It all started with an over-dressed lettuce leaf. Last Sunday, the queen of well- mannered domestic living, Martha Stewart, tweeted a picture of her lunch to her two million-odd followers. “Iceberg wedge with homemade Russian dressing,” she wrote. “Perfect salad for the onion soup lunch.”
Now her problems, I suspect, began with the use of the word “perfect” – because last time I checked, that word meant flawless, unspoiled and as good as it can be. And this chunk of lettuce, drowning in Russian dressing – mayonnaise, ketchup and spices – and accompanied by a slice of avocado that looked like it was in the autumn of its days, did not look perfect at all. In fact, it looked like something better suited to a primordial soup.
Dan Saltzstein, an editor at the New York Times, spotted the photo and channelled the growing mood: “Literally one of the worst food shots I’ve ever seen.” Then the heavy guns arrived. Pete Wells, the restaurant critic at the New York Times, tweeted: “So disillusioning. This is like seeing Jascha Heifetz play Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto on his armpits” – and you know, it kind of was.
Inevitably, this sounded the starting gun on a harebrained race to find all the other examples of Stewart’s poor food photography – and there were many: sashimi that looked like marshmallows, vast, grizzled pork chops; and risotto with Croatian truffle that looked, well, it looked like nothing on Earth. The tweet went viral, inevitably.
Stewart had unwittingly wandered into a social and culinary minefield. Because that choice, to take a picture of your supper or to not take a picture of your supper – well, it cleaves opinion.
Some feel that to snap and share is a near necessity. Romy van den Broeke, an inveterate food snapper of some years’ standing and latterly the co-founder of the blog Food.Edited., is adamant that it can only ever be a good thing. “There’s nothing perverse or rude about taking a quick photo of someone’s delicious masterpiece. Even more so if you’re eating somewhere cool. My generation are online, and if you’re doing something cool or eating something nice, you share it. Call it showing off if you like, but I think when it comes to food it’s purely about sharing great finds,” she says.
Sometimes, though, as she admits, you can come a cropper in more staid establishments. “I’ve been tutted at, quite loudly, by a man in Le Caprice in London. I put that down to the type of restaurant it is. It’s beautiful, but very traditional. Sit in a pop-up somewhere in east London and everyone has their phones out,” says van den Broeke.
Certainly, it is now not unusual to find restaurants that have dedicated camera policies. Friend to the YBAs, Mark Hix may like art on his walls, but at his mini restaurant chain, which runs from London to Lyme Regis, there is a strict no-cameras policy. Meanwhile, at east London’s buzzy Rita’s, a different approach is taken. “As a restaurant, we benefit from the photographs being out there. We have an Instagram account and post pictures of our own food,” says co-owner Missy Flynn.
While other places, such as Simon Rogan’s The French in the Midland Hotel Manchester, ploughs a furrow between the two. “We don’t actively promote it, but we don’t have an issue if people do want to,” says the restaurant manager. It’s an approach also adopted by The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant in Bray, and by Fred Sirieix, the general manager of the renowned one Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows, in Mayfair.
Though Sirieix does worry about the trend: “Sometimes I see two people, a couple, who will just be on their phones, taking pictures, updating their status, I think it’s a very grave problem, an addiction as big as smoking or drinking; for some people it’s very bad and it’s frightening to see. But I am not here to tell people what to do.” What is clear is that snapping cameras are now as common in restaurants as soup spoons. Less clear is why some establishments respond with a ban. Certainly, in some cases, it is straightforward: preventing diners disturbing their fellow guests.
But in others it is, perhaps, a PR decision. Missy Flynn, though welcoming of the camera-phone paparazzi, alludes to this: “There’s such a thing as misrepresentation: some dishes don’t particularly photograph well and we’d rather not put those out there because it doesn’t really do justice to the food.” One only needs to flick through Martha Stewart’s twitpics to understand what she means.
In Stewart’s case, though, the opprobrium, undeserved given she isn’t a professional photographer, came not simply because she committed the sin of making good food look bad. It was something more.
As van den Broeke pointed out, the divide between the snapper and non-snapper tends to be generational. It is assumed that the older generation find the notion of photographing dinner a vulgarity – a distraction from the proper business of dining, conversation, booze, and eating every spoonful of risotto. The problem is that Stewart wandered into the land of the young and did it so badly. Crossing that line is to invite Twitter trouble – and, in this case, trouble came in the form of a lettuce leaf.
PHOTOGENIC FOOD: TAKING THE BEST SHOTS
Andrew Scrivani is The New York Times’ dining photographer. Here he shares his tips on how to ensure your food snaps are never anything but edible
* Use a flash. This is the cardinal sin of food photography. A harsh flash will flatten out your food, darken your background and make the food look hideous – not like something you would want to eat.
* Take pictures of ugly food – whatever you do it will never look good.
* Forget to use common sense when you’re looking at a plate of food. It may be delicious, but if it looks hideous to the eye, it won’t look better in a picture.
* Shoot in poor light. Always aim to shoot in natural light. If you are sitting at a table and one side of the table has better light, move your dish to that side.
* Take pictures from overhead. It’s hard to do a low table or a diner’s-angle shot in a restaurant with a smartphone. So take the images from above and you’ll find they look more graphic – and aren’t so reliant on light.
* Get the full dish in frame. The shape of the plate can be useful. Use it to frame the food. If it has been well-styled by the kitchen, get the whole of it in. Otherwise what you are photographing can end up unclear.
* Improvise. One way of bringing more light to a subject, particularly in candlelit restaurants, is to use laminated menu cards to bounce the light back on to the plate.
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