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June 25, 2024
The Nail Art Restaurant Will Seat You Now

Innovative nail artists and their hungry clients are raiding the fridge for inspiration.

I never hungered to feast on resin and solvent until I saw a glistening platter of oysters on the half shell painted on a thumbnail, rendered impossibly tiny and improbably delicious with nail polish. Recently the booming world of nail art has arrived at a food fixation. Scrolling through Instagram or TikTok can prompt cravings. Here is a fluffy slice of tres leches cake crowned with a minuscule strawberry; here is a tidy bundle of scallions secured with a rubber band—a whole masterpiece painted on a pinkie.

Nail art is impermanent and ever evolving, turbocharged by developments like builder gel, a thicker-viscosity polish that can be sculpted into 3D effects, and by the rise of artisanal custom press-on nails. While gel nails typically last anywhere from two to four weeks, press-ons allow an investment to be worn and reworn repeatedly, depending on how they are cared for. These innovations have enabled ambitious nail technicians and their up-for-anything clients to create designs that are nothing short of fine art.

In the online ecosystem of food nails, many roads lead back to @YesWhatNails, aka Violetta Kurilenko. The Barcelona-based artist has been doing nails for more than eight years, but at the end of last year, she began experimenting with incorporating food imagery like cherries and orange slices. The response was immediate—and overwhelming. At the beginning of 2024, she launched a new account, @NailRestaurant, to share her work alongside sets submitted by artists around the world, featuring everything from chocolate-dipped churros to jars of Heinz baked beans. Two months ago, Kurilenko even turned @NailRestaurant into an online store for polymer clay jewelry, like leafy green “garden” bracelets and chokers clustered with juicy papaya halves. The small batches quickly sell out.

“The materials that we use in nail art are very inorganic, so putting food on your nails is like two opposite poles coming together. But they do come together, and they look so good, so tiny, and so delicious,” says Kurilenko.

In the online ecosystem of food nails, many roads lead back to @YesWhatNails, aka Violetta Kurilenko.

The viral nature of @NailRestaurant inspired Alexandra Aparicio, a New Jersey–based nail technician. Scrolling through the account, Aparicio noticed a lack of nails depicting iconic Mexican dishes, and she quickly decided to represent her culture by making a full platter of carne asada tacos on her thumbnail, complete with a dollop of salsa verde and a minuscule slice of lime. She’s gone on to incorporate other beloved dishes, like a slice of tres leches cake topped with a sliced strawberry, as her clients have become increasingly interested in the trend.

“I don’t think my personal clientele getting food nails is connected with a job in the food industry,” Aparicio says. “These are just people that love out-of-the-box, attention-catching nails.”

Morgan Yi, a Chicago-based creative producer, was also inspired to incorporate her culture into her nails with food after seeing a post of Kurilenko’s. “She had this little fish, like a sardine, and it reminded me of the Korean anchovies I ate a lot as a kid,” she says. She took the inspiration to her go-to West Loop neighborhood salon, Tokyo Nails, requesting a number of designs tied to a Korean ingredient or meal, from a Napa cabbage to tiny bubbles of caviar. After spending 30 minutes mapping out each element, Nomin Uuganbayer spent four hours executing the intricate design, crafting egg yolks and distinct scallion stalks with 3D builder gel. The final cost: $190 before tip.

“It’s an investment that brings me joy every time I look at it,” Yi says, noting that many strangers have also found joy in her nails, often approaching her to get a closer look and ask if they can touch them. “It’s amazing to see how one person across the globe can start a trend that really resonates, because food is something we all relate to, need, and share with love.”

For those whose work intersects with food, this nail trend can carry extra significance. While short nails are something of a kitchen necessity, press-ons offer the opportunity to buy into the style with less commitment. And for creatives like Kelsey Cherry, a New York–based food photographer, repping your work on your fingertips can come in handy on the job. “I’m always scrolling on my camera or pointing at my computer for clients, so people are always looking at my hands, and that’s why I started getting my nails done,” says Cherry. “Now it’s my most talked-about attribute.”

She opts for reusable custom press-ons from Stephanie Kao of Studio Aoko, whose sets start at $120 and increase with intricacy. Kao’s food-world nail projects have included making several custom sets of nails for a photo shoot with the gluten-free baker Lani Halliday, who makes cakes painted with cherries and gold luster that are echoed by the nails’ visual elements. “It seems natural that people would gravitate to wearing food on their nails and sharing this joy with others,” says Kao. “Food is a great conversation starter, as is nail art, and with their powers combined, everyone is bound to have a good time.”

“It seems natural that people would gravitate to wearing food on their nails and sharing this joy with others.”

Cherry’s incorporation of food into the press-on nail sets began with her eponymous cherries, of course. But when she requested a breakfast-inspired set, Kao upped the ante, from tiny slices of bacon to an overflowing coffee cup. “I don’t even know how to describe how crazy the response was to these,” she says. “Every single place I went, from a bodega to a restaurant, from a wedding in Joshua Tree to Marfa, Texas, I got comments—almost a little more attention than I’d like.”

The distinct appeal of food nails is manifold. There’s the inherent cuteness of seeing a familiar item turned miniature, a classic element of cuteness psychology. Looking at a cartoonish peach on a pinkie nail can evoke a similar charm to seeing food rendered in a Studio Ghibli movie. But already it’s evolving into weirder and wilder territory: curved 3D shrimps arching off nail tips, a neon blue slushy literally traveling up a straw.

Most of all, food and nails are both ephemeral art forms. This transient nature adds a level of preciousness to the charm: all that work and a decent chunk of change to create something personal and ultimately fleeting. Why not let your eyes feast while they can?

Aliza Abarbanel

Aliza Abarbanel is a contributing editor at TASTE, the co-founder and co-editor of Cake Zine, and a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Previously, she was an editor at Bon Appetit.