By Ray Levy-Uyeda
Online platforms like Instagram allow bakers, cooks, food writers, and wine experts to directly engage with audiences about their craft and demonstrate by example and illustration. Here are four stories of how culinarians use Instagram to inspire stimulating and sometimes challenging conversations.
I started this as kind of a fluke. My background is in social work and nonprofit administration. I was a regular person working an office job and baking for fun on the weekends and weeknights. I just used all my downtime to explore things that felt life-giving to me. One of those things was baking and being extra creative with making these pies.
I actually don’t really have a sweet tooth, and I wouldn’t say that I’m passionate about pie. I think if I had been solely focused on finding what I’m really truly passionate about, I might have missed this opportunity. But all the same, I really enjoy what I’m doing now.
I started Lokokitchen as a separate holding place for things that I was making for fun, and it was really just intended to be a personal photo album. It just so happened that the first picture I uploaded was a geometric pie that somehow got several hundred likes, which as a regular person totally blew my mind. I have a natural inclination to be generally introverted and private and shy, so I don’t share a ton of personal stuff on Instagram.
What I do now is an intersection of my interests in art and feeding people I love, but I kind of stumbled into this pie-art situation. My Instagram account went viral, and now suddenly this is what I do full time. I think in the beginning I really struggled because I felt like it was really fun, and it felt like a great privilege that this opportunity had kind of landed in my lap. But at the same time, I felt a little guilty that I was just making pie and writing silly captions, and I wasn’t sure what kind of significance or meaning this work had.
As this account grows and evolves, it feels like there’s a responsibility to continue promoting other things that matter. For instance, I collaborated on a project called My American Pie that explored citizenship and nationality in a reimagined way. The project was based on that saying, “As American as apple pie”—I wanted the pie to act as a mechanism for storytelling. Some of my favorite feedback was from people surprised by the range of “American” experiences, and then there were others from people saying “I feel really seen, I really identified with that story.” There are a lot of communities—the Black community, the Indigenous community—people of color that have largely been unsupported, and I’m trying to keep my eyes out for ways to uplift other people and communities.
Seung Hee Lee
Seung Hee Lee is an Atlanta-based cook and cookbook author. She runs koreanfusion, a platform where she showcases “daring & intuitive interpretation of Korean flavors.”
I was born and raised in Korea, and I was trained in Korean royal court cuisine. Because of this, I knew how to cook Korean food in a very traditional, authentic way. But once I came to America, everything was kind of back to basics, because even though I knew how to make kimchi, the napa cabbage was not the same, or the water content was not the same as it was in Korea. I was finishing up graduate school and working with a friend on a Korean cookbook when my PhD mentor told me about this new platform, Instagram. Korean fusion came up, and “fusion” in the culinary world is the “F word.” I didn’t really like that, because without fusion, how would you explain all these merging of flavors? I wanted to own the word fusion.
I started Koreanfusion when recipe-testing the cookbook, and I asked folks what they were most afraid of when approaching Korean flavors. I asked them what they wanted to learn, and I wanted to see how people felt about fermentation. Because of those conversations, I dedicated a whole chapter to kimchi. It’s important to me—especially as a foreigner here in this country—to explain the history and cultural significance of these Korean staples that I love. The biggest goal I have for Americans—or whoever is following Koreanfusion—is to adapt the recipes and make them their own. I think that’s what Koreanfusion is all about.
My understanding of food and how I relate to my body is also learned. Leading up to college and during my time there, I struggled with an eating disorder, but I was also studying food and nutrition, and I had a kind of awakening. I researched the differences between Americanized and Asian nutrition, and figured out that a lot of American perspectives on eating comes from white scientists’ viewpoints on nutrition. I learned that being healthy isn’t just about genetics, but it’s about one’s environment, public policy, and class status. It’s systemic.
I learned early in the Instagram career that being honest with myself and my followers was important. When I started to bring up my eating disorder, I got a lot of direct messages from mothers—especially Korean-American mothers. Some of them were worried that their daughters may have struggled with disordered eating or depression. I’ve talked about my issues with anxiety and depression, and in my culture, it’s considered a mental disorder. I really wanted to destigmatize things that I grew up being told so people like me, who look like me, can feel normal and think, “Yeah, I have an eating disorder, but I also have a PhD,” or “I’m divorced, but I still have my shit together.”
I am a fourth-generation butcher, and I grew up in the meat industry. I started making vegetable-forward sausages or sausages mixed with vegetables about 10 years ago as a way to get my customers to eat a little bit less meat. I was working with these gorgeous, pasture-raised, grass-fed, humanely raised animals, and my customers were coming back every single night of the week. We couldn’t really keep up with the demand. I started sneaking those vegetables into my sausages—about 50 to 60 percent of the sausage are actually vegetables—and it took off. It’s scientifically difficult to make a meat product with this much vegetable in it, but people were really attracted to them because they were colorful and the flavors were exciting.
If I had my way, people would only eat regeneratively farmed meat because it has such huge potential to actually help reverse climate change. One of the major problems is that our demand is so high that farmers will never be able to catch up unless we decrease our demand.
Something that bothered me when I was working in these shops was that meat was only available to people who could afford it. If you really want to turn the dial on something and change, it has to be mass-market. That’s really at the heart of what I’m trying to tackle—we’re not the cheapest on the shelf, but I’m really trying to work hard to stretch the product further so that it can get to more people.
I honestly never intended to grow an Instagram following. I started using Instagram pretty much as soon as it came out to document food that I found beautiful in my restaurant work. As I started doing more whole-animal butchery, the following grew, and it just kind of happened organically. I think there was a perception that I was doing this just for Instagram because the sausages looked pretty. It just so happens that if you’re using 50 percent beets, your sausages are gonna be pink. It just so happens that if you’re using 50 percent kale, the sausages are gonna be green. The following was a happy kind of accident. I don’t care if people think I’m just doing it for Instagram as long as they eat the sausages.
I realized pretty quickly that I don’t want to grow more than this. I don’t think it’s something I could handle. I just want to do my thing, and I want to share it with the world. I want to make people happy, and I want to feed them, but I don’t have aspirations to grow bigger than this. If it stopped here, if my followers dropped to ten tomorrow, that would be okay.
For 20 years I was a legal assistant, and I left that work to become a beauty blogger. In 2015 I pivoted to wine writing, and after connecting with different wine bloggers whose work I had been reading, I started to learn about the racism in the industry. In 2017 I wrote an open letter to everyone in the industry, and in June 2020 I started Black Wine Professionals in response to the racism in this country—and because that racism was the reason Black wine professionals weren’t getting the opportunities that they should.
People find wine so intimidating because the structure in which we taste has always been taught from a Eurocentric position. But to me, Champagne is also a Romance language. I tell people, “It’s war, economics, celebration, even death.” Champagne has what I call a life force. When you taste Champagne, there’s something that is sensory that you want to capture, and there’s something you want to remember. It can bring you back to a specific moment or memory.
Wine has helped me to slow down. When I take a sip, I’m trying to engage all my senses because it’s the one time I can. Drinking wine is a ritual—the cutting of the foil, the taking out of the cork, getting the glass, pouring the wine in, seeing the color for the first time. And to me, there’s ritual in the story. When I drink wine I think, “What’s this winemaker trying to tell me?”
On Instagram, I post about life, I post about my grief, I post for people who look at me and they say, “Oh, she talks about Champagne with potato chips. She doesn’t make it so complicated.” I also choose to share the ugly parts of life because I don’t want people to think there isn’t a grind to the work that I do. I don’t want people to think that my life is perfect. I talk about grief because no matter what, everyone experiences grief. When I open up about wine, those emotional aspects are the parts that people see as their experience too.
The kind of work I do is emotional and laborious. Being a person of color in the world is hard, and being a Black woman is harder. This needs to be honored and understood. My work with Black Wine Professionals is my service to the world. My service is to bring more women, more people of color, and more Black people into this business. My job is to not make it harder for them—my job is to make it easier.