Restaurant dining in 2013 is no longer just about the food. For thousands of cyber-savvy picture snappers, eating out is also about the photos. Step into a good eatery on any given day, and you’re almost guaranteed to see an iPhone being raised above that perfectly plated platter. After all, what good was that plate of life-changing foie gras if none of your friends saw the pictures? If no one can see your tian of Cromer crab, then how can they care that you ate it? Even celebrities are in on the food-tweeting phenomenon, no matter how bad or banal.
In October, pop singer and actress Hilary Duff instagrammed a picture of her fried egg and greens. In December, socialite Kourtney Kardashian instagrammed a picture of her gingerbread house. Around the same time, popular South African columnist Khaya Dlanga tweeted a shot of his umphokoqo, or African salad. (Full disclosure: the Mail & Guardian’s online editor Chris Roper uploaded badly lit food photos to accompany restaurant reviews on his own website not so long ago.)
According to a January article in the New York Times, some chefs in that city are reacting to the paparazzi fever that has seized the restaurant-going masses. Some restaurants ban photos with a flash. Others are banning them altogether. Chef David Chang at Michelin-starred Momofuku Ko in New York, for example, has vetoed all pics. So has Moe Issa, the owner of Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. Issa told the newspaper he made the decision after realising that photography was “too much of a distraction” to other diners.
“It’s reached epic proportions,” Steven Hall, the restaurant’s public relations manager told the Times. “Everybody wants to get their shot. They don’t care how it affects people around them.”
Although South African celebrity chef Reuben Riffel has not banned photography in any of the three restaurants he owns, he says he “has a problem with people not enjoying the evening or lunch by not interacting with their guest or partner, but rather trying to share every second with their ‘friends’”.
Many of his guests ask to come into the kitchen to take pictures with the chefs. “That is fine with us,” says Riffel. But the irritation levels start to rise when guests take several minutes trying to get the perfect shot, while their food gets cold. “Chefs don’t like that at all. I think it’s tacky when no discretion is used.”
Rosanne Buchanan, the editor of Food & Home magazine, thinks most South African chefs see the photographs as a good thing.
“I can understand how it could all become too much, or too disruptive, especially for smaller restaurants, but I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet,” Buchanan says. “From what I’ve seen, local chefs are flattered by the attention their food is getting, and lapping up the resulting publicity on social media.”
Professional food photographer Vanessa Lewis loves snapping pics of breakfast or lunch with her iPhone to share on social media with her foodie friends. “It’s commentary and serves as a memory,” she says. She thinks chefs should lighten up. “I think it’s a really sad restaurant that bans the photographing of food. Why are they nervous?” says Lewis. “Paul Bocuse was not telling customers not to take pics when I shot [at his restaurant in France]. Why? Because you can’t copy a recipe by taking a pic.”
Andrea Burgener, owner of the trendy boutique restaurant The Leopard in Parkhurst, doesn’t have a problem with patrons photographing their food. “Once the food leaves the kitchen, we have no control over it,” she says. Burgener only hopes that the diners are taking flattering photos and posting them responsibly. Kind of like the racist tweet that ended Jessica dos Santos’s modelling career — once it’s been posted, there’s no controlling the backlash.
That’s why cookery writer Jane-Anne Hobbs discourages impromptu online photo-food reviews.
“I am not a fan of the ‘tweet what you eat’ style of restaurant reviewing,” says Hobbs, the author of popular food blog Scrumptious. In her mind, the photos don’t do justice to the food. Poor quality cellphone pics, especially those taken with a flash, “make the food look abysmal”, she says. “In my opinion, this is grossly unfair to both chef and restaurant.”
And sometimes the photos can be damaging. Riffel points out a “crazy vindictive Cape blogger” who publishes “the worst images” on her blog. Because of this and other “bad behaviour”, he says, the blogger has been banned from most restaurants in Cape Town.
Hobbs has a three-step guideline for making sure you never become eatery-infamous. First, ask the chef or manager whether it’s okay to take a picture of your food. Then, ask your fellow diners whether they object. Third, take the plate to a window, if possible, and photograph it in natural light. And if you are dining at night, replace step three by turning up the IS0 setting on your camera. The ground rule here is not to use a flash.