In the food world, when Instagram is your business card

Mapo Galbi in Koreatown is known for its dish of chicken dak galbi, which is cooked in a giant grill at the tables.
Mapo Galbi in Koreatown is known for its dish of chicken dak galbi, which is cooked in a giant grill at the tables.
(Amy Scattergood / Los Angeles Times )

When Victoire Louapre arrived at Mapo Galbi — the Koreatown restaurant beloved for its spicy chicken dak galbi — she had butterflies in her stomach. The 25-year-old Paris native was new to Los Angeles, and inside the restaurant were six strangers. The evening’s dinner invitation had come from @akiraakuto, a longtime friend on Instagram, but a stranger in the flesh.

“It was like a Tinder date,” she recalls. “We had been messaging for so long that I was fearful that I would not love him as much during dinner.” Of the eight people around the table that night, only four had met the old-fashioned way – in person.

This sort of Platonic blind date is increasingly common among the food-obsessed, who document their meals, sometimes course by course, on Instagram. Those collected images, curated in a grid and broadcast to anyone who cares to click, have become a calling card for the person behind the camera phone. If food is the new rock, then Instagram is the new record collection — flip through and make your snap judgment. Would you want to share a meal with this person?

“My Instagram is my business card,” says Louapre, who serves as the media manager for Le Fooding, the Paris-based restaurant guide, while also writing restaurant reviews on her personal website. When writing a cold email, she says the first sentence is often, “Hi, my name is Victoire Louapre, @victoire_loup.”

She and Akira Akuto, a well-connected bicoastal chef, had been following each other’s meals on Instagram before they each, independently, decided to move to Los Angeles.

“We had been in constant communication for over a year,” says Akuto, who has made connections from Israel to Japan via social media. “She was living in Paris and I was in New York and I kept sending friends to meet up with her in Paris.” Ultimately it was over dak galbi in Koreatown that they two would finally meet, in October, the first of many meals together.

Louapre admits that living in L.A. offers her certain social freedoms that she wouldn’t have in Paris. “In France you don’t really meet up with strangers unless you have a specific reason to meet them,” she says. “But I just had lunch with someone today who I met on social media and I had no agenda in my mind. It was just like, ‘I think you’re awesome and I want to share a lunch with you.’”

Akuto, now 35, says: “It’s hard to meet people at this age in a new city, and I think a simple way to do it is around food.” And though he was wary in the beginning, Instagram’s integration with Facebook makes it easy to check for mutual friends and the recent direct messaging updates allow users to communicate privately, so that they no longer have to leave contact information in the comments and hope the recipient will promptly delete it from public view. Plus, Akuto adds, “If it doesn’t work out, you don’t have to see them again, so it’s no big deal.”

Occasionally friends who appear to have similar tastes online can be quiet, or worse, domineering in person; but more often the surprises are felicitous. When Akuto made plans to go cycling with an Instagram friend, he turned out to be a barista at Eightfold, a coffee shop that Akuto frequents in Echo Park.

When Louapre stopped by Unit 120, Alvin Cailan’s pop-up venture in Chinatown, she ran into Peter Cheng – aka @theoffalo – a long time social media friend who she had only recently met in person. Cheng introduced her to his friend Paul, and naturally, she says, “The first thing they did was follow each other on Instagram. It was like exchanging business cards.”

The practice of Instagramming your food has become big business. Last year the hashtag #foodporn inspired a television show on the FYI Network, where host Michael Chernow seeks out the restaurants and chefs behind Instagram’s most popular dishes. For food bloggers looking for a book deal, social media numbers and engagement are a way to prove your worth to a publisher.

And while it’s easy to be cynical about seeing another sun-drenched table-scape of half-eaten breakfast pastries, the reality is that beyond the hashtags and likes, Instagram has become a connector. And if it means more people are connecting over the table, rather than watching others eat on TV, then what’s the harm in snapping a few photos before you dig in to your next meal? You might meet a new friend.