The Food Blogger’s Dilemma

If you read this blog, you know that I like to photograph my food when dining in interesting  and sometimes even not-so-interesting restaurants. I consider the photographs to be essential components of my blog posts. I have also taken to using a voice recorder to capture the description of a dish as it is presented and also to capture my and my fellow diners' impressions of the meal as it unfolds so as to have a more accurate representation of our feelings at the time. Of course, those feelings may be modified by further reflection, but they remain an important component of an overall appraisal and description. Since I started doing this last fall, I believe the quality of my blogging has improved. As much as I wish that I did, I don't have a photographic memory and both the photos and the voice recording assist me greatly not only in writing on my blog, but simply remembering the experience with greater detail. Why am I writing about something that appears so obvious, at least to anyone who reads this blog?

Yesterday, Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea, a chef who I greatly admire and genuinely like as a person as well as a chef, tweeted a link to a post that he made on the Alinea-Mosaic Forum. In a post titled, "Documenting…well me. When photo and videography become a bit much," he wrote this: 

"Documenting the experience–

I appreciate that people are so into food, and excited about eating at Alinea, to the point where it drives them to record it. Obviously these “foodies” are a large segment of our cliental, and the very people that help propel the awareness of food and dining. I certainly admit that the popularity of web based reviews and information has helped Alinea achieve a certain level of popularity, and ultimately some level of success has to be attributed to this. In fact, since the beginning we have embraced the web, often contributing to food blogs with things like the egullet project before the restaurant was even open. With the proliferation of food blogs and the almost competitive nature of the posters to delve further into detail with their reporting, coupled with the ease of capturing images and video with our phones, we have seen a very high rise in photo and videography in the restaurant. 

Documenting the food is one thing. I understand taking a photo in the kitchen with the chef after the meal to frame and hang in your office, perhaps of a particular course that you want to remember because it was so amazing, so you can remember the presentation, or even the manipulation of an ingredient in way you have never seen before. Taking it to the next level many people take pictures of every course and some even take photos of the wines as well. I don’t necessarily mind this, but I wonder why people so passionate about food would sacrifice the integrity of the courses, instead prioritizing the documentation. Courses get cold, or melt while the images are taken, and in extreme cases the intended effect of the dish is completely lost. A month ago a front of the house team member served the Hot Potato –Cold Potato to a blogger that was taking photos with a camera resting on a tripod. The server did their normal spiel, telling the guest the dish was intended to be consumed right away so the sensation of temperature contrast could be experienced. Instead they took a few minutes to move the course around on the table to find the right light, snapped several images, and then undoubtedly enjoyed….Warm Potato –Warm Potato. Not to mention the time that is added to the experience. Three extra minutes to take a photo is not much, but if you are eating 30 courses, you just added an hour and a half to your dinner.

And what about the people in the restaurant that are there to –- eat? Or enjoy an evening out with a significant other, or even having a business dinner? Often we have guest request to move tables in the restaurant because they feel the sound of the shutter, the light produced by the auto focus assist, or the person’s actions are ruining their own experience.

But recently the trend has been to video myself or the front of the house team. This is where I feel the documentation crosses the line. Now that I spend a good amount of time in the dining room with the table-plating concept we are doing guests will often stick the camera in my face as I walk up to the table. I never say no to guests when they ask to take a photo with me, but I always suggest we do it in the kitchen after their meal is finished. This is happening with the servers as well. Voice recorders are being held in front of them while they describe a course or a wine, or video is shot. It is uncomfortable… and frankly rude to do so without asking. This activity seems strange to me, I can’t imagine how celebrities feel. No wonder they punch the paparazzi out when they get the chance."

    The majority of respondents on both Alinea-Mosaic and Alinea at Home, a blog by Carol Blymire that looks to do with Alinea what Julie Powell did with Julia Child, was predominantly in the anti-photography camp, with the few posters who admitted photographing their food coming off as being very defensive. Of course they were defensive. Why wouldn't they be when one of the country's top chefs (arguably the country's top chef) comes out publicly against it? Except that he didn't come out against it – at least not entirely. Quite frankly, it would have been rather disingenuous of him had he done so. He freely admitted that much of the restaurant's success and notoriety has come from bloggers and the internet including the eGullet Project. Indeed, I, along with people like Ron Kaplan and Anthony Marty, was one of the first to blog extensively about Alinea back on eGullet shortly after the restaurant first opened. Indeed one of my most memorable, fun and best meals ever was at Alinea with Ron and Anthony, when each of us had our cameras blazing! While Chef Achatz's genius speaks for itself and would ultimately have been recognized for what it is, there should be no question that the internet coverage on sites like eGullet and elsewhere, helped propel it that much sooner to the lofty position it currently enjoys, as Chef Achatz admits.
    I use a Digital SLR, but no flash. I will admit, when I started doing this, I didn't use an SLR and I did occasionally use flash. Fortunately, I learned quickly that not only was flash a legitimate annoyance, it also made for lousy photos in the restaurant environment. I also learned to take photos relatively quickly, so as not to delay the gratification of the meal for myself or my dining companions. One statement of Chef Achatz's I do question is his assessment that taking three minutes to photograph each dish adds 90 minutes to a 30 course meal. The turnover of so many courses is certainly rapid, but in my experience, not that rapid. If it was, I believe that I would feel rushed. Thirty course meals are long evenings period.
    I must admit, I have not previously considered that using a voice recorder to record a waiter describing a course might be rude, after all, I am simply trying for accuracy. I would think that it would be ruder to inaccurately describe a dish, but I can accept to ask first in the future.

      I don't actually disagree with Chef Achatz, as much as I disagree with and resent the comments of some of the people who posted replies to his post. (There were a few that I personally applauded, too). When doing anything in life that potentially effects others, one should be cognizant of that and respectful of their needs and behavior should be balanced between one's personal needs as well as those of others. That applies to all sorts of restaurant behavior, whether taking photos, using a voice recorder, a video camera, talking, laughing or having a good time, all of which can be obtrusive and rude depending on how it is done and all of which can be unobtrusive and enhancing of an experience. I can certainly understand how some people feel that they would rather just focus on the meal and they would not enjoy taking photos or documenting the experience in any way. I can also understand that they may not understand and appreciate why that very same activity may enhance someone else's experience. What I can't understand is why people continually feel like everyone else need view the world the same way they do.
      In the spirit of trying to help those people get a better sense of where I am coming from, I will say this.I like to enjoy my meal as much as the next person. Fortunately, for me, I feel that I do. In fact, documenting it allows me to enjoy it more than I would otherwise, as I get to contemplate and relive the experience in more detail than I otherwise would be able to. If I had a photographic memory, like some people I am fortunate to know, this would probably not be necessary. Unfortunately, I do not. I also enjoy sharing it. I have come to know many wonderful people including Chef Achatz himself-  by virtue of doing just that. That is the bottom line – at least for me.





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11 Responses to The Food Blogger’s Dilemma

  1. Well said. I also like to share my experiences through photographs via my blog. This has also been a dilemma for me. The only place that I really had any trouble was at Arzak. Elena Arzak personally came to the table and told me that it was ok to take photos, sans flash. My first priority has always been to enjoy the food the way the chef has intended. However, being a chef myself, I always like to have a digital document of my meal, for research and reference purposes. If it is ever a problem for the chef, I comply. As for offending other diners, I am always very unobtrusive. I expect the same from others. I also read both of the posts, from Grant Achatz and Carol Blymire. I think they both have valid points. I guess I feel like a few bad apples are ruining it for the whole bunch. Moving forward, I will continue to do what I have done. I will continue to have the utmost respect for the chef, the restaurant and fellow diners. Hopefully being able to continue on with what I have been doing. If it is a problem, just tell me. My ego isn’t so out of control that I am unable to show respect.

  2. For me I agree with one thing Grant Achatz mentioned, there is a line that should not be crossed, and when we start to affect other people whom are eating at other tables within the restaurant that is when thing go a little over the top.
    I myself just spent a month travelling and eating in Spain, and like ‘cutsandburn’ I do not have a photographic memory, indeed I would have forgotten many of the dishes had I not taken a picture, the odd note and the menu home with me. If spending close to a weeks wages on food I want to remember what I have eaten and to have a digital copy that i can look back to. I made every effort not to offend other diners which i think i did, and for sure took the pictures quickly, I so wish i had time to take them, but I put the food first and wanted to get it at its best. Hence some blurry pics.
    When it comes to getting tripods out, video cameras etc i think thats when it needs to stop. As much as we are there for an experience, we are not at a circus.
    it all comes down to do unto others as you would like others to do unto you as my mum used to tell me. Try best not to offend, get in other diners way, enjoy your meal and let the other people in the room enjoy theres

  3. For me I agree with one thing Grant Achatz mentioned, there is a line that should not be crossed, and when we start to affect other people whom are eating at other tables within the restaurant that is when thing go a little over the top.
    I myself just spent a month travelling and eating in Spain, and like ‘cutsandburn’ I do not have a photographic memory, indeed I would have forgotten many of the dishes had I not taken a picture, the odd note and the menu home with me. If spending close to a weeks wages on food I want to remember what I have eaten and to have a digital copy that i can look back to. I made every effort not to offend other diners which i think i did, and for sure took the pictures quickly, I so wish i had time to take them, but I put the food first and wanted to get it at its best. Hence some blurry pics.
    When it comes to getting tripods out, video cameras etc i think thats when it needs to stop. As much as we are there for an experience, we are not at a circus.
    it all comes down to do unto others as you would like others to do unto you as my mum used to tell me. Try best not to offend, get in other diners way, enjoy your meal and let the other people in the room enjoy theres

  4. Rob Connoley says:

    As one who has pulled out the camera many times I also agree with your comments John, but now as a chef I would like to share another perspective. My dinners are primarily tasting menu style and so I’m trying to create a progressive experience. Doing this means that timing is as essential as taste, temp, texture, and ambiance to the successful enjoyment of my food. Ideally, my guests will turn off the cell phone, put away the camera, and focus on the food and their companions. Ideal, but not common. If we were talking about a non-tasting menu experience then photography and record keeping would not be an issue at all to me as I can adjust more easily, but a tasting menu is a different beast. That said, I cook for the guests enjoyment so whatever they want to do is fine with me, but if they ask me, I’ll sure let them know my preferences. BTW, during my visit to Alinea I took no pics or notes figuring enough other people had that I wouldn’t need to alter my experience. And if I remember correctly, your report was one that I used for future reference.

  5. John Sconzo says:

    Thanks, Rob. I can appreciate that perspective. Certainly to the extent that the situation becomes more a photo shoot than a meal it can be a problem. I find that for my own enjoyment, there has to be a balance. If I cant get what I want in one or two quick shots (depending on the dish), I move on and eat. Being able to shoot quickly is important. Experience is helpful in being able to do that and still get a decent shot. FWIW, I think if I am going to show someone elses creation on a blog, eGullet or wherever, I owe it to that person to at least post a photograph that doesnt mangle the dish and portrays it in a reasonable light. If I was a professional chef, my concern would be not that people are taking photos, but that they are taking poor photos and showing my work  in a bad light (literally and figuratively). When I am dining out, I try to give myself the best opportunity of taking my photographs quickly and well by requesting a table with good lighting or as good lighting as the restaurant can provide. The biggest hindrance to good photos and the cause of obnoxious restaurant photography is bad lighting. The other trick is to be and remain prepared. The camera should be ready to go when the course is brought out. Fumbling for a camera and getting it ready takes time and generally draws more attention (especially negative) and tends to lead to inferior results.
    Ironically, tasting menus are the meals I most enjoy photographing, because they are generally the most ephemeral. A la carte menu items tend to be available longer. Of course, this depends on the restaurant.
    If a restaurant has a no photos policy, I will respect it. Corton, one of my favorite restaurants does. In their case, I can understand why. It is a small, intimate restaurant with tables quite close to each other, especially for such a fine restaurant. Even in the best of circumstances, it is difficult to not be intrusive and the environment they are trying to create is an extremely romantic one. However, most or at least many restaurants of that caliber such as Alinea or Blue Hill at Stone Barns allow for much more space between tables, making the process much less intrusive.
    Another thing I try to do when possible is go to a restaurant for lunch. The light is generally better and the environment tends to be less formal or stuffy and it is easier being unobtrusive. It doesnt hurt that lunch is often less expensive too.

  6. You’ve probably read this before, but Click.

  7. I realized that my hyperlink didn’t go through on that last comment. http://ulteriorepicure.com/2008/06/20/ridiculousness/

  8. John Sconzo says:

    I couldnt agree more with what you have written. Thanks for providing the link!

  9. Rob Connoley says:

    I’m chuckling remembering the eG post, when IPhones first came out, and some eG poster was at a table where two people had the phones, so they lit the phone screens to allow enough light for the third to take pics of the dishes. Now that’s a scene worth seeing.

  10. John Sconzo says:

    Yeah, I remember that. It was clever and creative! It worked too!

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