Indian food influencers cooking up a storm on Instagram

pooja-dhingra-instagram Pastry chef Pooja Dhingra's Instagram page is chock full of delicacies | Instagram

Pastry mastermind Pooja Dhingra, executive chef at Le15 Patisserie and India's 'macaron queen', reached the 1 million mark on Instagram on November 17—the first food influencer in India to hit the spot. In her overjoyed 'thank you' post for her 'insta fam', she did not fail to include one peachy little fact. She had hired half of @le15india's team via Instagram. From a staff of just two when she first opened her Mumbai shop in 2010, it has surely been a long journey of "learning, sharing and connecting". Baker, author and businesswoman, Dhingra's brand is of same league as a Forbes-30-under-30 fixture, but amplified four-fold thanks to Instagram. On a hectic day at work when she concocted a quick fix, comfort food called "PMS cake" for her kitchen staff, largely composed of women, the overwhelming response on Instagram to the picture made her incorporate the dark chocolate cake in Le15's main menu. 

Food and Instagram is no longer just latte art or slickly crafted plates and tables. Chefs, restaurant owners, food bloggers, stylists, photographers and enthusiasts are making money and building viable business models on the social networking service, taking 'instant grammification' to a whole new level. 

On November 19, Instagram unveiled India's top food hashtags in a Delhi cafe. The ritual and ceremony of posting those tantalising food posts cannot preclude crucial labels like  #foodstagram #delhidiaries #nomnom #eeeeeats and even #paneer. Likes, followers and story views on Instagram—which hosts 25 million active businesses with two million advertisers floating around—are gospel truths. Especially, if you want to become a food influencer. Attended by a panel of top foodgrammers including food miniaturist Shilpa Mitha, CEO and founder of Archana’s Kitchen, Archana Doshi, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kunal Kapur, food blogger and stylist Deeba Rajpal, and Dhingra herself, the masterclass sought to toss around critical ingredients that make the perfect food account. How do you stand out from the million other food tags? What is the frequency of your engagement? Can this become a full-time job? 

food-instagram-2 (Left to Right) Swetha Elias, Strategic Partner Manager, Facebook with India’s top foodgrammers Panelists – Shilpa Mitha, Food Miniaturist and Instagrammer at @suenosouvenir, Archana Doshi, CEO & Founder of Archana’s Kitchen, Chef Kunal Kapur, Celebrity Chef and Restaurateur, Pooja Dhingra, Executive Chef at Le15 Patisserie, Deeba Rajpal, Food Blogger and Stylist at Passionate about Baking

Chennai-based Mitha makes delectable clay sculptures of Indian food and now retails her decorative pieces and fridge magnets through Instagram, usually selling off 150 in an hour. "I studied engineering. I don't know the ABC of cooking. But I hit upon a great idea when no one was making food miniatures, and look where I am now," says Mitha, the "fake chef" whose Insta handle @suenosouvenir has 18.8k followers. Her bite-sized creations of pongal, pesarattu, dosas and biryanis constantly befuddle her fans and keep them guessing if they are real. While Dhingra believes in projecting what you really like and enjoy, Kapur stressed the importance of travelling, exploring and documenting lesser known food cultures in India to stand out of the clutter.  From the convenience of IGTV, long-form video to Instagram stories, discovering more like-minded content on 'Explore', to stickers and emojis and live Q&As, no feature is left unturned to make the most of one's food business. 

In a total of one billion users, United States is considered to have the highest Instagram audience in the world, with 121 million monthly active users according to one estimate. The same portal, Statista, estimates that India is the second most active user of Instagram after US, with 71 million monthly subscribers. While these numbers haven't exceeded the extent of Facebook users in India at 294 million, Instagram sees the country as a high-growth market, which is only beginning to capitalise on its many tools. And food can be a gamechanger, with audiences across economic categories interested in learning and sharing recipes, images and other gastronomic experiences.