How do I approach the established “foodie community” without seeming too forward, awkward, or unnatural?
If I want to take food photography more seriously, should I get a better camera?
How can I make my posts stand out, or how can I let my own personality shine through? I’m currently focused on making “punny” captions for each of my pictures, but what if I wanted to transform my feed into something like a “Humans of New York” but for restaurants, their owners, and their staff?
How should I reach out to restaurants I’d love to work with, or owners I’d like to talk to?
In a space increasingly driven by “picture perfect” feeds, how can I stay true to the flavors I love and the pictures I take?
If there’s something you eat and don’t like, do you still post a photo of it?
Ben, as the kind and down-to-earth person he is, answered each of my questions patiently and thoughtfully, seasoning technical advice with personal experiences and tempering the sweetness of the “foodie life” with the raw importance of properly representing others’ unique food creations. As someone who still has much to learn about what makes a “good” influencer, I am very lucky that Ben was the first of the foodie community to message me back and invite me to share a meal with him. His humble outlook and pay-it-forward attitude will certainly help guide my future food adventures, and, as mentioned in my most recent Instagram post, are what made for an un(pho)gettable meal.
Salt Toasted Soft-Shell Crab with Avocado Sauce |@littleapple_eats
Ben’s technical advice:
Composition, lighting, and placement are key considerations.
To determine whether a picture is good or not, ask yourself, “Would I eat that?”
Don’t have a busy background.
Find your own aesthetic style and stick with it.
Be consistent with your posting. If you post once a day, post once a day. If you post once a week, keep posting once a week.
Find the right hashtags that fit each picture.
Interact with other food influencers in the community. Like, share, and message one another. Contribute to the food network!
Ben’s personal observations:
There are cliques in the foodie world, too. 99% of the people you’ll meet in this community are incredibly nice, but there are a few who you’ll realize are only out for themselves.
Privately hosted events are fun but can get competitive. Many food bloggers will fight for their “corners” for the perfect shot. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by this, and don’t let yourself get caught in the competition.
Costs and leftovers are important considerations.
Mentorship is incredibly important. Help others when you can, and accept help when it comes.
Do what you do for the right reasons. Don’t post a photo of food you didn’t actually enjoy and then say it was the best thing you’ve eaten. Your friends won’t appreciate the lies (from personal experience).
Building organic relationships is key. Don’t force any interaction, and don’t go out of your way to ask for followers or sponsorships.
Some of the humbling takeaways:
This is about being true to yourself and your love for food.
This is about personal taste—literally and figuratively. If there’s a food you love that doesn’t “look pretty” or might receive fewer likes, post it anyway.
This is about making lifelong friendships. (Some of Ben’s closest friends are food influencers he first met through Instagram.)
This is about sharing good food, but more importantly, about sharing it with those who share the same love for food that you do.
It should never be about the free food.
At the end of the day, a food influencer’s job is not to take but to share, promoting the good work of great restaurants under talented chefs and celebrating #eeeeeats that can be enjoyed by all.
@stuffbeneats x @littleapple_eats x @madamevonyc
Thank you to Jimmy, Yen, and the entire staff at Madame Vo for the warm welcome and the delicious food. Each dish was made with home-cooked love, reminding me of many family recipes of our own.