Those perfectly plated minimalist dishes anyone who follows fancy restaurants sees on Instagram? They may as well be artfully lighted Fig Newtons, Pop-Tarts, and crushed cereal, says Julia Bell. The University of Pennsylvania senior runs Fignudes, a satirical Instagram account where she recreates expensive dishes using cheap ingredients. The idea, she says, is to examine the “visual code of wealth” a certain type of plating conveys.
“I was looking at images of really fancy, upscale food from Michelin-starred restaurants, and it got me thinking about the perception of food and how part of what you’re paying for is this specific design language that everyone recognizes as wealthy,” Bell says. “The very clean plate with the precisely organized food, the colorful, very small portions — it’s almost disconnected from what the ingredients actually are.”
Bell, a 22-year-old English major from the Main Line, uses white plates and carefully constructed arrangements of Fig Newtons, hot dogs, Goldfish crackers, and Cheez Whiz to mimic the look of high-end restaurants’ social media accounts. She also created a fictitious persona for Fignudes: As conveyed through her captions, she’s mom to a fourth grader named Ryland who puts together photo-worthy plates made out of his favorite foods. Bell is in the process of translating the concepts behind the Instagram account into a creative writing thesis for school.
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Seasonal dessert inspired by the holiday clearance sale at Lord & Taylor. Fig Newt with pearls of cherry glace and Swedish fish. Arranged with squeezable yogurt fondant, pomegranate seeds, Frosted Flake textures, and Nerds (whole & semi-pulverized varietes). Animal cracker garnish with smoked winter thistle. Please PM me if you’d like to make a charitable donation to the Christmas nativity manger I’m building from shipping palettes I found at the Lord & Taylor loading dock.
“When you don’t have the sensory experience of eating, the visuals are all that matter. It’s not about nutrition or nourishment or expressing love through food — there’s a disconnect between how food is presented and how people consume it,” she says. “So does it even matter what the food is? Especially when I can replicate it using things I bought at CVS or Fresh Grocer.”
It’s not just the images restaurants post, Bell adds: “I was on the phone with a former chef at Per Se for a school project, and he was talking about how they design the plates knowing people take photos of every single one. I think that consideration is very present in the minds of restaurant owners and chefs.”
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Weekday breakfast: dismantled Splitz Pop Tarts with Fig Newts and winter herb. Plated with yogurt-dipped balls, pb morsels, Pop Chip rubble, and herbaceous Juicy Drop gel. Snack Pack and pink bean textures. This plate was challenging because I was shaking from parent-teacher conferences. (Ryland = great kid but careless with replacing marker caps.)
Fignudes is intended to be satirical but not mean-spirited, she says. New York City restaurants like Per Se and Eleven Madison Park give her the most fodder. A Penn student writing a Cheetos cookbook was also an inspiration.
“It’s not a vindictive condemnation of restaurants. I see what they do as an art. On an aesthetic level it’s extremely impressive, and I do try to emulate them,” Bell says. “But what is interesting to highlight is the homogeneity of it all. There’s this aesthetic that just seems like ‘this is the upscale aesthetic for food,’ and everyone is kind of mimicking each other.”