Don't Instagram your entree. Stop Facebooking your fish
The urge to pick up our phones before our forks has led to restaurants clamping down on snap-happy diners
What would Jean Brillat-Savarin have made of it all? The 19th-century father of food writing once said: “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” Brillat-Savarin would have only to glance through Twitter and Facebook to see millions of people telling us who they are by posting pictures of what they eat.
Before we smell it, poke it with a fork or taste it, lots of us record what we are about to eat in a photograph. The urge to pick up our phones before our forks has tipped some chefs over the edge. Maire Flynn, who runs the Tannery Restaurant, in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, with her chef husband, Paul Flynn, remembers how odd she found it when people started taking pictures of plates in restaurants. But she’s used to it now.
“It depends on the age profile,” she says. (It’s mostly younger diners who Facebook their fish.) “Usually it’s a good thing and we haven’t had a bad experience. Sometimes the food doesn’t photograph that well and Paul will look at it and say, ‘I’m taking that off the menu.’ ”
In New York, the chef David Bouley has said he now invites people into the kitchen to photograph the dish, because when they do it in the dining room it ruins the ambience.
Citing other restaurants where the practice is banned outright, the New York Times recently quoted an anonymous (because she was too mortified to be named) restaurant-goer who was publicly bawled out in David Chang’s 12-seater Momofuku Ko restaurant for trying to snap a dish discreetly with her phone.
The Tannery won’t be clamping down on food photographs any time soon. “We definitely won’t be banning the three people a week who do it,” says Flynn.
In Dublin, the owners of Bite, on South Frederick Street, issued a list of rules at the start of the year including a “No Instagramming. Just eat” rule.
The list got one response from Patrick Kavanagh, a TV3 assistant producer, who tweeted: “No Instagramming? But I can’t eat food that hasn’t been put through a filter first.”
Tongue in cheek
One of the owners of Bite, Anthony Remedy, says the rules were tongue in cheek. “But I kind of think it’s a little bit ‘over’ taking pictures of everything you eat.”
If the dinner snap has had its day, the owners of Bite wanted to be the people who saw it coming first. “We want to be leaders, not followers, and it’s a little bit of fun.”
The “ban” has resulted in lots of people tweeting their pictures to Remedy and calling themselves rule-breakers in a hashtag. It’s all canny social-media-driven publicity for the restaurant. But he says people will move on.
“It is something that people may look back on and say, ‘Do you remember that time we used to take pictures of everything we ate?’ ”
You could argue that Instagrammers are doing what Egyptian wall painters and old masters did, following the urge to turn something fleeting and private into something permanent and public. But it’s unlikely that a meat tweet will have the staying power of a Dürer or Leonardo – or even manage to make the food look as good as it tasted.
Gary Jordan is a food photographer who has, on occasion, spent eight hours in a room with a sandwich just to get the perfect shot. He works with chefs and food stylists. A chef’s priority is to make the food taste good, he says. The stylist makes it look good. Bite into that amazing-looking sandwich “and you’d get a load of toothpicks stuck in your gums”.
He does increasing amounts of packaging shots for large food companies and is now also working with restaurants that want photographs for their websites. Hours of styling, lighting and manipulation with Photoshop go into creating mouthwatering food shots.
“Food is pretty much like photographing people. You can snap a photo of a person on an iPhone or shoot a portrait in a studio.” Does he ever take snaps of his dinner off-duty? “No way. I have to be paid to photograph food.”
Erik Robson of the Ely wine-bar and restaurant group says his diners don’t tend to take pictures of their food.
“We’re not at that level presentation-wise. Around 2008 we took the decision that if it looked too clever, no matter what you charged for it, people would think they were being overcharged.”
He has no problem with anyone taking a photograph in Ely restaurants. Most camera phones no longer need flash, and people are “just having a bit of fun”.
If he got a spectacularly beautiful plate of food would he photograph it? “I think if it looked that good I’d actually just tuck in.”