Over the summer, a new restaurant opened in Los Angeles. On its own, that isn’t newsworthy—L.A. has one of the biggest dining scenes in the country, and restaurant openings there are a dime a dozen. But this particular restaurant, an upscale Vietnamese spot in West Hollywood, had a rather interesting pedigree: Its head chef and co-owner, Tue Nguyen, had gotten the opportunity to open her own space in part because she was big on TikTok.
Since TikTok has taken over our phones and our free time, the social-media app’s relationship to cooking has been well documented. Food videos are some of the most popular on TikTok, with home cooks and personal chefs gaining massive followings. Users also love to show off where they’re eating, and some restaurants have started creating and changing their menus to feature dishes with video-worthy aspects. Now fine dining—a world that has historically given the cold shoulder to the masses—is trying to find ways to take advantage of TikTok for its own benefit.
Nguyen is a perfect example. While she’s a classically trained chef who staged at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, Nguyen found her niche by posting TikToks in which she shares Vietnamese cuisine with her followers, a number that now sits at more than 668,000. John Terzian and Brian Toll of the H.Wood Group, which includes restaurants like Delilah in L.A. and Las Vegas, saw the potential in collaborating with Nguyen, and in July they opened DiDi. Of course, Nguyen shared the journey of opening her own restaurant with her hundreds of thousands of followers, and now she’s giving them a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to be a chef-owner.
“Social media is such a great place for us to create our own narrative,” Nguyen told Robb Report.
That’s what the rest of the fine-dining industry is starting to learn too, slowly but surely. While most upscale restaurants still don’t have their own TikTok accounts, a few are experimenting with the platform and reaping the benefits. Pied à Terre, a Michelin one-starred restaurant in London, heavily features its chefs and staffers in videos that cover topics like buying kitchen knives and how to prep an artichoke. In just its fourth month on the platform, Pied à Terre had 7.2 million views, Melanie Todd, the restaurant’s TikTok consultant, told Robb Report.
For Todd and David Moore, the restaurant’s owner, the goal is for Pied à Terre to be a trailblazer. Very few, if any, Michelin-starred restaurants are creating their own TikTok content, which gives Pied à Terre the opportunity to create trends in the space. They’re not necessarily posting videos that play on the current craze of the moment—“I’m going to start bouncing the salt off my elbow or something? Yeah, no,” Moore said. Instead, they’re showing what an authentic fine-dining presence on the platform can be like.
“Our angle was always to show behind the scenes and to inform people about [the staff’s] deep knowledge and what actually goes on in the kitchen, in the front of the house,” Todd said.
Those in the industry have appreciated that approach, too. June Rodil, the CEO of Goodnight Hospitality, which oversees the fine-dining restaurant March in Houston, told Robb Report that she thoroughly enjoys watching Pied à Terre’s TikToks.
“It peeks into what I hope fine dining is turning into,” she said. “A little bit more warmth, a little bit more accessible, just a little more fun than what a lot of people think fine dining is, or the gestalt of people who want fine dining to stay the same.”
Rodil is even hoping that Goodnight Hospitality can use the app for its own ends. The group is slowly building up its presence on TikTok, patiently establishing its social-media identity. It’s tested out videos in which viewers get to meet various staff members, like the chef de cuisine and executive pastry chef at March. But it’s also hopped on trends like filming an everyday event like a Wes Anderson movie, which Rodil said has been one of the company’s biggest hits to date. The whimsy makes those videos accessible to a general audience, she said. Plus, “it kind of poked fun of how twee we can be.”
There is an inherent tension between TikTok and fine dining: The former is free and accessible to all, and it trades in what’s new, trendy, and viral. The latter, meanwhile, is—historically—only for those who can afford it, and it largely avoids of-the-moment trends in favor of classical techniques, seasonal ingredients, and the crème de la crème of the culinary world. All of these chefs and restaurateurs are aware of that, and they’re trying to find the happy medium.
Moore, for example, said he was at first extremely nervous about Pied à Terre joining TikTok, a platform that “seems so superficial.” And Rodil mentioned that “it’s not really becoming in a fine-dining environment to be on TikTok or to be creating content from a restaurant perspective,” because of the ways in which that may take away from the guest experience.
Then there’s the challenges in getting the staff on board, since many restaurant employees feature in the videos, whether it’s the chefs at DiDi appearing in a TikTok about the development of the restaurant’s menu or Pied à Terre’s sommelier discussing vintage Champagne. Oftentimes, these behind-the-scenes videos are the ones viewers love the most, but those who are used to staying out of the limelight aren’t always excited off the bat about being involved.
At Pied à Terre, Moore and Todd said, the executive chef was initially vehemently opposed to getting on TikTok. They had to convince him that, no, he wouldn’t have to do one of those silly dances in the kitchen. Now, though, the staff will give Todd ideas for different videos they can do, and they seem visibly at ease and joyful in the content posted to Pied à Terre’s account. The same is true for staffers at Didi and Goodnight Hospitality’s restaurants: Nguyen gives her kitchen a heads-up when she’s about to film, so those who would be uncomfortable on camera can opt out of appearing. And Rodil may urge her chefs to cook with a little more pizzazz for TikTok videos—which can sometimes get on their nerves—but they’re learning to adapt.
“The important part is showcasing that the team is having fun with it,” she said. “If they didn’t like it, then we wouldn’t do it.”
While TikTok may introduce a new restaurant to diners, or even lead to a new hire (which actually happened at Pied à Terre), it’s not a stand-in for patronizing these restaurants, and spending the time immersing yourself in the experience, the meal, and the atmosphere. As Rodil told me, it takes years—even decades—to build up techniques and menus, and you can’t condense all of that into a 60-second video.
TikTok, then, is simply a mechanism by which the fine-dining world is hoping to attract more loyal customers, and have a little bit of fun along the way. It shouldn’t be the final world, or the only way you form an opinion—good or bad—of a restaurant, which is at its core about taste, literally and figuratively.
“You really can’t judge unless you have already gone in yourself and experienced the restaurant as a whole,” Nguyen said.
So put down your phone and go eat—after you’ve hit “Like” on that TikTok, of course.