We’ve hit peak foodfluencer

From Topjaw to Eating with Tod, food in the digital space might have gone too far.

“Come with me to Banh Mi Phuong,” says Toby Inskip, the man behind @eatingwithtod. “These ladies are lined up like soldiers, armed with chopsticks like a drummer at a Led Zeppelin concert”. What does that mean exactly? Not much at all, but that seemingly doesn’t matter to Inskip’s 1.8m TikTok followers. Inskip’s job is, quite simply, to eat, and if we were to be complimentary, he could be described as a kind of Guy Fieri for the TikTok generation. There’s no criticism in Inskip’s content as such — everything that passes his lips is “bloody glorious” or “nothing short of amazing”, and every bite is accompanied by an expression that can only be described as food-based reverie. His head will tip back, his mouth will open, and as a viewer we’re not entirely sure if we’re watching him eat, or orgasm. For some, Inskip’s whole schtick is innocuous enough. Arguably, it’s the same in-your-face brand of content that’s led to the success of other figures in the food-influencing sphere. There are camps of people, however, who see Inskip as the face of something more insidious. For them, he’s one of the horsemen of the apocalypse when it comes to the UK’s online food scene.

Interact with one tweet pointing out how awful it is for Inskip to shunt in a mention of Bob Marley while reviewing Caribbean food, and you’ll find another, and another, and another. “I can’t deal with it any more” reads one tweet, which is simply an image of Inskip’s face. In another, Inskip has been edited into that picture of the woman flashing the New York–Dublin Portal. Add all of this together and a picture emerges — while the anti-Inskip movement is small, there’s a changing tide around the creator. 

It’s hard to pinpoint when Inskip went from the harmless “foodfluencer” shoving a camera in the face of some hapless chefs to a meme-able and mockable online personality. “I think part of the changing tide towards him is down to him suggesting literally everything is phenomenal,” one anonymous source tells me. “There is absolutely no light-and-shade from the man […] At most charitable you’d say he has no quality control, and at most harsh you’d suggest he’s been paid-off”. In actuality, Inskip prides himself on championing small businesses. When he does partner up with brands, however, it does provide food for thought. Take his partnership with McDonald’s, the fast food company experiencing decreased sales as a result of Israel-Gaza boycotts. In the video put out for that, Inskip heads off to a McDonalds processing factory in Scunthorpe and laments on how, thanks to “exciting improvements”, the chain’s beef patties have “never been so delicious”. Take a quick peek at the comments, and you’ll quickly realise that the whole thing didn’t go down too well. Thanks to a heady mix of the chain’s immoral political stance and the simple fact it’s quite hard to believe that their food is, as Inskip put it, “delicious”, viewers were unanimous — he’d “sold out”. Mix that together with the tendency for anywhere that Inskip recommends to become overrun with swathes of fools willing to queue up for an oily taco or an underwhelming burger, and you can see where we’re coming from when we say his huge online following is nothing more than a shiny veneer. 

So, what of value is Tod doing? “I think there are just as many people who enjoy his content as don’t,says Lauren O’Neill, journalist and writer of Dining Out. “I think how you respond to food videos which are very focused on the visceral experience of the eating – oozing cheese and glistening meat – depends on what and how you like to eat”. O’Neill is right. It might be unfair to harp on at Inskip in particular — he’s by no means the sole face of this type of food content, which encompasses everything from “ragebait” #WIEADs to people yamming down on oversized croissants. Scroll through TikTok or Instagram for just a few minutes and it’s likely you’ll interact with at least five foodfluencers of Inskip’s ilk. Not bonafide chefs, but people who have carved out a space for themselves as (not-so-scathing) food “reviewers” thanks to their CBBC presenter-esque screen presence and hardy digestive systems. 

If we were to really sing Inskip’s praises, it could even be said that the creator is doing his bit to make the London food scene more accessible. Operating at the other end of the spectrum to the kind that’s immortalised in @socks_house_meeting memes – where the “best” food in the capital is expensive, exclusionary, and reserved for the unassuming upper crust – Inskip does his best to push the narrative that anyone can wander on over to Camden Market and get some loaded cheesy chips. That there’s value to be had in food that doesn’t come in the form of small plates featuring seasonal produce or a subversive take on the humble chip butty. And the poster child for all of that – and, arguably, a whole subset of even posher food – is Topjaw. 

Fronted by former model Jesse Burgess (the other half of the duo, Will Warr, is normally shunted behind the camera), Topjaw has become known for their quick-fire interviews with prominent figures of the food world. Once you’ve watched one Topjaw video, you’ve pretty much watched all of them — a selection of well-spoken chefs reeling off the same list of expensive restaurants and pubs as their “faves”, while lampooning chains (and lesser establishments) as “overrated”. Occasionally, someone from Made in Chelsea will make an appearance and say they “love” Pizza Express, but you get the impression it’s not so much a genuine sentiment as it is an attempt to position themselves as a kind of “everyman”. Yes, I love Pizza Express! I swear I didn’t go in there by accident, and I definitely wasn’t scared when I saw they didn’t have tablecloths. 

We’ll give it to them: Topjaw is a slick production, so much so that the only buyable offering on their website is a package of the Lightroom presets they use. It has, however, become part of the PR trail. Moving their focus away from interviewees with useful knowledge to impart on the London food scene, anyone can now be a guest on Topjaw. Joe Jonas (?) once featured, imparting what we’ve all wanted to know — that Fallow in St James does “the best cabbage in town”. Last week, it was Charli XCX. Topjaw will even overlook the most sordid of personal histories in the pursuit of a viral guest. They let Giles Corren – occasional racist and death-rejoicer – prattle on back in April, and last Christmas none other than Rishi Sunak showed up. Sunak’s spot was quickly deleted and, by some divine miracle, the Topjaw boys emerged relatively unscathed (bar a laughable mention on George Osborn and Ed Balls podcast Political Currency). Just as quickly as one of the boys hit the delete button, Topjaw was back, asking the likes of @emthenutritionist what her favourite restaurant is… Spoiler alert, it’s The Ritz! We probably shouldn’t expect anything different, though. Burgess possesses the kind of capital that means he can galavant about buying himself whole schools — it’s no surprise that his content is simply an echo chamber of the elite he surrounds himself with. Still, there’s something decidedly depressing about that, and that transcends being a grating online figure that’s ripe for other creators to lampoon via pithy (and quite apt) parodies

But if Topjaw and his smorgasbord of guests supposedly stand in for the humble consumer, who are the real power players shaping London’s food scene? Are they just as exclusionary? Well, yes. Take the Straker’s debacle — in August of last year, the Notting Hill restaurant (helmed by chef-stroke-online-sensation Thomas Straker) faced backlash over the lack of diversity in their kitchen team. “Straker’s was one high profile example of the way that restaurant culture can feel like a space dominated by white men,” adds O’Neill. “It’s a problem across the board in kitchens, whether that’s because men dominate and the culture can be exclusionary for women chefs, or because well-funded restaurants contribute to gentrification without engaging with the existing communities in the places they’re moving into”. 

Strakers is the golden child of Instagram’s “posh chefs” — the ordained king of names like Julius Roberts, George Williams and a few of the guys that lark about for MOB Kitchen. Less the foul-mouthed and authentically rustic brand of cheffing that became prominent in the 00s thanks to Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, these figures are inherently palatable, gentle, and often shilling you a run-of-the-mill pantry staple that one of their mates has shoved into slightly nice packaging. I was thinking of something like a tin of sardines when I wrote that, but this video, where Straker has collabed with the decidedly generic clothing brand Fera, will do nicely. 

It might be easier to swallow this genre of chef if they were a kind of cheery boys club, all camaraderie and good-natured fun. But peel back the layers and you’ll find that – like a lot of things men turn their attention to – it’s laced with an unparalleled competitive spirit. There’s a tendency to monopolise, even. Take the slightly lesser known @norules_kitchen. His thing is pesto, and that materialises as recipes filled with the stuff, as well as videos where he makes veiled threats about taking pesto on Dragon’s Den. But his perceived ownership of pesto – which, at the end of the day, has its roots in ancient Rome – is so unflinching that when MOB Kitchen went ahead and launched their own pesto series, their comments were sprinkled with the sentiment that @norules_kitchen did it first, and did it better. 

All things said, there are glimmers of hope. Anyone passionate about the UK’s food scene will be aware of a Substack named Vittles, which does its bit for “maintaining a food criticism landscape that feels reflective of the way people actually eat,” as O’Neill puts it. “Vittles doesn’t exclude types of food that traditional criticism has ignored previously, basically because of classist and racist attitudes,” she continues. On Vittles you’ll find nuanced reviews that go far beyond Inskip’s diluted brand of criticism, as well as niche oral histories on everything from Weetabix to the food sold in suburban shopping centres. Most of all, you get the sense that everything they put out is guided by the endeavour to spotlight marginalised voices — a steak frites recipe features musings on hormone therapy, and one for a clementine cake functions as a space for the author to explore the role of food in hospice care. Sure, something like Vittles is appealing to a whole different demographic than Inskip and Topjaw, and sure both Inskip and Topjaw will sprinkle in something close to representation, but you’re left feeling that it could be slightly performative. Simply a means to counteract that they’ve just collabed with a chain like McDonalds or had a conservative politician reel off their favourite pizza joints. 

There’s a growing presence of more “normal” figures within the food space, too. @ellypear’s (Elly Curshen) thing is fighting food waste, her recipes by and large featuring whatever was already in her fridge. Someone like @letsmunch is also a welcome change. At the same time, however, you get the impression that we might have forgotten what normality actually is — that though creators like @ellypear aren’t on par with the bourgeois grandeur of figures like Straker or Roberts, they still represent a kind of privilege that’s aeons away from the average consumer. Curshen’s content exists within this fantastical paradigm where everyone is popping to the farmer’s market to get a loaf of crusty sourdough. @letsmunch’s exists in one where it seems reasonable to have a pop at reverse searing using a giant (and presumably very expensive) tomahawk steak. You even see that reflected in those that watch this kind of content. Though MOB Kitchen does their bit to put out accessible recipes using accessible ingredients, when they really take things back to basics (a-la their short-lived “boiled dinners” series), the response suggests it doesn’t align with what audiences have come to expect from the page — less accessible ingredients, sumptuousness… and gnocchi. 

Where do we go from here? I don’t know. Honestly and truly, I have absolutely no idea. Do we relegate ourselves to content in the vein of @itsbigjohn1 (“BOSH”) or @corysworldd, where the name of the game is consuming such a huge amount of junk food that it becomes almost subversive? Maybe. Do we churn out a Danny Dyer-esque “man of the people” type chef, who can charge in as a kind of antidote to Straker? That’s probably going to feel disingenuous too, isn’t it? One thing’s for sure, and that’s that the titans of the genre aren’t going anywhere. Topjaw survived Sunak, and fans of Inskip are too busy queuing up for a greasy burger to notice that the content they’re consuming is more than flawed. If anything, these kinds of creators are only going to get bigger. Roberts, for example, recently left his farm for a few hours to grace the cover of YOU magazine — the BTS video released for that, by the way, was fairly similar to a certain Cardinal Burns sketch… You know what? Maybe Inskip is onto something with that “if you can’t take a date, take a mate” catchphrase of his. I just really need a date. If I did, I probably wouldn’t care about all of this half as much… Maybe. 

WriterAmber Rawlings
Banner Image CreditThe Bear / FXP