It’s the last night of my husband Owen’s and my vacation in New York, and despite 10 days of eating meals at restaurants, he took shots of our food only once. I asked him to do so when I didn’t think anyone would notice, sitting at an outdoor table at Xie Xie (pronounced shay shay, Mandarin for thank you), a casual pan-Asian sandwich shop. I wanted to experience what food bloggers go through when they’re going to blog about a dish. When we were done, however, Chef Angelo Sosa came over to say good-bye and thanks. Later Owen said the chef had been watching us. Would he have done so if we did not take the photos? I guess I’ll never know.
Let me interrupt for a moment to tell you about his sandwiches. Sosa has worked a the restaurants of Alain Ducasse and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and I couldn’t wait to taste his cooking at a fraction of the price. The two pan-Asian sandwiches I sampled were loaded with layers of flavor and texture, and to top it off, cost under $9 each.
We ate well and inexpensively in New York, including dinner with David Leite and his partner at La Caridad 78, a Latin American/Chinese restaurant frequented by cops (where Michael Richards, formerly “Kramer” on Sinefeld, walked by), then set out for the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, where I gave a talk to Irena Chalmers’ food writing class about blogging.
Last night, we blew the budget at Blue Hill restaurant at Stone Barn in the Hudson Valley. I’ve been an admirer of Chef Dan Barber’s writing and farm-to-table philosophy for years, so it was a big deal to eat at his modern, barnlike restaurant at last. I was surprised by the low lighting, hushed conversation, and superb service, but I suppose all that goes with a restaurant of this quality and price range. I wondered what would have happened if Owen pulled out his camera and took flash photos of our three hour long “Farmer’s Feast 5-course tasting menu,” actually closer to 12 small courses that ended at midnight.
Today I called Blue Hill vice president Irene Hamburger to ask about it. She said no flash photography is permitted in the restaurant. For the first 1 to 1.5 years, the restaurant had no restrictions, and diners complained when the people at the next table broke the ambiance, taking flash shot after shot as each dish arrived. The restaurant management decided the “dining experience of a neighbor is as important as the blogger’s experience,” and banned flash photography after talking to peers at other fine restaurants, who have done the same. Now, if bloggers want photos of representative dishes, Hamburger shoots off an email with attached images.
I can’t say I blame her. I once ate lunch with a magazine editor who photographed every dish that came to our table as part of her cover story on the best Chinese restaurants in America. She was choosing the finalists. The manager came over and, after learning of her intent, comped the meal. Gee, do you think that might have influenced her opinion? Good restaurant reviewers try to be inconspicuous so they can represent an average diner’s experience. That was impossible in her case.
If you’re a food blogger, I’m curious to know how you handle photographing dishes at restaurants. Have you ever been asked to put away your camera? Should you take as many photos as you like, using flash? Have you received special attention and free meals as a result? Do you wonder whether your actions affect nearby diners? I’m still learning how this new world works, and your experiences and opinions are valuable.