Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

Documenting …well everything

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 by virginia

Grant Achatz, the chef at Alinea (where Josh and I had the best meal of our lives), recently wrote a post on the restaurant’s message board regarding bloggers taking photos of their food and how it was ruining the integrity of the food and affecting the enjoyment of the meal. When I first read an excerpt of the post on Eater, in which Chef Achatz mentions a blogger taking pictures with a camera resting on a tripod, my heart started racing. “Holy crap!” I thought, “Could he be talking about me?”

Then I read further, discovering that the incident occurred a month ago, and the course described was the famous “hot potato/cold potato” dish. I breathed a sigh of relief, as that was not one of the dishes we had when we ate at Alinea, and we were there almost a year ago, not a month ago. But even so, his outrage could still be aimed at me, as I was a blogger at the time of our meal, and yes, I did use a tripod to photograph the dishes we had.

Before people start getting worked up about the use of a tripod in a restaurant, please let me explain further. We’re not talking about a gigantic tripod that needs to be set up on the ground, or a huge tabletop tripod that supports the largest of cameras. We’re not even talking about those wacky looking Gorillapods. My tripod is a “jr. flex” that maxes out at 6.5 inches in height and weighs less than 4 ounces. The legs are bendable and there is a mini ball head so that I can easily tilt the angle of my small point and shoot camera.

My mini tripod next to a 12 oz beer bottle (for size context)

The tripod screws directly into my camera, and I leave it like that for the duration of any meal. That way I don’t disrupt anyone with constantly having to screw in and unscrew the tripod. The combination of the tripod and the camera is still small enough that I keep them both on my lap, under my napkin, while we’re eating each course. The only time I whip out the camera is when I see that our dishes are about to be served. I’ll turn the camera on discreetly while it’s still on my lap, and set the auto timer for 3 seconds. The flash is always turned off.

Tripod/camera combo in action

When the dish is placed in front of me, usually I’ll just bring the camera up from my lap, rest two legs of the tripod on the edge of the table directly in front of me, quickly frame the shot, and press the shutter button. The timer ticks down 3 seconds, and the camera will take a picture. My body and the angle of my arms helps to obscure the fact that I’m taking a photo, so I don’t believe that I’m disrupting diners at other tables.

I started using the tripod because I was having a hard time taking pictures in dark restaurants, and I could never hold my hands steady enough to take a good shot. As a result, I would have to retake photos again and again until I got one that worked. The tripod solved almost all of my issues, as it provided a support against my shaky hands, and now it takes me less than 30 seconds to frame a shot and take a decent picture (or two).

I will admit that at Alinea, there were some courses that required me to rest the tripod fully on the table due to the size or shape of the serving dish. But again, we’re talking about a tiny black tripod that when the legs are spread out to balance the camera, it’s only about 4 inches off the table. As soon as I saw the servers coming over with each course, I had my camera on and ready to go. I only needed to set the camera down, angle the shot, and press the button. All of this would be done while the server was describing the course.

Because it was Alinea though, I did take about 2 or 3 additional shots of each dish from slightly different angles (using a rest on two legs and click method). Each presentation was just so complex that I wanted to make sure that I fully captured the beauty. Still, it was all done quickly while the server was still talking, because I was as eager as everyone else to dive into the dish. Had I been told to eat a dish right away, I would have already taken my three second shot by the time I was instructed to do so, and I would have popped whatever it was into my mouth.

Was it a bit hectic for me to make sure I got all my shots in? Yes. But do I feel like it took away from my dining experience? No. We were all just so excited to eat this meal, and I was excited to have photographs of each course that I could share with my friends afterward. It was one thing for me to describe sucking down bubble gum tapioca from a test tube, it was much more effective to be able to show a picture of said test tube.

We did get to visit the kitchen at Alinea, and I took a few still photos of Chef Achatz and some of the other personnel, but not before I asked permission to do so. It never even occurred to me to take video, and that’s not something that I would do.

I think bloggers are getting a lot of flack lately because there are so many of us out there. More times than not, there’s usually someone else in a restaurant taking photos besides me. Whether it’s for their own enjoyment, or if they indeed are bloggers, I don’t know, but I think people pretty much assume now that anyone taking photos is a blogger.

As I’m relatively new the blogosphere, I don’t know what it was like when bloggers were unique creatures that spread the word about their favorite restaurants and provided free advertisement and endorsements for those restaurants. Chef Achatz does credit these people for encouraging awareness of food and dining, and for helping Alinea increase its popularity. However, I do feel that right now, there’s a lot of backlash against bloggers in regards to photo taking, or critical reviews based on one experience, etc. All of this is starting to make me feel extremely self-conscious when I’m eating a meal that I plan to post about, so I do try harder to take photos and notes more discreetly. We have since graduated to an SLR with a special lens designed for taking photos in low light environments, and I’ve had to adjust to using a larger, more conspicuous camera but I’m still trying to be unobtrusive about it.

With regards to our experience at Alinea, I don’t believe that my photo taking using my mini tripod was disruptive to other diners, both at our table and at surrounding tables. The other tables were spread pretty far apart but it was quiet enough to hear snatches of conversations, and as far as I know, no one made a comment about my photography. As for the other diners in our party, I was surrounded by people who loved food, loved the experience, and was just as eager as I was to share our account with others.

If I had been asked to stop taking pictures, or told that it was against the restaurant’s policy, I might have been annoyed but I would have immediately desisted. Josh and I generally don’t even photograph other people’s food, only our own, unless we’re specifically requested to do so by the person who ordered the dish. That way everyone else can start eating right away and we won’t disturb them when we stop to take a photo. I’m not trying to ruin anyone’s experience, nor am I taking photos just for the sake of taking them. I honestly enjoy going through all my old food photos and reminiscing about some of the meals we’ve had. If you think I have lots of pictures of food on this blog, you haven’t seen my personal Picasa albums! And the vast majority of the food photos posted there were taken well before this blog existed, back when I was just a tourist who loved to eat.

If Josh and I were rich or famous and could eat out at amazing places every night, maybe there would be less of a novelty for us to document most of our meals. Unfortunately, we’re not, so most of these meals are pretty special occasions for us and we want to remember them and be able to tell our friends about them. In addition to being the best meal that we’ve ever had, Alinea was also by far the most expensive meal we’ve ever had (and we even opted for the cheaper, shorter tasting menu). In fact, it cost almost double what we paid for our plane tickets to Chicago! As much as I wish I could eat there regularly, enough so that the amazement of the presentations wear off, that’s just not realistic, and we probably won’t be back there again for years.

But we’re also really just lovers of food in general, and we get super excited when we eat something that blows our mind. Whether that be any of the dishes at Alinea or simply awesome hand pulled noodles at a hole in the wall joint in Chinatown, we want to be able to share pictures of our experiences and make recommendations on this blog. We don’t discriminate against “lower end” food by limiting our picture taking to only fancy restaurants or places with famous chefs.

As far as picture taking in restaurant goes, I don’t think that banning photography is the answer. People should be able to take pictures of their food, and restaurants who don’t allow this are only hurting themselves in the long run. Pictures are more descriptive than words, and an endorsement of a restaurant or dish is more meaningful when you have photographic evidence to back it up. I am more likely to read a restaurant review or a food blog when there are pictures included than when it’s just text.

I think it should be ok to take photos in a restaurant if you just follow some basic rules and some common courtesy. That means no flash, no excessive photography that requires moving plates all over the table, and just generally being aware of any disruption you may be causing to surrounding people. And the last thing you want to do is ruin the integrity of your food, because ultimately, the food is what this is all about.

“Obsessed” with Food Porn

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010 by virginia

Josh and I finally got around to watching the “Obsessed” episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show, No Reservations. We DVRed it when it aired but I’ve been avoiding watching it because I had read that he comes down hard on food bloggers. Being a food blogger myself, I was afraid that he would say something that would make me really dislike him, which I didn’t want to happen because we’re fans and enjoy reading his books. I also didn’t want to hear anything that would make me second-guess my choice to become a food blogger.

When we finally did sit down and watch the episode, I was surprised that the episode really didn’t focus all that much on food blogging, and Bourdain didn’t bash bloggers as much as I thought he did when I first read some articles describing the episode. One of the bloggers he intereviewed was Jason Perlow, a founder of the eGullet website who now has his own blog that I read called Off the Broiler.

I first found Off the Broiler when I was looking for restaurant recommendations in NJ. Since Josh and I spend a lot of time shuttling back and forth between the city and NJ, I’m always on the lookout for restaurants to try when we’re home with our parents. The blog features many restaurants that are close to where our parents live, and I’ve found it to be a good resource.

In the No Reservations episode, Bourdain meets up with Jason Perlow at White Manna in Hackensack, a burger stand that Josh and I love. Due to health issues, however, Jason is no longer allowed to eat burgers, and instead snacked on a Greek salad while Bourdain devoured two doubles right in front of him. Dude’s got willpower! I would never be able to sit inside White Manna, where the smell of cooking beef and caramelized onions permeates everywhere in the tiny shop, and not have a burger. That would be like torture for me.

Even now during Lent, when I abstain from meat on Fridays, I refuse to go to any restaurant that would tempt me to eat meat. I rigidly dictate exactly where I’m willing to go, and even bars are off limits because I’d be too tempted to eat a burger. I always try to persuade Josh to order something with fish, because if he’s eating meat, I get food envy and become very cranky.

But going back to the No Reservations episode, despite the fact that Jason abstains from eating a burger, he still whips out his camera to take pictures of Bourdain’s burgers and is immediately rebuked for doing so. This is when I started to take issue with Bourdain’s stance, and this is what many other bloggers have complained about as well. Bourdain basically equates taking pictures of food with keeping a diary during sex. Well with that mentality, if food bloggers are writers of pornographic novels, then Bourdain is a porn star, and a huge one at that. His entire show is based on someone following him around with a video camera, taking money shots of food being prepared and presented, and focuses in on him consuming the food and making noises about how good it is. No one watches this show to hear him speak; they watch it for the food.

Would my dining experiences be better and more relaxed if I didn’t take pictures? Sure, but I think our blog would suffer greatly without pictures. It’s not enough for me to comment on how lovely a dish is; it’s more convincing if I can show you a beautiful picture of the dish as well. But I don’t have a production team following me around everywhere taking video and stills of everything I eat, nor do I have someone paying me to travel around the world and eat. But if anyone is offering that, we would definitely take them up on it! In the meantime, however, we’re on our own to document our meals and share our experiences with our readers.

Am I obsessed with blogging? Yes and no. I love having this blog and writing posts for it, but I also know when I need to step back and take a break. I don’t blog for the sake of blogging, putting up random and meaningless posts just so I’ll have something published each day. I do put a lot of thought and work into the pieces that I write. I also don’t blog about or take pictures of every single meal that we have. Is it nice to be able to have a meal and not worry about taking pictures and notes on everything? Of course. But if I know an experience is going to be special, and something that I would want to share with everyone, then it’s also a pleasure to be able to document it and know that I’m going to have something of substance to write about, with supporting evidence.

All of the bloggers Bourdain interviewed mentioned something about food filling in something that is lacking in their lives. And I find that true for myself as well. Food is a way for me to escape the stresses of every day life, as is this blog. When I’ve had a bad day at work, I immediately think about what I can eat or cook that will cheer me up. I find methodically chopping vegetables into tiny pieces to be very soothing, and a juicy, well-seasoned burger with crispy fries, washed down with a cold, flavorful beer is my ultimate comfort food. That is why I’m not ready or willing to make food a career choice. Why turn something that I love into something that could be potentially stressful?

But as for taking pictures of food, we will continue to do so. This is a practice I started long before Two Fat Bellies, to document some of the exotic food we eat when we go on vacation, and it’s something that I’ll keep doing long after. Most people dining with us know they’ll have to wait and extra minute or two before diving into their food, but it’s a just a minor inconvenience that they graciously abide by. I don’t think taking pictures of food detracts in any way from my enjoyment of it, and the pictures only enhance my ability to convey my experiences.

Flashy Restaurants

Monday, December 14th, 2009 by josh

If you watch food shows on TV you’ll observe a common characteristic of the better chefs. They abide by the KISS philosophy (keep it simple, stupid). On competitive shows (Top Chef, Iron Chef etc.) the judges typically prefer the dish with fewer ingredients that’s masterfully prepared to the one that tries to develop complex flavors and suffers from under or over cooking. When you eat at the restaurant of one of these chefs you can tell, simplicity rules. The décor may be elegant or modern, but its never cluttered. Whatever is on the table (glasses, sliverware, dishes, candle etc.) typically has clean lines. Even the garnishes on the plate serve a purpose, lend a flavor, are meant to be eaten and are considered part of the experience. A big faux pas are garnishes that do nothing, but take up space, like the top of a pineapple. When the rules of simplicity are violated its noticed by the partrons, even if we cant always define it. Virginia wrote about The Studio in Hilton Head, SC and mentioned the space as being like someone’s funky living room. It was awkward. Too complex. And it distracts from the food.

So, given that the world’s best chefs seem to agree that simplicity is best when it comes to the food they serve and the restaurants they build, why, for the love of god, do they not abide by this when designing their web sites? Why do I have to wait 30 seconds for a flash web page to pan from a school of fish to an island sunset to the skyline of NYC (Le Bernardin) or for the left to right visual progression of Thomas Keller’s vision of bringing French Laundry to NY? Seriously, I lived through the dial-up era and am glad to have fast internet access now. One of the things I’ve become accustomed to is pages loading quickly. And don’t tell me there’s a “skip intro” link.

  • Its usually small and hidden and I have to search for it which makes me angrier.
  • The whole point of going to a three-star restaurant is to surrender yourself to the chef. The waiter at Alinea told us how certain dishes were intended to be eaten, he didn’t say “first smell the smoke and then eat the steak OR just skip the intro and dig in”. If the site has a lengthy intro, I assume its there for a reason and I’m intended to watch it.
  • Doesn’t the presence of a “skip intro” link kind of prove my point? Its like the site is saying to you “Even we know its obnoxious we’re making you watch this ridiculous display so go ahead and skip it”
  • Besides the waiting, the sites are then hard to use. Go check today’s dinner menu at the Jean-Georges website. Find it? Were you able to navigate to it without the page constantly flashing at you as you highlight the names of the 29 restaurants you didn’t go to check up on? Oh, I should have mentioned, don’t try to check these sites on your mobile phone, like when you’re at happy hour with coworkers and are trying to convince one of them to take his girlfriend to Masa: your phone doesn’t support flash. Pretty inconvenient, huh? And non-functional. A big no-no in the cooking world, is somehow okay with how they present their restaurants in a medium that nowadays, lets face it, is going to be the customer’s first impression.

    I’m not saying Flash serves no purpose online. There are plenty of sites that should be using flash, for instance a the homepage of a web-design firm that tries to convince restaurants to hire them. Or a site hosting flash-games (my favorite time-waster is free-kick fusion). But restaurants, not necessary. When I show up for my reservation do you make me watch a laser-light show before you’ll seat me? Does the coat check girl come out to dance and sing the overture to Oklahoma? No. Then why are you forcing me to watch these things when I visit your website?

    I visited the website for all six three-star Michelin restaurants in the US (PerSe, Le Bernardin, Masa, Jean-Georges, French Laundry, and Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas), every single one requires flash, has a longer-than-necessary intro and is hard to use. To verify the phenomenon is not uniquely American, I also went to the websites for each of the world’s ten best restaurants. Nine of them are flash-based. Funny enough, the one that isn’t, El Cellar De Can Roca is cleverly designed to look like a flash site.

    Although I believe function trumps beauty, I also recognize that the true masters are those who can achieve both. It baffles me that these chefs, known for their detailed-oriented personalities would allow their restaurants to be represented this way. Its not as if technology were released that could make tiny fairies fly around plates as they were placed on the table that these chef’s would jump at the opportunity.

    It also escapes me why this isn’t part of a restaurant’s review. If a reviewer from the times called to make a reservation and was treated rudely on the phone, we’d surely read about it in the review. How is this different? Isn’t it like being on hold for too long? Or asking a question about the menu but being forced to listen to the chef’s biography before getting the answer to you wanted. Having a horrible website has got to be as bad as a bad odor when entering a restuarant.

    Restaurant websites should be simple. Their purpose is to provide information. They should load fast and be accessible from my mobile device. This means no flash. They can still be sexy and satisfy this criteria, open-source web designs has plenty of good-looking free site templates (the bitter_sweet one is proof-positive that simplicity can be attractive). Also, the websites should be up-to-date, the “Fall” menu shouldn’t be there in May. It should be easy to get the phone number, make a reservation and see the menu (with prices). Let me know if I’m being unreasonable. My view is that I should be able to obtain information online faster than I can over the phone. That’s why there’s a website (and to take workload off those who answer the phone). You’d think the most successful chef/owners in the business would adhere to this philosophy the same way they do with their dishes. I wonder why they don’t. Am I crazy? I can’t be the only one bothered by this.