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March 29, 2010

Open Discussion: Photography, video, blogging as documentation... what's okay, when, and why?

Yesterday, Grant Achatz tweeted about something he posted in the forum on Alinea-Mosaic:

Picture 1

I clicked on his link, and read what he wrote on the Alinea-Mosaic forum, which is re-posted below (the link to his post and ensuing comments is here):

Documenting ...well me. When photo and videography becomes a bit much.

I appreciate that people are so into food, and excited about eating at Alinea, to the point where it drives them to record it. Obviously these “foodies” are a large segment of our cliental, and the very people that help propel the awareness of food and dining. I certainly admit that the popularity of web based reviews and information has helped Alinea achieve a certain level of popularity, and ultimately some level of success has to be attributed to this. In fact, since the beginning we have embraced the web, often contributing to food blogs with things like the egullet project before the restaurant was even open. With the proliferation of food blogs and the almost competitive nature of the posters to delve further into detail with their reporting, coupled with the ease of capturing images and video with our phones, we have seen a very high rise in photo and videography in the restaurant.

Documenting the food is one thing. I understand taking a photo in the kitchen with the chef after the meal to frame and hang in your office, perhaps of a particular course that you want to remember because it was so amazing, so you can remember the presentation, or even the manipulation of an ingredient in way you have never seen before. Taking it to the next level many people take pictures of every course and some even take photos of the wines as well. I don’t necessarily mind this, but I wonder why people so passionate about food would sacrifice the integrity of the courses, instead prioritizing the documentation. Courses get cold, or melt while the images are taken, and in extreme cases the intended effect of the dish is completely lost. A month ago a front of the house team member served the Hot Potato –Cold Potato to a blogger that was taking photos with a camera resting on a tripod. The server did their normal spiel, telling the guest the dish was intended to be consumed right away so the sensation of temperature contrast could be experienced. Instead they took a few minutes to move the course around on the table to find the right light, snapped several images, and then undoubtedly enjoyed….Warm Potato –Warm Potato. Not to mention the time that is added to the experience. Three extra minutes to take a photo is not much, but if you are eating 30 courses, you just added an hour and a half to your dinner.

And what about the people in the restaurant that are there to –- eat? Or enjoy an evening out with a significant other, or even having a business dinner? Often we have guest request to move tables in the restaurant because they feel the sound of the shutter, the light produced by the auto focus assist, or the person’s actions are ruining their own experience.

But recently the trend has been to video myself or the front of the house team. This is where I feel the documentation crosses the line. Now that I spend a good amount of time in the dining room with the table-plating concept we are doing guests will often stick the camera in my face as I walk up to the table. I never say no to guests when they ask to take a photo with me, but I always suggest we do it in the kitchen after their meal is finished. This is happening with the servers as well. Voice recorders are being held in front of them while they describe a course or a wine, or video is shot. It is uncomfortable… and frankly rude to do so without asking. This activity seems strange to me, I can’t imagine how celebrities feel. No wonder they punch the paparazzi out when they get the chance.

I re-Tweeted Grant's link (adding "it's about time someone said something") and have been getting some interesting replies via both Twitter and email in which most everyone agrees with what Grant's saying in his post.  A few people disagreed, and one person actually said they thought his post was rude and that because dinner at Alinea is expensive, you should be able to do whatever you want.  Which..... sigh.....  I mean COME ON.  A person can't honestly believe that, can they?  Wow.

Maybe it's just that I'm a wannabe Luddite, but I can't bring myself to take pictures at Alinea, Per Se, The French Laundry... heck, most every restaurant I've ever been to.  I sneak the occasional iPhone photo if I wanna remember how something was plated, or if I want to make my Twitter followers drool along with me over something particularly delicious that's sitting in front of me.  But the thought of bringing a camera into a restaurant -- let alone a tripod or a videocamera (the Share Our Strength videos at Bibiana and Central were my only exception; and, I asked for permission ahead of time, and then also checked with the people dining around us) -- just seems so weird to me.  I mean, if Grant were plating something on the table in front of me, you can be damn skippy I wouldn't want even a tiny Flip video camera between us.  Video can't capture how a chef breathes as he works, how his whole body moves, what his hands look like when he holds a spoon versus an offset spatula, how the staff is attuned to a table's needs, what the food smells like as it's being placed on the table.  These are things that can only augment a diner's experience, if only he or she would allow them to be felt instead of putting up that electronic wall and separating him/herself from what's really going on.

Which led me to thinking about how it feels like the way we document our lives has totally changed, and maybe not for the better.  I'm not sure.  Stay with me here...

Like Grant wrote above, it does seem like more people are photographing their food, taking notes to post to Yelp (which is a whole separate matter, that hackjob of a site), and not paying very much attention to a) the pleasure of eating; and b) the pleasure of the company of their dining companion(s).

I'm not perfect.  Like I said, every now and then I've snapped an iPhone photo of the plate in front of me. There have been a handful of times where I've texted a friend about my meal while at the table enjoying said meal.  But on the whole, my phone stays in my bag while I'm enjoying what I eat (and the company of whomever is eating with me).

So now after reading Grant's post, I'm curious: do you take photos at dinner (whether at home, or out)?  Is it okay to bring a tripod to a restaurant or take multiple photos from multiple angles, possibly disrupting the staff or others' dining experiences, not to mention your own?  Is it okay to videotape your meal, doing running commentary or interviewing others at the table while they're eating?  Is it okay to do any or all of this stuff, which likely results in not getting the full experience of what it's like to eat at a place like Alinea (or any restaurant, for that matter)? Do you feel like you deserve to be able to do it?  Do you think it's rude?  Do you care if people do this?  Does it make you crazy?  Tell me.

This topic of documentation struck a nerve with me because I started thinking about it in the context of food and restaurants, but Grant's post also had me thinking about blogging in general, and wondering how many bloggers -- not just food bloggers, mind you -- think about their life as content.  In some ways, maybe, that's good.  Maybe to be a better writer or even a better human being, some people need to feel the pressure of having something to publish -- whether it's photos, words, video, etc. -- to be able to push themselves to do interesting things.  But then in the same breath I have to wonder if people who blog (or anyone, I guess, really) are really missing out on life -- or, at least, those great unexpected, mind-blowing moments in life -- because they're too busy photographing all the things they see/eat/do/buy/cook, scribbling notes about all the funny things their toddler says, or shoving a videocamera in front of someone's face to try and capture something likely uncapturable?

Then, that led me to ask myself: Have we lost the wonder of having personal experiences?  Does everything anything have to be shared?  And, if experiences are to be shared, how do we decide what they are, and then, how do we share them?  Have we lost the joy in simple, person-to-person storytelling?  Do we need 500 photos in our digital cameras or on our Facebook pages of a night out with the girls, or the dinner we ate in New York, a family vacation, or our kid's soccer game?  Is it not enough anymore to just have really wonderful personal experiences?  Does living a good life now have to be measured in the number of "likes" on Facebook, the amount of email or number of comments on a blog post, the size of your Flickr portfolio?

Do we do it to be in competition with one another -- I ate here and you didn't; my kid did this and yours didn't; I bought this cute red sweater and you didn't; I traveled here and you didn't ?  Is it about self-esteem?  Do people blog because it allows them to put a certain "face" on a life that in real life, they maybe aren't really happy with?  If you blog, tell me why.  If you once did but don't anymore, tell me that, too.  If you take a lot of photos, tell me why.  Do you still hand-write the day's account in a personal journal?  If you document certain things in life, but not others, tell me why... and tell me how.  Tell me what gets shared, and what doesn't.  I would love to know what's going on inside that lovely brain of yours.  I'm completely curious about what you document, and what you just experience.

I'm not a technology hater.  I think you guys know that.  I love that I can stay in touch with my faraway cousins via Facebook.  I like that my mom can see something on my Twitter feed and ask me about it the next time we talk.  I love love love that my nephew and I can make fart noises and sing the ABCs to each other over Skype.  I love that old college friends and former work colleagues find me blogging here when they Google my name.

But as documenting parts of our lives in certain ways can be a tool to help keep people together, has it also contributed to taking us or keeping us further away from ourselves?  And, with particular regard to what Grant wrote about, by documenting the things we do in the ways we do, what are we missing out on?  If these frequent-food-photogs take pictures or video in the way he's describing, do they even taste what they eat?  Can they appreciate how many hours/days went into one bite?  Are they honestly getting their money's worth?  Are they cheating all five of their senses out of one of life's truly pleasurable experiences for the sole purpose of maybe, possibly having someone say, "Hey, that's a neat picture"??  Does someone else's "hey, that's a neat picture" matter more to us than whether or not we loved something ourselves?

If anything, for me Grant's post was a gentle reminder and reaffirmation that I don't want to be the kind of person who sacrifices being present in everyday experiences AND special occasions for the sake of/at the risk of being a distracted or distracting documentarian.

What say you?

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Restaurant reviews are a pretty minor part of my site. I took pictures at one restaurant. And then stopped. I'm not that guy.

Now, for restaurants that I think are truly fantastic, I'll write a review the night after eating there, and write anything I remember. I'll e-mail the maitre d', and ask for wine lists, and specials. But I don't take photos. And I don't take notes. But my blog is a hobby. I don't begrudge other people who want to take photos while their dinner gets cold. I also don't let food in my own home get cold. I take photos for home cooking really, really fast. I either get the shot, or I don't. But dinner isn't slow, and the real experience of eating isn't messed up.

Ultimately, food is a taste experience. Photos and words don't cut it. And the day my blogging damages my ability to serve or eat delicious food, is the day I stop blogging.

Great post. Personally I am of the mind to not take pictures of my food at restaurants. I have done it at smaller places but not at fancier restaurants. I want to enjoy my meal and not have to worry about getting the perfect shot. And I do get annoyed when my dinner guests have to stop to take pictures. And since most of the pictures people take just don't do the food justice, I don't really want to see it! As far as other life experiences go, there are lots of things I do want to keep private. Some things are just too beautiful to capture in a photo and should just be remembered. I love to enjoy life in the real world more than I do my "virtual" life.

a lot of very interesting questions. a few thoughts in response.

taking photos of food, as long as it's not over the top, is neither rude (to me) nor does it get in the way of "real" enjoyment. i watch my husband take such joy in the act of photographing -- the water in the Bay, the flowers in new bloom, the bottle of wine we enjoyed. i see such happiness in his face while he "separates" himself from the experience that i cannot condemn it.

as for technology replacing real experiences...i remember my best friend once telling me she thought email was ruining everything and pushing people farther apart, and she would (thankyouverymuch) keep writing letters by hand.

now she adores her iPhone, not the least because it brings the two of us ever so much closer than we ever could have been before technology. she has two kids, i work crazy hours, and we're 3 hours apart in time zones. without technology, frankly, we would have next to no relationship.

yes, there's a point where technology is too much -- videotaping has always (to me) seemed too distant -- but overall i think it's ok.

Carol, I just have to say WORD. I love taking pictures of food, but at home, and only when it doesn't disrupt the timing or temperature of what I'm making. The idea of doing this at a fine dining restaurant is crazy. If you want to show someone pictures of food at Alinea, buy the Alinea cookbook or visit the Alinea website. How could yours possibly be better?

I also love how the URL reveals the original title of this post, and I think you should have kept that one.

I know some people who probably wouldn't recognize their own children if they weren't seeing them through a viewfinder. Pretty sad.

The only time we have taken pictures of meals was on a cruise ship last fall. My husband took one very discreet, non-flash photo of each dish at dinner. I think no one other than our dining companions even noticed.

While the convenience of digital photos has appeal, I personally would rather assemble a HARD scrapbook - not an online version - so people can leaf through at their own speed, ask questions if they choose and don't need a computer on their lap or move to a desk to do it. My husband has fantastic cameras and is really into photography but I have seen NONE of the pictures of our past several trips because they are all on his computer, unlabeled. I periodically ask him to print some out so I can do a scrapbook, but so far, no success.

I keep a handwritten journal when we travel - just a page or two a day of the highlights.

I think Grant Achatz has every right to place limits on what can be done in his restaurant - no cell phones, no flash photos, no guns (joke), no videos, etc.. If I were paying that kind of money for a meal, I wouldn't want the disruption of any of those activities to interfere with my meal.

There's something to be said for just experiencing something and then reflecting on it.

I think a lot of blogging has become tautological - the extreme end of Aunt Patty & Aunt Selma's vacation slides.

When I eat an amazing meal, I savor it, I give myself over to the sensations, the sense memories, the movement from being hungry to satisfied. I get food drunk. It's what I imagine taking ecstasy is like.

I would never give that up for a picture of my plate or a recording of my server describing the dish.

i do it a lot, but not every time. i try to gauge the situation. if we are in a corner of the room, and i don't think it will bother anyone at another table, and i clear it with whomever i am with, i do it. if not, i don't. i would never do anything to interrupt the pace of the service. and never a flash. i took photos of everything at alinea, and until the flash accidentally went off near the end of the night, i would hope/suspect no one that wasn't watching me do it would have ever known. and when the flash went off, i wanted to die, and that was the last photo i took that night.

but i get it. if we are in close quarters and i fear it would bother someone not in my party, would never take it out.

at french laundry, we were sitting across from a table of four. all four had cameras, and one also had a video camera.

The chef is fully spot-on in his view and I appreciated your further thoughts, Carol. This is a phenomenon that goes well beyond foodies and bloggers. Visit any major museum in the world these days and you may have a hard time seeing the art and artifacts because at least half of the visitors will be more interested in digitally recording their visit than enjoying it and having an immediate experience of the art. Inevitably, the souvenir hunters will step between you and what you're viewing.

The problem is definitely one of basic manners and consideration for others. Common courtesy should mitigate our enthusiasm for the portability of tech that can record every little thing. Just as importantly, having an authentic experience in the here and now is itself an art. People forget that part of fine dining is what the diner brings to table, not just what the house provides. Thanks for getting this discussion going, Carol and Chef Achatz.

A couple of comments - please excuse the scattered thoughts. I blog and I'm the first to say it is a bit self-indulgent. My blog is about writing and being a writer which means that I write about my own life but try to keep it reflective rather than intensely personal. But I am always stopping to consider what I will and won't say. I only write generally about my family and work and try to avoid specifics. It's hard sometimes and I have stopped writing occasionally because I feel I have totally crossed the line into self-indulgence.

As for photos and filming -- I hate, hate, hate being in a restaurant when this is happening. It totally ruins the ambience for everyone. And how can you enjoy the food when you are busy considering what to say and how to film it? But then, I don't care if you ruin your own meal. I do care if you ruin mine. Write notes but don't do anything that intrudes on other people's experience (and this extends to loud conversation, drunken giggling etc.)

My mother always defined manners as acting in a way that makes people feel happy and comfortable around you. I think filming and setting up photos is poor manners, both to other guests and to restaurant staff.

And a final thought -- when my oldest child was a baby -- only a few weeks old, a friend brought her mother to visit us and her mother walked in with a video camera and proceeded to walk around the room with it. She couldn't understand why I asked her to stop. I hadn't met her before, she hadn't asked and it was my home. And I asked her politely. I'm still astonished by it.

I'm with you - and Chef Achatz. I love taking photos of food, but in general now I confine this to at home (and only when my partner and I don't have company), else it's disruptive! And if I really must, I try to take one quick shot and then it's on with dinner - I don't want to eat cold food, and I definitely don't want my guests/company to sit around letting their food get cold, waiting for me to be ready to start eating either out of politeness.

I think, if you're at a special occasion sort of celebration dinner (or you've flown across the Atlantic to try this restaurant) and you want to take a couple of photos of some pretty incredible courses you're about to try, then sure - do it quickly (i.e. one shot, within 5 seconds please) and do it discretely. No tripods, no flashes, no red-laser-beam for the AF assist light. As someone dining out in a restaurant, it doesn't bother me if someone at a nearby table takes a photo so quickly that I barely register the presence of the camera, so that's the benchmark I hold myself to.

Then again, when I'm eating in some fancy restaurant during a special occasion, chances are I want to enjoy the company of who I'm with and.. you know.. celebrate the special occasion during the meal. Video, voice recorders, tripods.. By the time I review those pictures, the meal will be over and my chance to appreciate each mouthful as the chef intended it to be enjoyed would be over.

I have taken photos of food in restaurants-- everything from hamburgers and dim sum to oysters, caviar, prime rib and crème brûlée at fine dining restaurants. I don't use flash, just ambient light, and I don't make a big deal about it. I have, on occasion, used a small Gorilla tripod. It was not obtrusive and sat on the table for less than a minute while I got the shot and then went right back into the camera bag. I do not feel that it distances me, disconnects me or takes anything away from my enjoyment of my meal, nor anything from my companions. Of course, I'm not carrying a giant, digital or otherwise SLR. Just a little point and shoot. The sounds it makes are barely audible when it is against my face and nobody at nearby tables has as much as looked my way so I'm certain it doesn't bother them, either. I have never taken a photo of a server, but I have taken a few photos of particularly beautiful restaurant dining rooms. Do I ask permission of the diners or staff to do so? Hell no. It's a public place. Most public places have surveillance cameras now, so one must assume one will be photographed if one leaves home.

There is a difference between a quick snapshot and the kind of photo shoot Chef Achatz has described. I'm sorry it bothers him so much but I'm glad he also sees how people blogging about his restaurant brings in diners.

I don't have a single photo from one of my most memorable dining experiences: sitting in the middle of a soul food barbecue joint watching a documentary about the KKK on their TV. It was positively surreal!

While you are right about me not being able to capture the entire experience I really enjoy the photos, and the memories prompted by the photos, long after the dinner is over.

as a parent I have often observed others attending our childrens' activities through the tiny screen of their camera. It makes me sad. I don't think of the person photographing or videoing their meal or the chef, etc., any differently. To me, these people are giving up what is most precious and important about life: living in the moment. Yes I blog - mostly about food - but I do it from memory. I am only able to do this because I WAS there in the moment and it is the moments that I want to share. I do take photos at home but if the photos can't be taken with a minimum of interruption to my "being there" then forget it! The words will just have to do! I get the person who says their spouse is never happier than when they are taking pictures but,to me, there is
still sadness in the fact that part of the experience is forever lost behind the viewfinder and it is time that, ultimately we regret not having enough of!

My entire website is built off of dining reviews. Though I like to include pictures when possible, I have said (particularly when I upgraded cameras) that, to me, the food is the priority. If I feel uncomfortable taking photos, or if it's a very quiet or dark restaurant, or if I have to do anything wacky to get photos (and that definitely includes a tripod)-- I'm not doing it. Period. There are other folks I've seen that have gorgeous photos-- but you can tell that the focus of the meal was the photos and not the food, and that's not my deal. And SO many folks who use flash-- really? Not only does it make your food look terrible, but it really distracts from the experience for other diners, who are paying just as much as the photographer for their experience. I can't imagine shoving a mic or a Flip cam in anyone's face, either. That just seems rude.

I'll be in Chicago in a few weeks, and may hit up Alinea. I might take notes on what I am eating, or maybe take a few shots of the outside of the restaurant, or possibly an iPhone snap, but there's no way I'd sacrifice presentation or experience for a photo.

I took my camera to Woodfire Grill this weekend, promising myself I wouldn't be that person who took pictures of the food -- because while I'll take pictures of my own food, or fast food that I'm eating for shits and giggles, I do think it is completely gauche to interupt a restaurant experience other people are paying somewhat serious bucks for.

And then, without warning, my salad came out and I turned into that person who took pictures of the food.

But I did it as unobtrusively as possible, without any sort of fancy set-up or persnickitiness about how they turned out. And I felt deeply creeped out by myself the whole time.

This is particularly timely to me both because of that, and because at the wedding I went to on the same trip, I nearly popped a vein at the number of guests who were taking pictures during the ceremony, not just because they were disturbing MY experience, but because they were so busy snapping pictures that I felt like they weren't really AT the wedding. You're an invited guest, not the photographer. Your job is to be present at the wedding and supportive of the marriage, not to create proof of your attendance.

So. . .I don't know. I'm torn, and I'm a hypocrite, and I'm grossed out by myself. And at the same time, I have a picture of a foie dish that I might actually frame and hang in my kitchen.

But taking pictures of /videotaping the staff without their permission is completely intrusive, and shouldn't be countenanced. Ever.

I had dinner at Alinea on Saturday night, and came home to find that tweet waiting for me on my phone which I didn't bring to dinner, I didn't want any interruptions.

We were not taking pictures of our food, but we did take about six pictures of each other, a few out front before dinner and a few inside before our food was served, no flash of course. It was my thirtieth birthday, and my mother was in town visiting from Denver.

Not a run-of-the mill Saturday night.

I had a lovely dinner, the wine was fantastic, the service fine. The people snapping pictures at the table next to me? Didn't bother me one bit. They were having a big night out too, and they wanted to remember it differently than I did.

That tweet though, really bothered me. in fact, it kept me up most of the night. I felt really taken for granted. I'd just dropped fifteen hundred dollars on dinner, to come home to find a message from the chef complaining about his guests.

Even if I wasn't the offender he was talking about, even if I would never, ever dream about behaving that way in a restaurant, it ruined a part of that special night I'd been looking forward to for so long.

Maybe another night that tweet wouldn't have bothered me, but it sure did on Saturday night.

I hate picture taking at restaurants. HATE. It really ticks me off. And I think it's rude. First of all the flash bothers other people. And it just seems like such an antithesis to enjoying food. Eating is a sensory, lovely thing and spending half the time photographing the experience somehow cheapens and takes away from the sensory. What is the point of documenting everything you eat? And would people do this in someone's house at dinner if they were invited over? I agree that if something was plated in a cool way, you can sneak a pic from your phone (most of us now have phones with cameras) and it's more for the concept rather than artistry of the photo. Also, to the person who said that paying a lot of $ for a meal allows him/her to do anything he/she wants - grow up. Paying a lot of money for a meal, only gives you the right to expect amazing food that meets the financial expense; the ambiance and the service. It does NOT allow you to behave yourself in a place as if you own it, much less rudely. Also, please think of other diners. Perhaps THEY paid a lot of money to come and sit in a place where people aren't snapping pictures every 2 seconds. :)

I take pictures at restaurants! Ummm .... pics of my kids or of my family! I've never ever taken pictures of the food ... I'd rather enjoy the food and company. And I think snapping a few pics of my companions (when no one is around and it isn't in the way of anything) is perfectly acceptable. Like ONE OR TWO PICTURES. Obviously it's gone too far (a tripod? In a restaurant?? Nuts!).

What is wrong with people? I can't imagine walking into a really nice restaurant and snapping away at everything. Very rude. Good for Grant for standing up and saying something about it! How ridiculous that he has to!

Although I agree with all of this for the most part, there is one thing I wanted to add.

I just wanted to point out that there are some chefs who actually LIKE that people come in and take pictures of their food. It can be a great source of free advertising for their restaurant. Pictures of what the tasting menu, for example, consists of are a great way to lure in new customers.

That being said, I do blog, but we rarely do restaurant reviews or take pictures in restaurants. I think videotaping and voice-recording is taking it too far, but I really don't mind other people taking quick pictures, as long as it's not distracting. It is helpful in some situations to be able to look up local blogs about a new restaurant.

I think you are making some great points here. I've often thought this about the mommy blogging phenomenon. Are folks missing out on great experiences with their kids in their quest to blog everything? As I've started thinking about this more, I've noticed that I've backed off on photographing or doing things just for my blogs. I use my blogs as a journal and a way to share what I'm doing, but I don't do anything solely to get it on my blog anymore. If my husband happens to take a photo of a great dish or something I cooked, I'll post it; ditto if we get a cute pic of something we've done together. But otherwise, I try to let the experience come first and the blog post, if there is one, come second.

On the other hand, I've found blogging to be very valuable for disciplining myself to write everyday, for connecting with others who have similar interests and for self-expression. (I'm no good at the handwritten journal.) So there are good things to blogging too. But I do think you have to stay on guard to keep it (or any other social networking tool) from becoming your life.

Really good post - very thought provoking. My thoughts on the matter are:

1. I don't take photos of food at restaurants. I think it's rude to those dining with you and to the staff at the restaurant, and ever so slightly like taking photos of artwork at galleries.

2. I do take photos of food I've made (especially baked goods) but only if it doesn't interfere with my family time. Food is a big part of my family coming together and talking, sharing and being a family. I don't want food photography to get in the way of that.

3. I love food photography and pictures of food, but know (as a photographer and a foodie) that things aren't always what they seem. There is a fair amount of manipulation in food photography (whether that's in materials or in lighting).

4. I love my food too much to miss the experience of it in order to take the extra time to photograph it.

and...

5. Taking photographs of individuals is always a tricky business and where possible permission should be sought. Not everyone likes their photo being taken, not everyone is comfortable with it and not every situation is amenable to the perfect photographic moment for all involved. In Grant's position, I imagine he places his professionalism ahead of his clients' desires to grab their 15 minutes of fame - and I applaud him for that.

That's my 2 cents. Thanks for getting me thinking.

Hear, hear ...

I'd like to add some comments as well.

I fully agree with the post. I find that technology has made our lives so convenient but at the cost of so many "real" things.

For example, when I am with a group of friends, I keep my phone in my pocket. I only use it to a minimum amount when someone calls or gives an urgent message. I dont actively contact other people to talk to them. I want to be with the people i am with and enjoy their company and the moment's experience.

With regards to taking photos, I do it but it is ONLY SECONDARY to the main experience, and that is the food and the company. A few quick shots, and thats it. The momentary and personal experience is what is most important.

I hate it when you are with someone and they constantly have their phone in their hands, checking every tweet, every email. Or taking dozens of photos every turn you make, every door you enter that has a sign. It really does ruin the enjoyment of being with that person if all theyre doing is something and everything else but enjoying your company.

In a nut shell, technology has made it very easy to keep in touch, but very difficult to be personal.

I always feel really, really weird about taking photos of food in restaurants - so I never do it. I've often wanted to document food I was eating, mostly because IT'S SO VERY COOL and I want to remember it. I just try to (mentally) note as many details as possible.

I can absolutely see why Chef Achatz would be put off by people interviewing him and his staff on camera during service.

I take photos of my food at home when I'm working on a new recipe, or when something just turns out well enough to worth mentioning on the blog. And I take photos in restaurants only if I know I won't be annoying other diners (we tend to eat early, when restaurants aren't crowded, so that's usually not a problem). If my husband and I are going out for a special occasion, I leave the camera at home so we can concentrate on the meal and on each other.

I'm not sure I could resist snapping a few shots at Alinea, however, just because of the whimsical plating of some courses. But if enjoyment of a course had a time factor, well then, photography would not be at all important.

Wonderful post. After our twitter exchange about this last night, I was considering putting a few thoughts down on "paper" myself, but you've really done the job. At its essence, eating out in restaurants should be about undergoing a memorable experience. It's not only about the food: it's about the company with whom you eat (perhaps that company is yourself and the NYT, and that's fine); the way the food is cooked, served, introduced, and eaten; and the tastes that linger on your tongue long after the plate has been taken away. These are things we can, and should, recount to our friends, both in person and online. But snapping pictures of or tweeting about your meal as you eat it is like tweeting about how beautiful your bride looks as you walk down the aisle. Live now; tell about it later.

I've been feeling exactly the same way since camcorders first became popular! I never understood why someone would want to go through an event (or their entire vacation) from behind the lens of a camera, all stressed out about filming it properly, instead of experiencing and enjoying the moment.

I think photographs are supposed to trigger memories ... not provide complete documentation of your entire life. You only need a few vacation snaps to remember a great vacation. You only need a photo taken outside the restaurant and a few scribbled notes about the menu to remember an amazing meal. Who actually watches those hours and days and months of video later, anyway? I think they're just hoarded, not enjoyed.

I will leave the discussion of dinner table manners for another day! Suffice it to say that I am surprised photography is allowed at all in fine restaurants.

I read a lot of books on serial killers.

People who take pics to re-live their experiences are no different than serial killers who re-live their "kills" when they take pics or souvenirs from their victims.

Just sayin'.

Also, I came by to point out Carol's hubby posing with the poseurs from Jersey Shore:

http://dlisted.com/node/36650

i am surprised by the number of people who are upset about other people taking photos. it would never occur to me to even notice something like that happening at someone else's table, unless there was a flash, which i think everyone agrees is not acceptable.

the audio and video, tho, i totally agree are obtrusive by their very nature.

I have to say that all of these people posting "Sure, I take pictures in restaurants, often with a gigantic DSLR and tripod... but I'm not *bothering* anyone" are a bit self-deluded (or just plain lying). You are aware that your friends and family will try to be nice and will say "oh, no, that's fine" even if they're annoyed by your obsessive picture-taking? They are most likely rolling their eyes behind your back and snickering about you when you are in the bathroom.

It's like how every smoker on the internet will tell you that they won't smoke "unless I'm sure it's not bothering the people around me" and they never throw their butts on the ground because they don't like to litter. And yet, in real life, 99.9% of smokers toss the butt right on the ground.

I'd be curious to know how many of these people are honestly in denial about their behavior and how many fully understand and just don't give a crap about annoying the rest of us.

i really enjoyed reading this post. having gone to alinea just a few weeks ago (and having taken a few clandestine pics on my iphone), i was very interested to hear mr. achatz's take on the matter. i couldn't agree with him more. perhaps that's why abt 6 courses passed before it even occurred to me to pull my phone out of my purse. the first "where's the camera?" moment came when they switched from simple food-complementing white plates to a more victorian look w/ etched wine glasses from early 1900s ohio (in preparation for alinea's take on traditional french). i loved this attention to detail, fell in love w/ the glasses and wanted to remember that touch.

later i also sneaked a picture of my boyfriend when his head was practically resting in the duck course (b/c he couldn't get too close). and lastly... i snapped a picture of one of the dessert courses painted and sculpted directly on our table by mr. achatz himself. but NOT until he had finished and left our table for his return to the kitchen.

and...ok... i also sneaked a 10 second video of my boyfriend finishing off the dessert...with his fingers. by that point i was too high off the entire experience to control myself.

i did all of these very discreetly, i'd like to think, but still felt a bit funny about it. so funny that i can't imagine pulling out a large camera, creating a flash, or putting anything on the table at all, like a tripod. i suppose it's to each his own, but anything that would interfere w/ another's experience i have to frown upon. if it has the potential of taking away from another's mind blowing experience, it just shouldn't be done.

I've been thinking about a lot of the things you discuss in this post, not just related to food and restaurant reviews, but online and social media in general. These questions resonate with me especially:

"Have we lost the wonder of having personal experiences? Does everything anything have to be shared?"

Food for thought (bad pun, I know). Thanks for the post.

Well, I admit, I did take pictures of each course during our dinner at TFL. The liklihood of ever returning there is slim to none for us and I wanted those pictures not only for the blog, but also for me. I used a point and shoot and it was a quick two snaps and done, no flash. My husband and I had a great time going back through them later that week and reliving the meal. For that, I'm so glad I have them.

I have one particular foodie friend that is heavy into food blogging and taking pictures of every course. She moves quick and always asks us before she starts shooting. It's never interrupted the meal so it's never bothered me. This is the same friend that photographed the meal I made for a small group from the Ad Hoc cookbook per my request and I'm so grateful to her for those images.

I will say, though, there are plenty of times when I will purposely leave the camera at home so I can just sit back and enjoy the meal for what it is.

However, I think the tripod and video is where I would have to draw the line. It just seems much more invasive than a camera. And I can totally understand where Achatz is frustrated by it.

I blog. My blog is based on my photos and my travels. I try to inject personal experiences, but not personal information into my blog. I try to provide information and tips for travel that is at my own expense and not subsidized my companies with a vested interest in how I portray them.

I love taking pictures and have taken photos of food before as sometime I post about dining experiences on my travels; however, I don't always take pictures of my meals and if I felt uncomfortable about taking a pic, I wouldn't. I would certainly never use a tripod in a restaurant (or a lot of places) and I generally don't take pictures of people. Sometimes, I will get people in photos in the background, but never as the subject, unless I know them or have asked their permission.

I wouldn't be disturbed by people taking pics or video with a handheld in a restaurant as long as they weren't making a big deal of it or taking my pic. However, once you get into setting up a tripod or a big video camera, then it is disruptive. A lot of people take pics to record special events or celebrations, so I wouldn't really think anything about it unless it got too extreme. I certainly try to be as unobtrusive as possible when taking my pictures.

I do think that one can get carried away with taking pictures and not living the actual experience. So, it is important to find a balance between documenting an experience and actually having an experience. The experience itself, as well as the memories will be quite different.

I think getting invasive with the photography is quite rude, but there's no harm in snapping a small iphone shot of a dish you'd like to remember. My memory can be pretty bad and if I want to augment that during a meal (and fancy meals are the pinnacle of all experiences in my book) I don't see an issue. But it's a balance, like anything.

On the "life as content" topic, it's one that I think about a lot. I am kind of a former blogger. I still maintain a podcast and an active twitter account, but after almost 8 years of being a games journalist and blogger I am quite burned out. I did spend a lot of time treating my life as "content", and the pressure of putting something out there into the ether, anything, really distracted me from being able to actually enjoy life. I could no longer play video games just to play them, I had to rip through them so i could play the next game. And then the next one. And then the next one. I started to feel obligated to the people who read my site, and then it started to feel like work.

Now I've scaled back the amount of actual content I publish, and have just naturally worked stuff like twitter/facebook status updates into my life. I find it's a lot better publishing "content" to family/friends than random strangers. Less pressure, better quality interaction. That's what it's all about, really. Being connected and feeling connectedness with others.

Personally I'm on the fence on photos in restaurants. I don't get it, but I understand that others enjoy it. As long as it doesn't disturb my dining experience... go for it.

But I do always enjoy getting insights from your commenters. Two attitudes/views I'll take away from these comments:

Loved - "My mother always defined manners as acting in a way that makes people feel happy and comfortable around you." - What an amazingly succinct way to describe manners. I need to figure out how to incorporate this into how I view the world. Note that it does /not/ say "cater to every whiner or self-indulgent brat".

Disliked - "Do I ask permission of the diners or staff to do so? Hell no. It's a public place." - You may be in public, but it's a private business. You pay to dine, not produce a documentary of your visit there. Others are there (and paying) to dine. The staff's job is to see that they have a positive /dining/ experience. They do have a right to control what you may and may not do. It seems like a bit of an entitlement attitude to feel you can do what you please simply because you're in a "public place". Shouldn't it be the other way around?

I used to take a lot of pictures of food in restaurants and blog about them. Now, I would never have spent the 3 or 4 minutes Chef Achatz described setting things up - I snapped one or two very quick pictures and hoped for the best, then moved on to eating.

Eventually I just stopped doing it, realizing that I would rather be living the experience than documenting it. Besides the pictures, I also stopped constructing blog posts in my head as I was eating too, so the side effect is that my restaurant related blog posts have basically disappeared.

Unfortunately, obsessive food photography/video/etc. seems to go hand in hand with the whole blogging thing. I have never taken a picture of my dinner, however grand, and I have never even thought to do so. But I don't have a blog, am not looking to share with the world my experiences and therefore am able to keep them uniquely my own.

On the other hand, I am a blogoholic and read my favorite blogs everday! I am an enabler!! YIKES

Please, as in any social situation, discretion is welcome, as are manners. Being disruptive to those around you belongs in a frat house, not in a fine (or otherwise) dining establishment.

I've wondered how the great chefs feel about all of the photography, tweeting, etc. that goes on in their restaurants. I'm glad that Grant did this and don't blame him a bit. I think talking on the phone, texting, taking photos during meals is incredibly rude. People generally go to restaurants to relax, enjoy the company and eat good food - or incredible food. Can't we set aside the constant technological intrusions just for a couple of hours and enjoy what we went for?

Other than directly intruding on adjoining tables such as with using a flash, I don't understand the issues people have with other people taking photos of their food. I am seeing a further manifestation of a disease common in our society right now - a need to overlay one's own prejudices on the behavior of others. Just because one can't imagine how taking photos of a meal or recording one's impressions or a server's description of a course and subsequently writing about it on a blog can enhance someone else's dining experience doesn't mean that it doesn't. To each one's own. It is no different than any other behavior in a restaurant or elsewhere. Should people stop talking or laughing? I have certainly been distracted at a meal from just those things at a neighboring table. There are ways of being unobtrusive or at least reasonably unobtrusive.

Yes, I take photos with an SLR and a table top tripod and use a voice recorder. I wish that I had a photographic memory. Unfortunately I don't. Rest assured, though, neither my meal nor my dining partners meals are negatively affected. I also take great care to try to minimize the impact of what I'm doing on those at my table or around me. By virtue of the fact that my friends continue to dine out with me, they don't seem to mind too much. I've never received a complaint either, though I have occasionally had friendly conversations struck up by interested people.

If someone is truly being rude and in the face of other tables, that is a problem and not to be countenanced. If not, people should just focus on enjoying their own meals and not worry so much about whether the photographer or blogger is enjoying or fully experiencing his or hers. Different strokes for different folks.

Personally, I don't mind people taking photos of their food when eating out, or texting. I think the chef should be flattered that anyone would consider it worth their time.

I'm also not offended when people have conversations on their cell phones in public. I'd much rather listen to one side of it than have to listen to TWO people talking together - anywhere - in public. Why is twice the noise more acceptable than half?

I *am* offended at the notion that those who want to write and share about their experiences online are somehow questionable, as if they can't *truly* enjoy an experience unless they put down the iPhone or the notepad or whatever other means of documentation they are using. Some people *are* capable of walking and chewing bubblegum at the same time, while others are not. For their own safety, it is perhaps best they don't try to exceed their limits, but it isn't up to them to approve when others are fully capable of having a good time and recording it.

As with all things public, it is always best to try to ensure one's own behavior doesn't impede on the enjoyment of others. Shoving a camera in front of a busy chef certainly is impeding on his time. However, this particular chef has courted such availability by holding forth on a blog and in Twitter and by making public appearances on television and at cooking events. He commands top dollar for this "celebrity". There are more graceful ways to thank the public for their indulgence than comparing them to people you would like to punch.

I'm a pretty pathetic blogger, because I still can't bring myself to think of my life as content. I do a lot, read a lot, think a lot, eat a lot - but put it on the web? NO! I'm still into privacy.

That said, I've taken a few photos in restaurants in the past, though none ever made it to the web. They were for personal enjoyment and our vacation pics.

I don't even have non-restaurant photos on my piteous little blog because, again, I'm having issues with the privacy side of things.

I maintain a private family blog about our 21-mo-old daughter. All of her aunts, uncles, grandparents, and great grandparents live far away - in her almost-2 years, she has seen them maybe twice. I wanted them to feel like they know her, even a little bit. (We have a nephew - son of my SIL - he is now 5 - I would be lucky to recognize him in a lineup of small blond boys.) I didn't want the family feeling like my daughter was a stranger to them. I consciously try to make an effort to live in the moment but also try to capture and recreate it for the family that can't be here. Fortunately, with toddlers, repetition is the name of the game - I can participate and record the same event multiple times. I also hope that when my daughter is much older (perhaps when she has children of her own? or after I'm killed in a car wreck? morbid, morbid), she will look back at my record of her life and know how much her parents loved her.

Oh my goodness, so many replies!

I definitely think that so often when I'm taking pictures of things I am NOT experiencing the event. I have friends that are photographers that agree. If there is an event they want to enjoy they would rather pay to go, instead of getting paid to take photos, b/c their enjoyment level will be so much more :).

That being said. There is one particular restaurant in town (that closed-sadly) and when I finally got to do their tasting menu I took photos of everything, not a perfect photo, just one to document and remember the millions of courses. But it wasn't for a blog or to share with anyone other than my memory :) ha!

I think a tripod, flash or video/audio recorder is out of line. I know there are those who disagree obviously. But it just seems so unnecessary.

I know that my little photo taking for myself is also unnecessary, but I like to look back and remember what those homemade pork rinds looked like. It may be selfish of me I suppose, but I did ask permission of the chef who was serving our food.

One of the reasons I will give that makes sense for me for taking a quick photo of my food with my phone and posting it to twitter etc. before eating is to convince others that wouldn't try it before to give it a try b/c LOOK how gorgeous it is...right? (longest run on sentence ever). But being a growing city, I try to give publicity as often as possible to small local restaurants that I want to see succeed. And my ways of doing that are word of mouth, facebook and twitter. And I think pictures always help convince people a little more...

It would be interesting to see a summary of people's reactions to this post :)

For the record, I think it's awesome that you don't take photos of these amazing dining experiences...b/c frankly it makes we want to go experience it for myself all the more!

you rock Carol!

I'm not a writer or blogger, but here's my two cents.
This sounds like a similar situation I've seen happen in art galleries. People with camcorders/cameras/cellphones filming all the works an entire room. Moving from one piece to another, then they move on to the next room and continue this practice. They never really look at the work. I can only imagine that they will view the work at some point on a computer or television, but while they are at the gallery they never really look or appreciate the brush stokes, the colour, the composition or the depth of the work. I don't get it...
To record a specific experience you are having can be perfectly acceptable, but I believe it all a matter of balance. To take a quick snapshot of something beautiful is one thing, but the artist (Chef) wanted you to have an emotional connection with that work. Videos or pictures do not do it justice.
I also feel that taking it to the next level of multiple pics or tripods is disruptive to your company and to others around you.

Thank you for bringing this discussion to the fore, Carol.

I think this is an incredible opportunity for restaurants like Alinea, and I deeply wish Mr. Achatz would see it that way.

Imagine if, after eating your meal, you get a little card from the restaurant with a web site address. You go there and it's a Flash application with an interactive guide to every course in your meal. You can roll over an image of a course and see what ingredients went into it.

And it could be social. Your guide to your meal is personalized; you add your comments, then share it with your friends on Facebook. Or you can link to courses you loved and tweet them.

Rather than resisting documentation of meals, Mr. Achatz should think about how to use technology to streamline and make the process more elegant and engaging for people. The above is just a crazy idea I'm throwing out there. But in the age of social applications, Flip camcorders, etc., there's a real opportunity for chefs to extend the service they provide beyond the boundaries of their restaurant.

------------------> Yes, but would you pay extra for this service/offering? Do you think people would elect to have this fee added to their bill? Totally curious. [CB]

Just to bash the term "foodie." I don't really like how someone that appreciates food has almost been lumped into an almost derogatory term by pros or chefs. Almost everyone that comes and spends THAT kind of money, and yes I have at Alinea, is going to be a connoisseur of finer food, wine, or experience. If that makes them a "foodie" then so be it. I just don't like the way the term has evolved. Not sure what to say on the concept of documenting your event, yes I find it a little irritating. But up until Chef Achatz had to actually go out to the table to plate the new experience dessert it wasn't a problem. As long as you weren't using flash then so be it. Accept that people LOVE what you do and want to be able to document, if not for others then just their own experience. I dropped a percentage of my yearly earning to come experience your art, I want to remember it. I was polite and waited until our server left the table and didn't use my flash. I LOVED showing my photos to others and explaining what a wonderful time we had.

-----------------> I'm with you on loathing the word "foodie." It makes me twitch. [CB]

It's an interesting issue, for sure. I'm a little torn. On the one hand, I feel like some of the umbrage people take over what's going on at another table is a little silly. If I'm enjoying a wonderful meal in a restaurant, I try to keep my eyes on my own paper. So long as service isn't affected, extraordinary noise emitted, or lights flashed, it probably shouldn't matter to me what anyone else is doing or saying.

On the other hand, I agree with Carol that there's a point here at which it's worth stepping back and asking what we're really doing when we view life through a viewfinder. I am reminded of a similar set of observations I made a few years ago at a friend's wedding. During the procession, the number of people who took pictures (with flashes!) was mind-boggling. More than half the people I could see from my seat watched the wedding party and bride enter through the LCD viewer on the back of their camera. One woman spent the whole ceremony looking through the viewfinder of her camcorder. How sad that so many guests took the invitation to come observe and participate in a couple's special, symbolic marriage ceremony as an opportunity to detach and fall into the myopia of their own documentation efforts.

Writing about our lives can be a powerful tool - one that is certainly not unique to the blogging era. I think, though, the immediacy of blogging can provide too strong an incentive to skip the primacy of the moment's experience in favor of recording it for everyone else to share. It's a destructive impulse, both to the writer and to their audience, because good retrospection requires distance from the original experience. Anais Nin famously described writing as a chance to taste life twice, "in the moment, and in retrospection." If the moment isn't fully realized, the retrospection suffers; our taste of life becomes a low-calorie version that ends up appealing to no one.

Back to restaurants, I admit that deep down, I find the table photos practice to be somewhat distasteful. It feels a bit like reading a book while watching a play - a superfluous activity that detracts from the principal reason for being there in the first place. Sometimes it seems like yet another way for people to demonstrate their innate belief that the world ends at their elbow.

Carol:

Well, I should say I am a tech guy and not a restaurant guy, so my personal (biased) belief is that the service would be pretty cheap to provide and shouldn't be an extra cost to the customer. Already most restaurants have "brochure" type web sites that have menus with some pictures. The suggestion I'm really making is to have that be "social" and personalized. It's an interesting thought to suggest charging for an online "memento," and I could see a high-end place like Alinea doing it because their menu changes frequently and photography/composition could be costly. Like I said, it's a crazy idea I'm throwing out there. :)

There are lots of ways to go with this, too. Lots of folks have iPhones now. Let's say that you check in at the front desk and the host suggests you download the Alinea iPhone app and leave it on during your meal. As your course is being prepared, it buzzes and gives you a screen with lots of background about what's coming up. At the end, a montage like I just described is automatically downloaded to the iPhone and you can share it on Facebook or Twitter.

It sounds crazy, but then again so does giving somebody a pair of earphones to listen to music while they eat (as I believe Heston Blumenthal has done), or wafting smells in from burning leaves (kidding!). :)

My overall point is that dealing with social media is actually part of the cost-of-doing-business these days for practically everybody. Especially restaurants. Yelp is a case in point. There are lots of ways for restaurants to use tech to make the whole experience "richer" and social, and to assist customers who want that.

For me personally -- I don't like the over-the-top picture taking or videos, and would never dream of doing it, but I do secretly want that additional memento. Partially because I often have a terrible memory for what I eat, even if I really enjoy it. :)

I'd love for the restaurant to provide it, and would even consider paying an extra, say, $10 for it. After all a meal at, say, French Laundry easily runs well into the thee (and for some, four!) figures. Paying a little extra to remember it and share what made it so great seems like a no-brainer to me.

Thank you for this. Intrusive photo takers ought to be treated the way restaurants treat drunks; they should be gently shown the door.

Very thought-provoking post, and one that addresses questions that my husband and I considered a lot while working on our first blog. We started blogging for one reason: we were moving to the far northern countryside of Japan, pretty much on the other side of the world from our family and friends. We had no idea what we were in for, but we wanted to share our lives with the people we were leaving.

And document we did: everything from learning to drive on the other side of the road to being fed sliced pickled salmon-face cartilage at our favorite local restaurant to the heartbreak of leaving. Every so often, though, we had to ask ourselves: are we living in the moment? Are we really taking advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? It's for that reason that there are no photos of the most amazing fireworks show we've ever seen, or the last night we spent having dinner and saying goodbye in our little town. It's why the last six months or so of the blog reflect so little -- there was too much experiencing to do to document it all.

I think the defined end of our journey combined with the blog forced us to take that hard look. We knew we would _never_ be doing that again, and while we wanted to share everything, we needed to give ourselves over to the experience while we still had time. I'm not sure we found the right balance between those (competing?) objectives, but I like to think we found one that worked well. Now that we're doing a similar blog from America for our friends in Japan, we've found that the blog _makes_ us take more advantage of living here.

Good for Grant for sticking up for himself. I agree with your "it's about time" comment. There's a time and a place for everything, you know?

I don't actually own a camera. I'm sure I'm in the minority. The reality is if I'm at a function where pictures would be the norm (like a wedding), I'm generally with one (or two or three) other people who are snapping away merrily so I can be assured there will be a bevy of photos to remember the occasion.

I went skydiving for my last birthday and there is no photo documentation. While there might be a tiny bit of sadness at not having at least one photo memory of the event, it's not likely that I'll forget it and I feel the experience was all the better for not having to worry about getting a picture but instead just enjoying myself and flowing through the day.

Just living. Just being out there, doing, and not worrying about stuff.

I'm going to approach this issue from an angle that I have not seen reflected in any of the previous posts. In the course of any given day, my picture and video images are taken of me without my permission with implied consent every single time I enter any type of retail establishment or drive my car down the road. Why should this be a one way bargain? If Grant is unwilling to state at the entrance of Alinea that cameras and video are not permitted inside, then it is game on. Taking photos of your food is no different than taking pictures of friends assembled at a birthday dinner at the restaurant of your choice. Grant has created a restaurant that attracts foodies. And guess what? Foodie's shoot their dishes. Learn to live with the culture of the people that patronize your restaurant, OR state the rules clearly at the door. Ticketmaster has been warning me for years that I am not allowed to bring a camera or video recording device into their events. I am a blogger, and I take pictures of my food when I feel it is appropriate. If I was a restaurant owner instead of a blogger and photography was getting out of hand, I would deal with it like any parent, teacher, or boss and set rules. Despite my tone, I am sympathetic to Grant's situation. He has attracted a crowd of diners and fostered an environment that is becoming problematic with the exponential spread of digital media. Manage it. Don't whine.

You know what else I just remembered along these lines that really bugged me at the time and still bugs me today? The Olympic Opening Ceremony. So freakin' many of the U.S. athletes had a cellphone or videocamera in front of their faces as they processed in. I mean, really? Each team/country had its own video crew assigned to them to get footage. A hundred bajillion media outlets were there capturing everything from every single angle. How many times in your life are you gonna get to walk into the Olympic stadium and feel that rush and hear that roar of the crowd? And yet, how can you honestly feel it if you're figuring out the zoom on your Flip camera or pushing the photo button on your cellphone...? It's almost like we're afraid to feel the good as much as we're afraid to feel bad things in life.....

Oh I so agree. I love documenting my experiences as well, but I love enjoying them more. I went so far as to tell the photographer at our wedding that he could just do everything photojournal-style because if he stopped my wedding for a photo op I would probably have to beat him with his camera. He was fantastic. However at the end of the night when he turned over the end of the reception to his assistant we kindly let him leave early since he had to be tired. (i.e. tired of asking everyone to pose and smile.. .ugh)

So, it's a chef's responsibility to tell you how to behave in his restaurant? Because he doesn't have a posted set of rules, it's "game on"? It's exactly this kind of attitude that leads to the conclusion that Americans are self-absorbed and rude. Mr. Achatz is neither your parent, teacher, or boss and he shouldn't have to monitor your behavior. Based on his blog post, it seems that he and his staff have gone out of their way to accomodate photography, video, note-taking, etc. It's never "game on" anywhere in public, at least not to people with a hint of self-restraint, humility, dignity, and grace.

First off, I'm not a food blogger but I do appreciate food and take photos of food if it's special enough :)

I'd just like to say, it's sort of funny how some people seem to say that people taking pictures/photos are somehow not 'living the experience.' To me, taking a snapshot of an experience just shows how much you're enjoying it and wanting to remember that moment.

On the other hand, I do agree with sentiments that taking out tripods onto the table and flash photography is a bit too obtrusive (as that sort of starts to affect the people around you, rather than just the people at your table). Also, Achatz's comments about being interviewed and/or recorded without being asked is something I can totally understand. I think the main problem is just people simply don't check or ask whether it's OK to start recording a video or take a photo.

If people feel that taking photos in a restaurant or anywhere else get in the way of their experience, they shouldn't do it. Simple. Not everyone feels that way. Different strokes. So long as a photographer, audio recorder or even videographer is being discreet and not directly impinging on others (other than the mere fact that they are doing what they are doing), it really shouldn't matter to anyone else.

To Mike Fincham:
He obviuosly has no problem with people taking pictures of food! He has a problem with people with no common sense.

I will be the first to admit that I love taking pictures of food and to see what others have photographed. However, I always assumed that bloggers or food groupies are using small cameras and no flash. I am sure this is mostly the case. Most bloggers and food lovers are courteous to others and to the establishment they are dining at. I think what we have here is a case of “The Douche Bag who Ruins Casual Friday” syndrome. If you work in an office environment you probably know the DBwRCF Syndrome.

Here’s what happens, you have a company policy or maybe a policy for your team/group/office that says Fridays are casual Fridays. This means you can come in to the office wearing casual clothing. It goes well for a few weeks or maybe months until Mr. DB decides to push the limits of decorum. He comes one week wearing his nice flip-flops. Next week he decides to ear a t-shirt that was probably new when he was in college. Mr. DB, thinking he is a trailblazer starts coming in wearing the flip-flops, the said T-Shirt and some ripped jeans or worse – shorts! Now, the boss has to have a talk with him and Mr. DB complains that it’s “Casual Friday”, so he should be able to wear whatever he wants. After some back and forth, the boss decides to basically cancel Casual Friday for everyone because of Mr. DB. That happens all the time. It’s just much simpler to do that than to deal with the shenanigans of one asshole.

I really hope this does not happen at Alinea, but it seems that that’s where most restaurants are heading. It is clear that Achatz has no problem with anyone taking pictures, he has a problem when a few start pushing the limits of what is acceptable. It really is a problem when some simply have no common sense. It is simpler to just state “No Cameras” as opposed to dealing with “guests” on a one off basis, even if it is unfair to the non-offending majority. I am looking forward to eating there and would love to take a few pictures. If the ”no cameras” rule does go in effect, then so be it. Achatz has all the right to enforce any reasonable rules in his house. I really do not need to take photos to enjoy or remember great meals. We ate at el Bulli in 2005 and took maybe one photo of the food.The rest were photos with the chef and a few of my wife and I. I saved the menu and I still can remember pretty much every dish from that wonderful meal.

Leaving aside the 'life as content' point, Alinea could impose a ban on all in service photography and allow happy customers and bloggers access to a library of professionally shot images. That way they protect the visual integrity of their offerings and peace and quiet reign during service.

Conceptually, I don't have a problem with the odd photo or two. I think you slipped in one of the coffee and donuts plating at Per se to counter the less artful plating you did. Similarly, I've on occasion snapped the odd mobile shots of things like marrow or pate (usually with dining companion eyeing it ravenously) and emailed them off to a sure-to-be-jealous friend, usually between courses. No flash, of course.

But what Grant describes is INSANE. A tripod? Videotaping? Moving the plate around for lighting? Really, people get a grip, its an F'in dinner, not a news event. And this tour of the kitchen thing? Really? Enough. My proposed rules for food photography in restaurants:

1. Play it as it lies. Snap the shot right there. If the plate isn't where you want to be or there is a shadow on it? Tough sh*t. Better luck next time.

2. No Flash. At lunch/bright room... maybe. (Possible exception: If you must use a flash, limit yourself to ONE picture and call it a day.)

3. Mobiles and "point and shoots" only. Leave the SLR at home. Of course, turn the sound off it it makes one. (Note: most non-SLRs don't make noise. The noise is added for effect.)

4. Tripods, videos, external flashes, reflectors, anything other than your iPhone, etc... OUT. Always. No exceptions.

5. Leave the staff out of this. They are not trained monkeys. Especially if you're going to be putting pictures of Melissa, your server, on the Internet. That's not in her job description. (Possible exception: celebrity chefs, like Grant; they know the deal and its part of the territory.) (Other possible exception for discussion: at the end of the meal, you could get a staff member to snap a photo of you and your dining companion(s).)

I'm sure I could think of others, but I think these distill the complaints above.

Hey, Carol, I have enjoyed your projects for quite some time now and I admire that in your experiences at Keller's restaurants and Alinea you did not make a scene for the sake of your blog. I had a blog that I started sometime after reading yours where I documented some of my cooking endeavors that I thought were worth capturing in image and text (French Laundry dishes I have attempted). I have since then stopped this because I feel like it got in the way of my fluid cooking. I am moving about 600 miles away from home soon to attend culinary school, and I plan to restart my blog to show my friends at home what I've learned and what I have created. However, I will not review restaurants and take photos because that is not my job. I am thankful that it is some folks job because I much enjoy these photos from time to time. But these are professionals, not just some joe blow blogger. If one is a critic, then I take it the restaurant would know what was going on ahead of time. Basically I feel like most of these bloggers are similar to the billion journey cover bands out there. I mean how are these bloggers possibly going to get better pictures than the ones already offered in the Alinea cookbook.

I document because I don't want to forget. I wish I'd journalized throughout my life, but I didn't, and I regret that, so to a degree I'm making up for it by writing about stuff so that I always have a record of the different versions of me.

We ate at Alinea (for the 4th time) about 2 weeks ago. It was as always sublime and surprising. Chef Achatz came to our table to plate the dessert on the silicone mat. I was spellbound and could no sooner have interrupted him with a photo or even a word (I was totally dumbstruck) as he did his work. I did snap a quick photo with my iPhone when he walked away - it was that unique - and then again when the mat was scraped clean. Having eaten at Per Se and Le Bernadin and other fine establishments, I couldn't imagine ruining the magic and the moment and the mood with a photograph. What I create in my mind and memory after the experience may deviate from the original - but that is the beauty of it.

Oh, my- How much space am I allowed before the flag is thrown for excessive celebration? 15 yards?
I think that we are edging into a greater conversation that is very much needed in our society- where everyone does precisely as they wish- and seems to forget that your rights end at the tip of my nose. That goes for smoking (Smoke away- as long as I DONT HAVE TO SMOKE ALONG WITH YOU), spitting, taking photos, yada, yada, yada. What you do doesn't affect me, until it ACTUALLY DOES. To state that Grant should post rules, etc is a bit absurd. We all agree there is a line- we just disagree on where that line is. (Oh, a video camera? Drag them out and shoot them- any reasonable person would agree- but one teensy snapshot? Who does that hurt? Hmm, not sure- flash or no flash? noise or no noise? 1 photo total or 5 for each course?) I can tell you that I am not sure where the line is- except I know where it is for me...But I will know when you cross it.
As a former chef (in profession only- you can take the boy out of the kitchen...) it is of course flattering that folks think so highly about what you do that they want to preserve it- but folks- lets get real. When is the line crossed? Is it when you screw up the intended effect of the dish, or only when you ruin it for the table next to you? oh- and the staff? They are people- get the freaking recorder out of their face. If you can whip that out, along with the video camera, and the flash and the tri-pod- don't be surprised when I pull up a chair at the table and ask your wife if I can snap a shot of her lovely fake boobs. She did get them so that everyone would notice, no? Horrors- what deplorable manners? Oh, shut up.
Now lets get into the chef side of things a bit. I always looked at myself as a craftsman, not an artist. That description has changed in recent years, and folks are indeed changing and elevating the game. (I consider TFL the ultimate expression of that craft- but not art. Grant pushes more towards art. That is not a knock on either approach.) Having said that- my wife will take pictures of dinners that we are serving to friends at our home- and I have no idea why. To me- its all about the experience that is happening NOW. Dont worry- I'll make something else- for me- its fleeting nature is part of its attraction. I know for some reason everyone MUST share every experience (As if that snap shot actually shares your experience in any meaningful way) Those that have eaten there- how does your experience match up to some photos and well written prose? (No offense Carol- I love this blog!) It can never match up.
I think that Carol has hit on something very big- we are losing the social aspect of the experience we are having AT THAT MOMENT. As a chef- what I cook is meant to be cooked, eaten, loved, cooed over, eye rolled over, and should even occasionally cause my wife's underwear to spontaneously disintegrate!! (How do you think I got her to marry me?)
I could go on for a lot longer- but since you read this blog, I must like you a little bit- even if we disagree- so I will spare you from my continued ramblings.
I am not against keeping in touch with whatever means you feel necessary, I use facebook for folks from HS,(But I don't tweet- I see NO point, whatsoever) And I LOVE to spend time with friends- are y'all afraid you just wont remember being with them without a dozen photos? How about 1 or 2? I'm willing to compromise. BUT- it will always make me feel sad for folks whom I see out to dinner and they are on the phone with someone other than the person they are actually with. Unless its the babysitter- I'm not answering it- and I'm not calling anyone. Last note- I don't do call waiting - because its freaking obnoxious. (Hold on- I want to see if someone better is calling, maybe I'll be back...

Where have basic manners gone?
As you were....

I've bookmarked your post for a second reading, thank you Carol for sharing your thoughts. They are so needed!!

While I think this behaviour is less than common in New Zealand (at the moment anyway?)... I definitely experienced sitting next to over-the-top bloggers in Singapore where I am from!

I do write a food blog, a cook-through one. There is no way in hell I allow people I cook for or myself to eat cold/melting food. I have a very old and basic camera, and wouldn't have a clue how to use a tripod - so I try my best with the small screen and 15 seconds that I have to capture food - and cross my fingers, make it up with prose if I have to!

Life's definitely too short to spend too long documenting it if the writing/videoing etc overshadows the sheer joy of the experience.

If the dining experience of neighboring tables is being affected - it shouldn't be done. And here I don't mean the person who is disturbed if the neighboring table breathes too loudly. I mean flashes of light, pushing of furniture, ruining ambience with advanced photographic equipment.

If the staff is prevented from doing its job - I guess in a way, that's a continuation of affecting the dining experience of other parties, but I'll keep it separate - it shouldn't be done. The three-minutes per course point was well-taken.

As for the rest? Yes, I personally was way more interested in experiencing the food at Alinea than photographing it... but that's how I enjoyed it. I never thought to photograph - but next time I might. (Not out of spite, but just because I've started doing that lately) If it's a continuum, and a customer moves a few notches towards "documenting a great meal gives me pleasure" from "eating food at the precise moment it's meant to be eaten gives me pleasure" - that should be fine. Again, as long as the next table isn't unreasonably disturbed. The occasional shutter clicking? Sorry, no sympathy.

As to the potato anecdote: Grant, those people paid you nearly 100 dollars for that bit of potato. Let me switch to the first person, since I am taking the comment personally: If I want to set it to one side and eat it together with the next course, it's my choice. It may be an objectively stupid choice, but until you post signs saying "YOU'LL EAT IT HOW, WHEN AND IF I SAY, AND YOU'LL LIKE IT", it's my choice. Thank you for the suggestion, though.

Perhaps you forget that for many people, eating at your place takes a not-insignificant sacrifice, putting off buying the other thing - hell, going on a trip. We're talking considerable amounts of money. For that money, I'm not there to live up to your expectations, to follow your script to a T in order to make running a restaurant a good experience for you. Yes, it may irk you that people don't eat your food as you meant, but as long as I am not disturbing the flow of business and/or being unquestionably rude, it's about me, and my pleasure. If I dunk my hot potato in my wine - well, it's my wine and my potato, and so long as I don't yell yahoo! as I dunk it, splash the next table or spill it on the waiter, it should be the goal of the staff to make my evening pleasant. Not to frog-march me through everything the way you envisioned it, at the cost of my own pleasure. I waitressed for many years at a much less august establishment in the Chicago area - the staff was directed to keep our snarky comments about our customers' sometimes incomprehensible preferences to ourselves.

Again, I've been to Alinea, I followed the instructions exactly, I adored the food and the whole experience (except for missing the door on the way in and feeling like a fool - that wasn't a good moment), I didn't photograph. I'm glad the people at the next table didn't set up a photo studio. But the suggestion that my business is welcome only if I eat my potato when I'm told to is irking me.

Very nice article....

Being guilty of such crime in my recent dining at Taillevent, I should say that at first I did not intend to do it, but decided to ask the staff for permission, and they were beyond nice about it. However, I assured them I was going to be very discreet.

In my mind, if you are going to snap photos at a restaurant, you take ONE photo per dish, no flash, no moving plates around, no tripods, no wait. If you cannot do it in a way that is totally non-intrusive to other customers and the staff, you should not do it. Period.

Plus, obtaining advance permission is a must.

I suspect that in Paris fewer people are snapping photos as compared to the US, but I have no solid data to confirm my suspicions... That could also explain why they were so wonderful about it. It is harder to be ok with it if you are inundated with bloggers.

I've never been a fan of videotaping things of importance. Obviously, unless the one doing the video taping is hired to do so, they will be missing the event in order to "remember" the event - kind of dumb.

On the other hand, someone in my family videotaped my wedding, and years later when I saw the tape for the first time, I was deeply moved and grateful that he had done so.

I must live a sheltered life. I'm outside of Chicago, dream of eating at Alinea, but never thought to look on YouTube for evidence of what that may be like. I guess I enjoyed the 'not knowing.'

Then I watched 2 videos of dessert being made on the table by Mr Achatz and I was underwhelmed. I had fantasies of the meal being artistic and thoughtful but that dessert made me wonder anew about whether I wanted to have dinner there.

It seemed a counterintuitive way to end a much-anticipated experience. Had I never seen the videos, I'd never have had my vision tarnished...but had I gone for dinner and that was the ending, it would have ended the evening on a low note.

While I think some people surely step over the line and lose sight of the experience (and the experiences of others in the restaurant) when caught up in their enthusiasm, I also think that it's inevitable that some will stumble as they learn what is appropriate and what is not.

It's a shame if some people miss some of an experience because they are too wrapped up in chronicling the experience.

It's also a shame if some (more, I think) people miss some of an experience because they are not paying attention, and haven't learned to.

I think for most people, blogging/chronicling is a learning process: learning what is worth capturing and what isn't; learning what is lost or not enjoyed by thinking always of the project and not of the moment; learning when to let go and when not to.

It is a shame that etiquette is not very widely taught. In a nutshell: be thoughtful and considerate of other people.

You pose so many questions and a lot to think about, which I appreciate. I like taking the step back and thinking.

I think...that taking pictures at restaurants is fine and I do it. I don't use flash or a tripod, and I try not to disrupt others. If people think that the sounds of clicks and just knowing that someone in a neighboring table is taking pictures annoys them, I have to wonder if these are the same people who hate children, who don't want to sit next to anyone on a bus, and who are just totally intolerant of others. At most restaurants, I think people talk too loud and I don't want to hear their conversation, but are we going to ban talking at restaurants? I can see and hear people text messaging too....at many expensive restaurants, you'll see tons of bankers on their blackberries and they have to be responsive in order to keep their jobs that pay for those fancy dinners. Remember how that check-your-phone-at-the-door policy never took. That's because everyone understood the value of holding on to their cell phones, while not everyone understands why some people enjoy or want to document their experience. I guess I'm saying, try to understand people....Of course, in both cases, phone and camera usage can cross the line, and I'm not saying bloggers have free reign to terrorize people with their video cameras and all either. These days, I do consider blogging my job so I hope I'm being as considerate as I can while doing what I consider a service to a lot of people who appreciate it. It sounds like Chef Achatz does have a certain amount of appreciation for it too.

Like many have mentioned already, it's about learning a good balance. I don't even think it's fair to assume that someone is missing the experience by documenting. Some may be, but I saw many comments where I can relate to about either only taking one shot (just keeping fingers-crossed) or just learning how to pick and chose the moments. I've noticed how my documentation has changed during my learning process.

Anyways, great post and I read about half the comments and thought many great points were made.


Deb, may I ask why the video killed your fantasy?

I completely agree with you, Carol, and also with Grant. I enjoyed an amazing dinner at Alinea a little over a year ago and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was thrilling and delicious. However, my fiance and I couldn't get over the number of people in the room who were taking pictures (with and without flash) and taking video as well. We were the only table in the room who did not photograph our meal. At one point, a gentleman at a nearby table squatted on the floor to get level with the dish before photographing it. And, at another table, we counted 14 photos being taken of ONE dish before the diner enjoyed the dish. It was so ridiculous to watch the shenanigans. Not only was this distracting, we both thought it was extremely disrespectful to other people who were trying to enjoy a really special experience, and to the chefs in the kitchen who prepared the dish. Chefs spend a lot of time creating dishes for their menus. The flavors, temperatures, textures, colors, composition, etc are all considered when composing a dish--especially at a restaurant like Alinea. The least we, as diners, can do is to sit back and enjoy that dish with the same thoughtfulness, and without of the distraction of documentation!

Anita, good question. When the dessert course was ready to be eaten, it looked awful - inedible - not the restrained, intense beauty I was used to when thinking "Alinea." Perhaps that's a good argument against video. Maybe it looked more appetizing in person....

I take a lot of photos of food. Though I do have a blog and on that blog I'll occasionally post food photos or restaurant reviews, the purpose of my photographs aren't for "sharing." The reason I take photos is because I eat, and I eat often.

Like many people who probably read your blog, I take culinary road trips, in which, at times, I eat 4 or even 5 meals or snacks a day. Not every one of these morsels is delicious, or overtly memorable - but I think each one is important. I carry with me a very small, low profile camera that takes some nice pictures in low light. I never use a flash, have the sound muted and never video tape anything. Additionally, if I can help it, I try not to take too long taking a photograph, if I don't get a shot I like after 2 pictures I quit, and I never interrupt the server.

I have a meticulously categorized and tagged archive of my food photos, and I'll skim through them every now and then. In these trips down memory lane I often come across things I forgot I had eaten or certain meals I thought I had eaten on one trip but had actually eaten on a another. Seeing those photos - though they will never capture the flavor or experience completely - is a warm reminder of one of the few truly selfish pleasures I have...eating.

With that said - I rarely, if ever, take photos at very fine dining establishments. I have eaten at Per Se, Le Bernardin, Alinea and many other multiple-starred restaurants and have refrained from photographing the experience. In part, I feel it is rude but mainly it's because the photos don't usually turn out great, I don't want to keep anything on my chair or table while eating and I don't want to interrupt my experience. However, I do bring a 1/4 page moleskin journal slipped in my pocket to help me remember my meal after.

In conclusion, if it takes more than a few seconds, requires a device other than a pocket camera (IE: Tripod, etc) includes a flash or disrupts other diners/servers - you shouldn't do it. Otherwise if you'd like to take a photo,it's your prerogative.

I think there is a huge difference between snapping a quick no flash picture with a point and click, and lugging in a huge fancy camera that doesn't fit neatly in your clutch. And frankly, even when I do that at restaurants, I'm embarrassed enough that I try to do it when no one's looking. Like I don't want them thinking "who does that girl think she is?".

Funny story. I recently went to a newly opened local place that had been pushing for blogger support on twitter. There were only a few people in the dining room, and we were sat far enough away that I was merrily clicking away at the courses. Then I noticed another girl at another table doing the same thing, and she saw me too. I wanted to go up and talk to her and ask her what her site was, but it seemed rude to interrupt their meal so I kept my mouth shut. Now what's the protocol on that huh?

Hey, how's this for a solution? Since smoking/non-smoking sections are now a non-issue - how about photo/non-photo sections?! You could have the people with tripods bumping butts in the aisles in one little room - and everyone else just enjoying the food elsewhere!

I do document meals that I eat, but only after the night has passed. It's a little Moleskine notebook that I have that I've filled with memorable meals. It has what I ate, and my thoughts and remarks on the dish as I can best remember them the next day. I do this so that years down the road, it could possibly spark new ideas of my own. I'm a culinary student, so this is sort of a way to help myself learn and remember food

Perhaps it's the couple of glasses of Old Charter, perhaps not. Either way, this post seems so very poignant to me. I'm always told I'm like an 80 year old in a 20 year old's body, and I think there's something to that. My absolute and utter agreement with the spirit of this post might be some kind of proof. As for the shared experiences question, I don't think that it even bears on the subject at hand. Posting some pics and prose about a dining experience does not constitute a shared experience. There's more to be shared between yourself and the chef plating your freaking food on the table top in front of you than could ever be felt over the internet. THat doesn't even consider the people with whom you are (hopefully) dining. Right on, Carol. Cliches don't get to be such without reason. Stop and smell the roses, don't add them to your flickr stream.

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