x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Restaurants protect their reputations with 'no photos' rule

Although over-fussy presentation can be off-putting, the appearance of a dish is important, so it is understandable that some establishments are sensitive about people snapping their meals and posting them on the web.

I love my sister's face beyond measure, but all things considered, I'm more likely to photograph a sandwich. Truth is, I do not own many photos of her countless piano recitals, or of her high school graduation, or of her looking bored next to a wax figure at Madame Tussaud's. Then last week, at Zuma in Miami, she gave me a reason to break out the camera, when she ordered the black truffle supplement to her lunch of rice in a hot pot with wild mushrooms.

From the recesses of the kitchen, a black truffle the size of a man's fist was brandished. It was placed on the table. I wanted to record the occasion, which, for me, would have involved no more than a macro shot of the truffle itself; no smiling sister, no patrons to be embarrassed for me by proxy.

In my handbag was a discreet pocket camera no bigger than a deck of cards. But when I positioned the camera, with flash disabled, to take a picture of the truffle, the manager wagged her fingers in front of the lens. "No no! Not in here."

Before I lambast restaurants over the no-photography policy, let me explain that I don't always find photography in restaurants appropriate, In fact, it can be downright antisocial if the whole ritual takes longer than two seconds. But what about when there's nothing in the frame besides a subject that's on the tablecloth a scant couple of centimetres away?

In the US, when travelling across Native American land, all visitors are subject to Indian laws and the rules of the pueblo, and some pueblos have stringent rules governing photography. I learnt this on a summer's day in Utah about 10 years ago, while I was trying to photograph a rock formation. "That'll be 10 dollars," said a man I hadn't noticed, sitting on a patio chair against the west side of the rock.

But while I have no right to Indian land, I was paying for the truffle on the table at Zuma. "OK," I conceded. "I'll put the camera away. But just out of curiosity, why the photography ban?"

"We don't allow it," explained the manager, "because we take a lot of pride in the appearance of our food. And we really don't want it subjected to people's inferior photography skills, and then showing up on blogs."

I understand that food presentation is a big deal, but concerns over misrepresentations of food seem considerably less so. Was I being totally unsympathetic? I had a sudden visual of a bride on her wedding day, dictating that guests put away their cameras in case any of them make her look fat. There was no doubt about it; the plates at Zuma were very beautiful; so beautiful that I have a hard time believing anyone could take a bad photograph of them. After all, did the late Princess Grace of Monaco ever take a bad photograph?

Plating, or the arrangement of food on or in its serving vessel, is more of a restaurant concept than a domestic one, given the popular format of the self-serve meal in people's homes. Common styles of plating include the gravity-defying stacked accompaniment seen so often in nouvelle cuisine, replete with a vigorous squirt or two from a squeeze bottle, and confetti of minced parsley and red pepper garnish.

I have always hated the expression, "we eat with our eyes"; the image it brings to mind is that of a table of forlorn folk, blinded by condiments. The visual impact of a dish is indeed a huge part of the eating experience for me, and the more visceral the better: show me jagged crumb where bread was torn from the loaf, the imprecise spatter of herb-flecked butter on a plate, the charred bits on the edge of a steak, the cross-sectional bite taken out of the lobster roll. Never a fan of the plastic-looking food in some magazines, I want to look at images of food whose deliciousness is palpable - and then of course, I want to eat it.

All beauty is subjective, though, and our appetites are even more so. The particular qualities that make something tempting to one person may not be to another. A friend who owns a restaurant in London's Camden Market once lamented the lack of people ordering his beloved whole trout with olives. "Nobody wants to gaze into the eyes of their dinner," he said, "so I started filleting the fish for customers. Takes longer, but more people order it."

Never underestimate the importance of great lighting, and never overestimate the value of flash photography. Many beautiful things are monochromatic, as well; not easy to photograph without adornment. After all, how many of us have been duped into buying the most beautiful fruit in the produce aisle, only to discover later that it's tasteless?

When it comes to garnish, it's all about flavour and function over form. I'm a big fan of simple, edible, functional garnishes: olives, mint leaves and an olive oil drizzle on hummus or labneh, snipped chives on just about anything. But useless, overly precious garnishes such as radish and tomato rosettes make me think of the wasted human effort expended on them. I'm put off by anything that looks like it's been handled for too long.

When planning a dinner party, my pattern is to settle on one dish I'm committed to preparing. The rest of the food comes to me by way of creative visualisation - and that means imagining what it will look like on the table and on the plate: what looks right, what grows together goes together. This is part of why potlucks offend me aesthetically - too much randomness.

A few days ago, I had friends over to dinner. During the soup course, one of them took out a tiny camera and took flash photographs of a lentil dish that was delicious but not the prettiest stew I've made. She posted it on Facebook and "tagged" me in it (attached my name to it). I untagged myself, and as I did so, I had to pause and give Zuma a lot of credit. One can't control everything… but one can still try.