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I'm a Chef. My Job Is to Make Food Instagrammable.

A research & development chef for chain restaurants explains the directive these days: Make dishes that go viral.
By Published Feb. 22, 2022

Simple, accessible recipes are at the core of chain restaurant menus: think burgers, fried chicken sandwiches. But for chains to grow their brand, they have to constantly innovate and create new dishes that can appeal to a wide audience. As a full-time research and development chef, I work with some of the biggest restaurant chains in America to develop new menu items, ones that can be replicated by cooks of all skill levels.

Generally speaking, my task is to build upon a chain restaurant’s core menu, introducing new flavors, textures, and elements that will deliver a satisfying and familiar experience. But in recent years, the directives have come with one additional ask: make it “Instagrammable.” Basically, the dish needs to have viral potential. It might be polarizing, somewhat unexpected, maybe even strange. The dish should be a conversation starter and, of course, delicious.

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It's been fascinating to watch which chain restaurant menu items have gone viral, and which haven’t. It’s one part novelty, one part random luck. In 2017 the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino took over social media, with the drink’s striking, fluorescent pink and blue colors inescapable on Instagram. Avocado escaped its guacamole confines, helping elevate toast. More recently, plant-based meats have had its moment, first with Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, and now, with KFC’s Beyond Chicken nuggets. And then there’s Popeye’s fried chicken sandwich, which struck popular culture like a thunderbolt in 2019.

That sandwich crossed the threshold of passing fad and set off a years-long chicken sandwich war between some of the biggest chain restaurant brands in the world. McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC all launched a version of the chicken sandwich. But Popeye’s had first-mover’s advantage, and none of those other fried chicken sandwiches seem to have taken hold like Popeye's, at least on social media.

Restaurant brands generally have the best intentions for their customers, but there are sometimes innovation missteps so egregious they never make it out of the test phase. It is good for a laugh, though. Among us R&D chefs, we've heard stories of someone trying to develop a meat tortilla shaped and formed using meat glue (you read that right: a tortilla made of meat).

Crispy chicken is a fan favorite, but Cap’n Crunch coated fried chicken was a bridge too far.

Then there’s the cheeseburger quesadilla—a burger served on two quesadillas (actually that doesn’t sound so bad). And the double bacon cheeseburger sandwiched between two glazed donuts never made it on the national stage, although I’ve seen some baseball stadiums serve this as a special promotion.

It should be no surprise that in the quick service restaurant industry, inspiration comes directly from customers. Companies are deeply in tune with their core audiences and seek opportunities to serve them. One way of providing that novelty factor is over-indulgence. Take Wendy’s Baconator, consisting of six slices of bacon, two slices of cheese, and a half-pound of beef. This led other brands to experiment with the equation that more meat = more value. The over-the-top sandwich carrier was born out of this trend, and grew in popularity with KFC’s “Double Down,” a sandwich that used deep-fried chicken cutlets in place of a bread bun.

Crispy chicken is a fan favorite, but Cap’n Crunch coated fried chicken was a bridge too far.

If I were to embark on creating the next “Instagrammable” viral menu item, I might start with a regional favorite, something most people might not recreate at home, such as a po’ boy sandwich. It’s beloved in Louisiana, and therefore my version is sure to ruffle some feathers. But it’s not important that my po’ boy is authentic to the region where it originated, only that I can use the platform as inspiration (remember: familiarity is important for chain restaurant consumers). I’d make sure the ingredients were as far from traditional as possible. Taco Po’ Boy, Pizza Po’ Boy . . . Poke Po’ Boy . . . Poke Boy? This is the sometimes-sad truth of the chain restaurant’s business model: A measure of weirdness is required these days to interest people. Why else would the Schnitzza exist?

I can recognize just how absurd these ideas are, and the old refrain of “don’t play with your food” rings in my mind. But the truth is, food is fun, and the kitchen is a playground for chefs. In 2022 we’ve already seen excitement around Taco Bell’s chicken wings and the return of the Mexican Pizza. In the beverage space, I wouldn't be surprised to see carbonated coffee become a thing. Plant-based meats are here to stay; is plant-based seafood next? And you never know—the Poke Boy sandwich just might be the next big thing.

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Photo: Alexander Spatari, Getty Images