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.