Not long ago at a restaurant that regularly tweets photos of dishes as lush as one of Monet’s lily ponds, I found myself poking cautiously at perfect circles of glossy black sauce, discs of potato purée that looked like white roses and cylinders of gnocchi so tiny they seemed to have been pushed out of a drinking straw. Tiny, delicate flowers and tender sprigs of leaves gently rested here and there as if a woodland nymph had casually tossed them from a basket before running off to play hide-and-seek with a den of baby field mice.
The dish was definitely ready for its close-up. It was also, by and large, very cold – no surprise given how long it must have taken to squeeze and tweeze everything into position.
Not for the first time, I wondered: Am I supposed to eat this or take its picture? I did neither. Instead, I stored the memory away in my growing files on something I’ve come to think of as camera cuisine. A side effect of the digital age in food photography, camera cuisine is any dish that was inspired by a picture or aspires to be one. Like any genre of cooking, camera cuisine varies widely in quality, but in its purest form it is both exquisitely photogenic and peculiarly bland and lifeless.
Cameras are on chefs’ minds far more than they were a decade or so ago, when most pictures of food were taken in studios under blazing lamps. Digital cameras that capture high-resolution images in low light opened the game to anyone sitting in a restaurant, from a blogger with a tripod-mounted DSLR camera to an Instagrammer holding an iPhone at arm’s length.
As soon as those devices began plugging into the Internet and social media accounts, food photography stopped being just an illustration for a cookbook or magazine. Now the picture itself is the story.
“Food culture today is spread as much by visuals as it is by word-of-mouth or written reviews,” said David Sax, whose recent book, “The Tastemakers,” takes an incisive look at the power of food trends. “It’s become a visual medium. We’re eating with our eyes first.”
The technology has deeply changed food photography, of course. But it’s changing food, too.
At the most obvious level, new ideas and techniques zoom around the world with head-spinning speed. It took years for nouvelle cuisine to book passage across the Atlantic. After Dominique Ansel unveiled his doughnut-croissant hybrid, the Cronut, last May, it took less than two weeks for a copycat to appear in Melbourne, Australia.
Digital photography “rocket-ships the speed in which trends not only come but go,” chef Grant Achatz wrote in an email. “Chefs latch on to a style (El Bulli, Noma) and start copying it all the way to Ames, Iowa. We are all sitting there going: ‘What happened to styles sticking around for a while? I just got this figured out and it is already old.’ ”
Besides a powerful research tool, digital food photography is a cheap marketing tool as well. A snapshot of a new dish uploaded last night can cause a bump in reservations this afternoon.
Making this deal even more attractive for the restaurants, social media rewards photographers who post attractive images and punishes those who don’t. Last November, Martha Stewart tweeted a few shots of plates that a hungry coyote might have walked away from. Twitter ganged up on her; bloggers mocked her unpardonable use of flash and other shortcomings.
I got a taste of this shutter-shaming myself when I tweeted a picture of a trout a restaurant had served me. My point was that the dish was a mess, as carefully presented as a basket of dirty laundry. Nevermind that: Twitter reacted to the ugliness of the image, not the broken tail of the trout. One person asked if I’d been taking pointers from Stewart. Whether you’re on Twitter, Instagram or your own blog, the message is clear: Don’t take pictures in a restaurant if you aren’t going to make the place look good. (There’s no such pressure on the authors of online reviews.)
Chefs are eager to play along, acting as stylists and studio assistants.
Bonjwing Lee, a well-traveled photographer and writer whose Flickr stream and blog, the Ulterior Epicure, are required viewing for gastronauts, said a few chefs had asked his advice on “adjustments they could make to their dining rooms” so customers can take better photographs.
Restaurants, which always have tried to make food look pretty, don’t just want pictures that pop. They want to make food with enough razzle-dazzle to inspire its own hashtag; everybody wants to invent the next #cronut.
Stunt dishes seem to be on the rise: the burger with a length of bone embedded in the patty at M. Wells Steakhouse; the chicken Parmesan on a pizza stand at Quality Italian; the tomahawk chop at Restaurant Marc Forgione, Costata and M. Wells Steakhouse, to name a few; and other plates so unreasonably large that diners now take pictures for the same reason fishermen do – to prove that, yes, it really was that big.
Just as there are levels of culinary ambition, there are levels of marketing. Many serious chefs would never stoop to trying to get a dish to go viral. A few even ban cameras from the dining room. But many others routinely assemble plates with a visual aesthetic meant to incite the admiration of cooks, critics and awards judges around the world.
At the influential handful of restaurants pursuing a contemporary style, each plate plays to two audiences. One is you, with your napkin in your lap. The other is a global club whose members, checking out their phones or laptops, constitute an invisible gallery in the dining room.
Camera cuisine like this could be created in almost any style, but the one that happens to have been ascendant during the digital revolution in food photography is the New Nordic movement. Kitchens that glide in the tail winds of adventurous Scandinavian chefs send out plates with a gentle, windswept look. Ingredients, invariably arranged on earthenware or wood or stone, seem to have washed in on a wave or blown in on a forest breeze. The nature-boy stylings make it clear that the chefs have been studying the images in René Redzepi’s Instagram account.
It’s much less clear that they’ve actually been eating Redzepi’s cooking. Not all the time, but often enough, the flavors aren’t as vivid as the image; they’re spectral, washed-out. Foraged plants and other ingredients sometimes seem chosen for size and color more than for taste. That borage flower or sweet potato leaf is hardly ever dressed in a vinaigrette, which would make it tastier but may also create a distracting glare for the lens and cause it to droop before its photo op.
The combinations often feel knocked together at random, as if the dishes were determined not by the chef’s palate but by a lottery. Why does the monkfish get a single roasted kale leaf while the Mangalitsa pork gets tiny cups of raw Brussels sprouts leaves? Why not the other way around? What kind of cooking is this?
I puzzled over this for a few months, and now I think I’ve got it figured out: It isn’t cooking. It’s plating.
“Kitchen designers say there has been a seismic shift in how kitchens are being designed” during the past 10 years, said David Kinch, a chef who had been talking to designers about redoing the back of the house at Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif., which was recently damaged in a fire. Restaurants, his designers tell him, are putting in “more counters and less cooking area, more plating space,” he said, “so food can be more composed.”
Newer ovens and cooktops gobble less space, making it possible for chefs to install vast runways where plates can idle like fighter jets on an aircraft carrier while every last detail is finessed.
“They can sit there,” Kinch said. “You can futz over it a bit, you can build it, and there’s not a time dynamic associated with temperature in a lot of dishes.”
The time dynamic associated with temperature. Remember that? “I’ve got hot food!” cooks used to shout at servers, berating them to get plates to the table right now. In greasy spoons, they ring a bell.
In many contemporary restaurants, nobody screams and no bells ring. As Kinch pointed out, many kitchens use slower and more precise cooking methods, so the food never gets all that hot to begin with. But parceled out on a slate tile and pitilessly accessorized with leaves, crumbles, froths and sauces (set with emulsifiers so they never break down), even a charcoal-grilled steak would be as cold as a bologna sandwich.
Oddly enough, cameras that can capture and transmit images in an instant are being used to photograph food that is meant to hang out indefinitely in suspended animation. And this is what now passes for great, or at least significant, cooking.
But great food is rarely static. As soon as it leaves the kitchen, it’s changing. In general, it’s getting worse. The soufflé is sinking. The arugula is wilting.
A steak right off the grill excites us because we see the fats shimmering on the surface and the juices gathering on the plate. The color of the steak excites us, too, because it’s deeply browned, and we know that toasted, roasted, seared and caramelized surfaces mean deep flavors. But cameras hate brown food.
“The Cronut was not a pudding, right?” Sax said. “The first one looked like that magical pink doughnut from ‘The Simpsons’ that doesn’t exist. More and more of the trends are visually appealing. The great stew trend hasn’t blown up for a reason.”
Sax notes that Instagram is nonetheless clogged with pictures of barbecued brisket and steak. When we taste something spectacular, we still want to take its picture. I hope chefs can remember that, or we’ll all have to get used to eating things that our mouths will never like as much as our cameras do.