Heston Blumenthal would like us to take fewer photographs in restaurants. "At the Fat Duck, we've debated this for several years now. If we say to people, 'Your food's going cold', you put up a barrier between you and the diner," Blumenthal has told the Radio Times.
There’s no denying that endless photographing is irritating – especially when your co-diner won’t let you dig in to your dinner until they’ve got “the shot”. The problem is, Blumenthal and his ilk make dishes that are just so damn good-looking, it’s hard not to whip out the mobile and take a snap.
Isn’t that what Blumenthal wants, when he creates butter that looks like lava rocks (on his latest Pompeii-themed menu at Dinner by Heston in London) or glass domed miniature gardens tweaked to suit the personality of each guest, as he does at the Fat Duck at Bray?
Apparently not. "If I see something beautiful like a sunset, I try to be in the moment, then take a picture afterwards,” said Blumenthal to the magazine – presumably making for some pretty dull photo albums, as Mr B explains that this murky snap is of the view after the sun went down. But Blumenthal does admit, “"Social media is such a big part of our lives, our sight has become almost the more important sense rather than smell or taste.”
It’s a Hobson’s choice for chefs. On the one hand, any chef worth her or his flaky Maldon salt wants their food to taste at its best – which will generally mean the moment after the waiter has set it before the guest, elegantly swivelled the plate so the logo is at 12 o’clock, anointed the improbably balanced components with sauce from a Lilliputian gravy boat, and subjected the guest to a two-minute introduction so that they can understand The Story. You see, it’s not just us diners who employ annoying delaying tactics.
On the other hand, much as the chefs may hate amateurs photographing their dinner (especially if the results aren’t what the chefs regard as an accurate or fair representation of the dish, or just a little too unfiltered, unprimped and generally real), restaurants need the publicity.
In the cut-throat world of modern hospitality, if pics of your new gaff aren’t posted all over social media like vegan cheese on a plant-based pizza, then it might as well not exist. So restaurants generally don’t ban photos, with the exception of the three-Michelin-star Waterside Inn, which outlawed pictures of food back in 2017.
Blumenthal’s restaurants haven’t gone that far. Last time the photo issue hit the press was back in 2015 when the new branch of Dinner was launching in Melbourne. “Diners can capture their experience as long as it doesn’t affect the other guests,” a spokesperson said back then. “We avoid flash photography, and guests shifting around the dishes and standing to shoot.”
It’s stuck with Blumenthal. Asked whether he gets annoyed and has ever been close to saying anything to a customer, he told the magazine: "Yes, and I've been very tempted."We did it once in Australia because somebody was taking pictures with a flash, which affected other tables. It's a really tricky thing."
I take snaps of my food – mostly as a reminder, in case I have to write something at a later date (it’s not unknown for an editors to call up to ask for 500 words on a restaurant I visited six months ago – my photo library and a few sketchy notes is enough to jump-start my memory).
Occasionally I’ll stick my under-exposed, orange-toned, mottled pics on social media – god bless the restaurants which aren’t lit for Instagram – though they are hardly worthy of sharing. But yes, I am thinking of upgrading my phone to one with a camera that works well in low light.
You see, these days, taking pictures of your dinner isn’t just a hobby or an irritating tic. For many it’s a full-time job, and what puts food on the table even when they aren’t shooting it. I’ve travelled with a professional Instagrammer, a full-time “influencer” who earns her keep by paid-for Instagram posts in which she gushes about the fabulousness of a product or restaurant or holiday destination.
Those posts she isn’t being paid for still need to be enthralling enough to draw in more followers, so that she can, in turn, charge more for sponsored posts. And they are awe-inspiring, not just exquisitely shot but interspersed with mesmerising video clips she would sit up every night editing. Simple still photographs don’t cut in the Insta-world any more.
The business of getting these photographs and videos in the restaurants was, well, a business. There was the light box that needed holding high to give the most flattering glow to the food as it was snapped. Holding a Statue of Liberty pose, one arm aloft bearing the torch, the other gripping the camera, the Instagrammer clicked away as we fiddled with our forks, until she generously held it over our dishes so we, too, could get uncharacteristically glowing photos for our own accounts.
Chairs were climbed on. Waiters were asked to replay their moves, twirl the unctuous aligot again, hold before they poured to sauce. Our table glowed like an alien space ship in the middle of the restaurant.
It’s hard to imagine this didn’t annoy other guests. Even the click-click of the fake shutter noise, which no one seems to bother to turn off, was intrusive enough. But perhaps diners in a certain kind of restaurant are becoming inured to it, like the tinny crackle from other people’s headphones on public transport. Certainly the restaurant managers seemed happy enough to play the game.
And at Blumenthal’s restaurants, where the bill for a meal with drinks goes north of £300, customers may well feel they have paid for the right to take photographs along with a selfie with the chef to boast about with their friends afterwards. After all, the modern logic goes, if there’s no picture, did it actually happen? A photograph of a sunset might be a shoddy imitation of the real thing, but for most people it’s still better than no picture at all.