Are We Living in a Post-Recipe Food World?

“Cooking culture is getting to a point where people are allowing themselves to go beyond recipes, and to not feel so attached to them.” Photo: Renée Kemps

This week, Food52 launched a new app called (Not)Recipes, which aims to reflect how people actually cook, day to day. Instead of listing recipes, with hard-to-find ingredients (thanks, Yotam Ottolenghi) and complicated techniques, the platform encourages improvisation. (Not)Recipes is essentially a more useful Instagram: There are beautiful food photos (and, yes, plenty of avocado dishes), and the text, which can be of any length, is generally simple and relaxed — like how you’d tell a friend to make a dish. What makes (Not)Recipes particularly helpful is that the app automatically pulls and lists any ingredients mentioned in the text, and then makes each ingredient searchable. In a time where there’s more food media than ever — podcasts, social media, blogs, videos, the works! — the simplicity, and sense of intimacy, feels refreshing. Amanda Hesser, the co-founder of Food52, explains what went into making it:

I very rarely follow recipes, so I think this is smart. Can you tell me what inspired the app?
We’ve had a column called (Not)Recipes for a couple of years now, and it’s consistently been one of our most popular columns. The goal of that particular column is to show how once you understand the fundamentals of how a dish is put together, there is no need for a recipe. Something like overnight oats — once you understand the ratio of liquid to grain, and then how you can flavor it — it’s really yours to own and play with. At the same time, we’ve long done recipe contests, and we started doing them on Instagram. We saw so many people showing off their cooking on Instagram, and we thought, Wouldn’t it be nice to channel that together around specific themes?. That went really well, too.

We were a little slow in realizing this, but we have 40,000 recipes on our site, and it occurred to us that most of the cooking that happens in the world doesn’t involve recipes. Most people, when they’re cooking every day, are just cooking. They’re doing things that are familiar. There’s no place that brings all of this together. One of the goals is for (Not)Recipes to be a source of inspiration for other cooks, but also, equally important to us, we want it to be useful. How can we use technology to make it so people weren’t having to type out recipes or even ingredient lists?

How did you craft the app’s aesthetic?
We built the app so that you can upload photos and choose filters. Our filters are all inspired by famous food people: We have a Craig Claiborne filter, and it reflects the colors of food photography of that era. There’s Alice Waters, René Redzepi, Ina Garten, and Buvette filters. We scoured the food landscape for people with iconic style, and we worked with our photographer James Ransom to create filters that reflected that. The idea is for us to help you share your cooking and make it look beautiful, and then you can add a caption with however much detail you like. It might just be that you’re sharing a tip about a technique you used. Then the app automatically pulls out any ingredients you’ve mentioned, and puts them into a list that you can edit. We want this to be social but useful. Instagram is amazingly social and beautiful and we love it, but we feel like it’s not built for cooking.

Are you curating the posts to make sure they’re useful or high-quality?
We really believe in curation as a necessity to go along with crowdsourcing, so the app is useful and pleasurable. We have a featured tab that is curated by our editors, and then you can search by hashtag or ingredient. So any ingredient you can tap on, it will show you any dish that has eggs or avocados or whatever ingredient you select. It’s a way for you to navigate in a fashion that helps you pursue your interests. We want it to be a place where, if you’re really into making bread, you can really get into that as a topic and find other people who share that passion and learn from them.

Photo: Food52

Do you think we’re living in a post-recipe food world?
Well, I wouldn’t say post-recipe, because we still believe really strongly in recipes, and we use them all the time. There’s enormous value in recipes. But we think it’s super exciting and encouraging that our cooking culture is getting to a point where people are allowing themselves to go beyond recipes, and to not feel so attached to them. I think it’s just a signal of great confidence and experience and enthusiasm for cooking. People are going out on their own and cooking the ideas that pop up in their head, or taking different skills that they’ve learned from different recipes and combining them into their own idea. Or just feeling a little less attached to having to follow steps one through five.

Or just going to the market and picking whatever looks best, and going from there. That’s how I cook, especially in the warmer months.
Exactly. You’ll find reminders of flavor combinations, or just ideas around how you put together a dish and plate it.

There’s so much food content out there right now. Do you find it overwhelming? Is this an attempt to cut through it?
I think it’s a way of us trying to wrangle it a bit. There is a huge profusion of food content, particularly on social channels, but we feel like the loop is never closed. It feels very ephemeral, and we wanted to find a way where it became a useful resource, as opposed to an ephemeral bit of inspiration or pleasure. If somebody tweets about a recipe or they Instagram it, there is no real way to save it. We wanted to allow you to “favorite” these not-recipes. Over time, we may separate it so you can favorite and save separately, but in the beginning we just launched with favoriting. And right now you can’t follow cooks yet. We did that intentionally because we wanted to get the message [out] that this really is about the cooking, and the social element will follow. It’s not a popularity contest.

I feel like it reflects how you talk to friends about food. I was going to roast a chicken the other day, and I ended up going down a rabbit hole of recipes. I had no idea which one to choose, so I ended up just calling my friend, and she talked me through her method.
Yes, that’s the very thing that happens every day — the chatty conversations that you have about what you’re cooking, and the little tips that you’re constantly exchanging with your friends. We hope we can bottle that up in the app.

Do We Live in a Post-Recipe World?