Restaurants and Their Camera-Phobia

If one wanted to a career in food 10, 15, or 20 years ago, many people would probably refer to him as an aspiring cook.  Nowadays, it is totally different.  A student wanting a life and career around food would be engaged in culinary arts.  Food — making it, eating it — has always been an art.  And more so now.  Thanks to the age of celebrity chefs, eccentric-themed restaurants, and “food theaters”. Each restaurant tries to be unique from the rest, in order to be on the map, in order to find a place under the sun.

For sure, everyone will agree that dining now has become exciting, to say the least.  But one wonders if all this brouhaha about food being art  completely uplifts us all.  But many are just taking the art factor too seriously.

What are the symptoms?  Let me cite two.

First symptom: some restaurants don’t allow guests to even have access to salt and pepper.  I remember seeing this in a restaurant  in Makati.  The restaurant asks that guests respect the owners of the establishment by not asking for any salt and pepper.  For sure, we have heard of people of compulsively put S&P on their food without tasting it yet — and yes, I find this very rude as a cook myself.  But what about the customer?  In the end, it’s the customer who pays for the bill.  It’s the customer who eats and takes in the food, whether it’s a tasty creation or a completely bland, plated disaster.  Whether the dish is art or not, it’s the customers who keep the establishment alive.  Let’s not forget that.  It is also fitting to remind chefs/cooks in the restaurant setting that they are not the only authors of art.  By asking people to taste their creations, asking for their opinion of the dish, and of course, asking customers to pay for dishes, customers, too, become part of the artistic process.  Art is not a monopoly of the author as the user also plays an integral part — especially when you talk about food.
Come on. If you seriously think that you've created an original masterpiece with chocolate-dipped strawberries, think again. Spare yourself from the illusion and delusion that having this in your restaurant gives you real competitive edge and advantage.

The second symptom has become my pet peeve.  If there’s one unfortunate thing in all this “art”, it’s how it has led to fiercer but more mindless competition.  Why do I say mindless?  In an effort to prevent any competition from copying dishes and “masterpieces”, a number of restaurants and chefs have shown their intellectual mediocrity by putting  no picture taking signs all over their establishments — even bigger than the food they serve.  It’s ridiculous.  And many restaurants forget the most basic customer courtesy when  customers (inadvertently) do not follow their signs.

The truth is, I was one of them recently.  I went to this place in Salcedo Village in Makati, supposedly known for its chocolate treats.  People have been raving about this place and I have been excited about it for weeks.  When I finally get to the restaurant, the blogger in surfaced, and I started taking pictures of the food using my iPhone.  A few seconds later, staff of the restaurant came rushing to me, as if I were a terrorist caught by security at pre-departure.  The manager of the place, an Australian national, rudely told me not to take pictures “to respect the chef”, and coldly said “I hope you understand”.

For sure, I am a reasonable person and I respect whatever intellectual property the were trying to protect.  But does one have to be rude?  I actually wanted to leave.  But my girlfriend pleaded that we stay.  It was a bad meal, of course.  Truth is, the chocolates were nothing unique.  And the sausages they also have on their menu?  Oh please.  I might as well just open a can of Vienna sausage at home, and I’m sure it would taste better.

And come on.  What intellectual property?  The restaurant owners were so worried about people taking pictures of what?  Chocolate-dipped strawberries!  What’s so unique about that?  If the owners feel they have competitive advantage with chocolate covered strawberries, then they better think again.  Well, that’s putting my MBA to use.  And potato chips dipped in chocolate?  If I know, they just copied them from a premium brand of Japanese chocolate.  Come on.  If you are bragging about something so unique, something so special, make sure that it really is something truly unique to start with.  Somehow, the owners of that restaurant have convinced themselves of their own illusion that their place is oh so unique, when in fact, the truth is the complete opposite.

I may have had mistakes as a food blogger.  Perhaps, I should have asked permission first, which I didn’t.  And I DID apologize for not asking permission.  But there really was no reason for the owners to be rude.  Two, I agree with several authors like Kay Logsdon (editor of  The Food Channel) that chefs and restaurant owners should actually be flattered that people are taking notice of their food and taking pictures of them.  The author does remind bloggers though not to use flash photography, and they should not distract other diners, which are just fair.

How else should food bloggers behave?  I agree with full access to the finished product, especially if you order and buy it — as compared to those who just take pictures of a restaurant’s food and leave.  I also agree that owners have a right to restrict photography when it comes to taking pictures of how dishes are made.  Case in point is Cold Rock, an Australian ice cream brand.  They do not allow photo or video of how they make their ice cream.  I agree with this because the process itself is a competitive process.  But come on, strawberries dipped in chocolate? And yes, people in Cold Rock are respectful enough to tell people not to take pictures.

Yes, the MoMa allows you to take pictures of this priceless piece of art, Van Gogh's Starry Night. It's priceless. How about imitated chocolate-dipped strawberries and chocolate-dipped potato chips? Are these art?

In the end, while food has become an art, my take is, it’s an art that is meant to be shared.  When I think about this subject, I could not help but think of the works of Van Gogh’s Starry Night at the MoMa in New York or his bedroom in Chicago, which I have beautiful pictures of.  I also think of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the L0uvre in Paris.  Did they — or at least the museums — prevent people from admiring these works of art and taking pictures of them?  Nope.  These works have been shared with humanity.  And the sharing, the giving of art uplifts as all. This is what real art is all about.  Food is for sharing.  And it should uplift people’s souls.  It does not give license to be rude.

My wish is that all restaurants and their aspiring chef-artists think of food as an art that has the same, positive purpose.

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