Meet the Man Making Indonesian Street Food Fancy
Dade Akbar's trying to raise the profile of street food with Warteg Gourmet.
Photo by Dade Akbar
Dade Akbar was busy contemplating how to best photograph a plate of deconstructed ketoprak. The meal was immaculately displayed on a clean speckled dish. The kitchen was flooded with warm natural light. Dade raised his camera above his head and snapped a photo.
"Aren't you going to work today?" I asked. He shook his head and laughed.
Dade used to work as an art director. Today, he spends a lot of his time artfully arranging street food on plates, photographing the dishes, and posting them to his popular Instagram account Warteg Gourmet.
The project began as a lunchtime hobby. Dade would visit the stalls near his office, purchasing his meals one side dish at a time. He would then return and arrange his meal like haute cuisine—experimenting with color, texture, and composition to create meals that quickly caught the attention of Indonesian Instragram users obsessed with fancy food porn.
"I believe how food looks enhances the taste," he explained.
"Do you really eat warteg food that often though?" I asked.
"During lunch hours at the old office, I only wanted to eat," he said. "I didn't want to eat fancy."
As Warteg Gourmet slowly built an audience, Dade decided to turn to the Instagram account into something real. He now provides a culinary service that offers a variety of services, from private dining events to food styling and public speaking. He doesn't cook the food itself. Instead, Dade takes the best street food he can find and presents it as high-end cuisine. It's a project focused on changing people's perceptions of street food as it currently exists, not trying to make street food fancy with expensive ingredients.
"Warteg Gourmet is more of an idea, a state of mind, or even a movement," Dade said, "I use Instagram to showcase these ideas."
The problem for Dade is that many of the best Indonesian dishes are often overlooked as too simple or low-class here in Jakarta. But when Dade was abroad, living in Singapore, it was these dishes, simple things like krupuk crackers, bright orange sambal chili sauce, or mie bakso in a ceramic bowl adorned with a rooster, that felt the most like home. Still, few Indonesians were treating traditional comfort food as something to be proud of, Dade said.
"The way I see it, people are too busy embracing the things that aren't authentically theirs," he said. "But, in fact, the things we are exposed to on a daily basis are pretty amazing. I think that's what we're missing in our society. We're too busy embracing things that don't really fit us."
Too often, Indonesian diners become obsessed with the latest imported food trends—like cronuts or rainbow cake—without realizing the importance of their own food. This is most evident on Instagram, where fancy images of Western and East Asian dishes are far more common than photos of Indonesian street food. Dade hopes his photos show people that there is something beautiful in humble food too.
"Personally, I'm not the guy who takes pictures of his meals," he said. "But I see the people around me, when they're going out to eat. Woah, they're always posting [pictures]. But when we're out on the street, eating food, no one bothers to try and take photos."