Dish network: Food spawns legion of paparazzi
By William Loeffler
Published: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, 8:32 p.m.
It doesn't take a culinary degree to realize that food has attained A-list celebrity status.
Food, glorious food, is feted and fussed over on blogs, cooking shows and reality-television competitions. Heck, it has its own cable channel.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before it spawned a legion of paparazzi.
For some, it's not enough to savor the Lobster and Crab Gnocchi at the Carlton Restaurant or to delight in the Mustard-Crusted Salmon at Point Brugge Café. Instead of the napkin and fork, hands go first to the smartphone camera. The dish is framed, shot and shared on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp or Instagram.
Depending on your point of view, the proliferation of food photos on social media is either enhancing the flavor of dining or becoming a fly in the soup.
Amanda McFadden and three of her friends began documenting their dinner with point-and-shoot cameras. In 2009, they created the blog www.eatPGH.com to share their culinary discoveries. They now use their smartphones to shoot and post photos of Mussels with Mama's Gravy from Legends of the North Shore and Chili Cheese Fries from Franktuary.
“It's a way for people to capture and memorialize a dining experience that they clearly think is so outstanding that it is worth saving in time,” says McFadden, 29, of Mt. Lebanon. “It's also a way to show off a bit to friends and family... a ‘Look where I was; look what I just ate.' ”
McFadden and friends Julia Gongaware, Sarah Sudar and Laura Zorch also collaborated on “Food Lovers' Guide to Pittsburgh” (Globe Pequot Press, $14.95).
“Just like anything else, there's a time and a place for it,” McFadden says. “We certainly don't bust out a camera with flashes and disrupt our neighbors and other diners. We don't want to ruin the experience for anybody.”
Restaurants stand to benefit from customer photos. A snapshot and tweet such as “Just had an awesome calamari at Olive or Twist!” is akin to good word of mouth. But, not everybody is on-board.
Some restaurants such as Brooklyn Fare in New York City have banned cellphone photography as disruptive. Another, Bouley in trendy Tribeca, is setting up a computer system that will deliver digital images of customers' food at the end of the meal.
Alan Peet, executive chef at Isabela on Grandview, doesn't mind customers photographing his Smoked Duck Breast or Ricotta Ravioli. Perched atop Mt. Washington, Isabela is a destination restaurant. Walk-in customers are rare.
“I look at it as free advertising for us,” says Peet, who was executive chef at Casbah in Shadyside for three years. “Whether they post it to Instagram or Facebook or Yelp, it allows people who don't know us to view the food, view what we have to offer, without coming here. It could possibly entice them to commit.”
But copycatting is a problem. Peet says he can understand the dismay of a chef who creates his own unique presentation and sees his technique copied and adulterated online.
“People are stealing ideas and plating and almost plagiarizing,” Peet says.
Adam Milliron of Lawrenceville makes a living taking photos of food, beverages and other products. He's an enthusiastic foodie who likes sharing on Instagram photos of places he's eaten. But he can empathize with restaurateurs and chefs who might be nervous about amateur photos of their dishes hurtling into cyberspace. For example, pizza, he says, can be particularly tricky to photograph. It's got a flat, oily surface that doesn't always look appetizing in a photo.
“If you have a person who happens to have a good aesthetic and comes in and takes a beautiful photo, that can be great advertising,” Milliron says. “If the chef's having a bad day, it's not exactly what the restaurant would like to portray as their image. That can also be damaging.”
Justin Severino, owner and executive chef of Cure in Lawrenceville, says food photography has become a regular occurrence in his restaurant. While he finds it flattering, he abstains from doing it when he dines out.
He recently ate at one of the top restaurants in New York City, where he saw another patron photographing each of the dishes that was brought to their table.
“I personally was there to enjoy the experience,” he says. “It didn't, for me, involve taking my phone out and taking a picture. I was there to enjoy the ambience and the flavors and the textures. When I go into a restaurant to dine, I turn my phone off and leave it in my car.”
Foodspotting, a photo-sharing app, lets users review and share photos of individual dishes as opposed to restaurants. Craving a caramel latte or pumpkin soup? Foodspotting provides a personalized locator map of establishments that serve the object of your lust, pinpointed by a photo of the item that was taken by a customer.
Kevin Joyce, owner of the Carlton Restaurant, Downtown, remembers being asked to leave at least one New York restaurant several years ago when he photographed his meal. Today, however, he sees customers photographing their food at his establishment about five times a week.
“Any time I see guests take a picture of a meal before they pick up the knife and the fork, I kind of pat myself on the back, knowing that we made a great presentation,” he says. “If they let their friends know about it, that's all the better for me.
“There's no stopping it. I've heard that some restaurateurs are not happy, because they consider their creations proprietary. Who would want to get into an argument with a guest about taking a picture? Nothing good could come out of that conversation, except for losing a customer. “
The National Restaurant Association has not researched the number of food paparazzi, spokeswoman Annika Stensson says.
“Generally, as long as the act of taking photos doesn't interfere with restaurant staff or bother other diners, a lot of restaurants are OK with it,” she says. “But, each restaurant would be the best judge of what works for them and their guests and may choose to discourage use of personal electronics in dining rooms.”
Tracy Brigden has deployed her Droid smartphone to photograph food at a market in the South of France, sushi at the Penn Avenue Fish Co. in the Strip District and her culinary creations at her Mt. Lebanon home. She relishes the aesthetic rigor of arranging photographic still lifes using flatware, a napkin or crockery.
“I can remember my mom taking pictures of tables laid for Thanksgiving or birthday cake,” she says. “I think I was taking photos of food when you had to get the camera and get it developed.”
Brigden is the artistic director of City Theatre on the South Side. Food has one thing in common with the plays she often directs: it's here one moment and gone the next. Posterity almost demands a photo.
She attributes the trend to “the fact that there is so much food photography in the world right now because of the Food Network and all the food magazines. We've kind of gotten more used to seeing food beautifully captured in more outlets. Previously, you had to look in a cookbook.”
Brigden recently cooked a pasta dish called Little Medusas that was based on a photo she saw online on Pinterest. She then took a photo of her version and posted it.
“The thing I like the best is when I've made a whole beautiful table (and) the food has come out,” she says. “I like the anticipatory setting with the photo, the whole mis en scene.”
William Loeffler is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
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