Restaurants turn camera shy

New York TimesJanuary 29, 2013 


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When it comes to people taking photographs of their meals, New York chef David Bouley has seen it all. There are the foreign tourists who, despite their big cameras, tend to be very discreet. There are those who use a flash and annoy everyone around them. There are those who come equipped with Gorillapods – those small, flexible tripods to use on their tables.

There are even those who stand on their chairs to shoot their plates from above.

“We get on top of those folks right away or else it’s like a circus,” Bouley said.

But rather than tell people they can’t shoot their food – the food they are so proud to eat that they need to share it immediately with everyone they know – he simply takes them back into his kitchen to shoot as the plates come out. “We’ll say, ‘That shot will look so much better on the marble table in our kitchen,’” Bouley said. “It’s like, here’s the sauce, here’s the plate. Snap it. We make it like an adventure for them instead of telling them no.”

Not every chef or restaurant owner is as accommodating, especially these days, as cameras have become as common as utensils. People are posting a shot of their quinoa salad online, or their ramen noodles on their blog. A growing backlash has prompted not only dirty looks from nearby diners, but also creative measures like Bouley’s and even some outright photo bans.

On a visit to Momofuku Ko in New York City, one diner thought nothing of subtly raising her iPhone and snapping a picture of her shaved foie. Like tens of thousands of others, she takes photos of her plates constantly, sometimes to the annoyance of her spouse, a chef.

The host was wearing jeans, hip-hop was on the playlist and a 12-year-old was sitting next to them. And this dish was the famous, fabulous shaved foie from the star chef David Chang. It only seemed natural to record it for posterity.

Then came the slapdown. A man in the open kitchen asked her to please put her phone away. No photos allowed.

Chang is one of several chefs who either prohibit food photography (at Ko in New York) or have a policy against flashes (at Seiobo in Sydney, Australia, and Shoto in Toronto). High-end places like Per Se, Le Bernardin and Fat Duck discourage flash photography as well, though on a recent trip to the Thomas Keller restaurant Per Se, flashes were going off left and right, bouncing off the expansive windows overlooking Columbus Circle.

“It’s reached epic proportions,” says Steven Hall, the spokesman for Bouley and many other restaurants, who has worked in the business for 16 years. “Everybody wants to get their shot. They don’t care how it affects people around them.”

The big-city bans surprise N&O restaurant critic Greg Cox, who’s been “known to sneak a few photos” in restaurants himself. Cox, who dines incognito, said he’s never been asked to put the camera away and no readers have complained of being told to stop shooting photos of their dining experience either.

“Chefs and foodies seem to be more of a community than the dog-eat-dog world that I think of as New York,” he said.

Moe Issa, the owner of Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, said he banned photography several months after opening when it became too much of a distraction to the other diners at his 18-seat restaurant.

“Some people are arrogant about it,” he said. “They don’t understand why. But we explain that it’s one big table and we want the people around you to enjoy their meal. They pay a lot of money for this meal. It became even a distraction for the chef.”

Bouley said table photography “totally disrupts the ambience.”

“It’s a disaster in terms of momentum, settling into the meal, the great conversation that develops,” he said. “It’s hard to build a memorable evening when flashes are flying every six minutes.”

Issa is happy to supply diners with professional photos the next day, though Hall said “people want to email their photos to their friends right then and there – instant gratification.”

Bouley is setting up a computer system so that diners can get digital images of what they’ve eaten before they even get the check.

It’s hard to know who is most irritated by amateur photography – the owners and chefs, the nearby diners or even the photographer’s dining companions. Emma Kate Tsai, a Houston-based editor, said her 64-year-old father drives her family crazy with the food photos he shoots with his large, cumbersome camera strapped across his chest.

But for every annoyed patron and disgruntled chef, there will continue to be legions of amateur iPhone-wielding food lovers, who say what they do is a tribute – not to mention free advertising for the restaurants.

Jordy Trachtenberg, because of what he described as his obsessive-compulsive disorder and his love of food, has documented every bowl of ramen he’s eaten in the past two years and posted it on his blog, Ramentology. He was flabbergasted to learn there are restaurants that prohibit photography.

“It’s shocking,” he said. “Is that even legal?”

He said he had never encountered any pushback. “But then again, I’m a big guy with tattoos,” he said, laughing.

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