Technology has transformed every aspect of our daily lives, and food is no exception, writes Craig Grannell. The smartphone and tablet have become windows into hitherto unimaginable opportunities in the world of food: learning how to cook; unearthing interesting recipes; finding likeminded souls with which to share culinary gems; working to improve inclusivity and sustainability; or ignoring everything and pawing at a screen, to get a tasty takeaway sent your way.
Unsurprisingly, many food app giants double down on choice and volume. Epicurious has you browse 30,000 recipes, selecting favourites and dropping ingredients into a virtual shopping list. Yummly is an aggregator, providing access to “every recipe in the world”. Neither is especially personal, and both feel like they’re trying to serve up the entire ‘food internet’ with a side order of ‘don’t go elsewhere’; but they are indicative of how prehistoric other media looks by comparison. For example, Yummly’s smart filtering automatically caters for dietary requirements, and both apps take the stance that rather than be fed a small selection of recipes (many of which you’ll never try) in the form of a book, it’s better to do some leg-work and create a personalised digital tome from the countless recipes already online.
But this process can be daunting, and so other apps take a more human approach. Paprika flips Yummly, starting life empty, and gradually being populated by digital recipe clippings snipped from a range of foodie websites. Kitchen Stories echoes Epicurious, but prefers quality over quantity, garnishing recipe pages with people and photographs. There are fewer recipes to browse, but each feels like it’s arrived from a designer magazine: gorgeous photography accompanies every step; in-context videos provide insight at key moments (for example, if you’ve launched into ‘mozzarella tomato twist’ and realised with a start you don’t actually know how to make dough); and there’s an infusion of magazine-like ‘best of’ lists, and videos of chefs serving up treats likely to make your eyes dance with joy but your arteries shriek. This app is likely to encourage you to cook, getting you excited about food but also lending a helping hand.
Traditionally, this territory was once occupied by celebrity chefs, but they’ve been slow to embrace apps, preferring to stick with telly and books. Indeed, some who’ve injected their essence into devices seem to have done an awkward ‘copy and paste’ from their endeavours elsewhere — Nigella’s app resembles a mishmash of TV show clips and squashed down recipe books. But some celebs get it right. Jamie Oliver’s Recipes is close in nature to Kitchen Stories, full of video tips and vibrant imagery, even if it’s odd hearing Oliver randomly pipe up with a soundbite as you swipe between steps. Kevin Curry’s Fit Men Cook is less impressive from an app standpoint (committing the cardinal sin of bare-bones, book-like recipe instructions, although videos are also provided), but hits upon an interesting mix of iOS Health app integration and appealing to a specific (rather than general) audience — in this case, men who think they can out-train a poor diet. Curry’s app is designed to transform such people’s relationship with food, helping them understand healthy meals can be affordable, vibrant and tasty.
This kind of focused attitude is becoming common in food app projects, which are increasingly about empowering a community and bettering the world, rather than merely filling bellies. The US-oriented Humane Eating Project assists people in finding places to eat that match their worldview on food production, while Love Food Hate Waste encourages everyone to make use of what they already have in stock, instead of buying new food to cook with. Waste No Food and Food Cowboy bring such thinking to industrial levels, attempting to divert excess food from restaurants and supermarkets to the needy.
Some apps foster a sense of community. Cookbooth is akin to Kitchen Stories but largely reliant on home cooks for populating a database of photo recipes. Josephine takes things to a hyper-local level, helping cooks make money and share home-cooked food with friends, neighbours and communities. According to its creators, Josephine is one of the only viable ways for many of its cooks to make a living with their lifestyles and skillsets, and they hope the platform will accelerate dialogue around a more equitable and inclusive food system. It’s web-only for now, but apps are on the roadmap.
Judging by recent app trends, it’s in the area of delivery that the next major shifts will occur. App stores are saturated with branded fare, from the Domino’s Pizza ordering app through to the likes of food-box supplier Hello Fresh aiming to muscle in (with an admittedly impressive app) on turf occupied by Kitchen Stories and its contemporaries. But 2015 saw the rise of Uber-like premium takeaway services, combining convenience and quality, Sprig providing quick access to organic meals in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Chicago, and Deliveroo revolutionising ordering food in London, through partnerships with a wide range of outlets.
The quandary is how what we see elsewhere in the mobile industry can be balanced when it comes to food education, preparation and delivery: retaining a sense of humanity while offering a product at scale; acquiring enough users to ensure viability for ongoing, regular updates; and keeping in people’s minds the concept of value for money, which has been eroded greatly in industries like media and gaming, where the assumption now is everything should be free and ad-funded.
For now, at least, food appears safe. People recognise the need to pay for apps in the sector, and are often happy to pay more when they know they’re getting something great and possibly unique that someone’s worked hard to create. As we head into 2016, there’s never been a better time to be a foodie with a smartphone, whether you’re eager to find something new and amazing to cook, or simply want to grab a bite to eat that suits your budget, tastes and even your ethics.
This article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of Creative Review, which is a Food & Drink special. More info on the issue is here.
Craig Grannell is a writer and designer who contributes regularly to MacFormat, Macworld and TechRadar. See craiggrannell.com