Wednesday, July 09, 2014

A Question for Food Bloggers: "Camera Cuisine"

Can food be too pretty? Does photogenic food -- plates that look good on Twitter, Instagram, or a blog -- necessarily taste good? Is it worth more? Or do elaborate food arrangements leave normally hot food cold? Does the possibility of an online photo inspire chefs and cooks to think more deeply about how food looks than how it tastes?

Two recent articles discuss these questions:

In the Guardian: "Why does artistically presented food taste better?" 

Writer Amy Fleming cites a study (haha) showing "that an artful plate of food tastes better – perhaps due to the effort that has been put in, or maybe for more complex reasons."

From the Guardian article: Kandinsky painting, left.
Kandinsky-inspired salad, right. 
Charles Michel, a chef who now works at the Crossmodal laboratory at Oxford University designed an experiment to present a salad with many ingredients in three ways: with the ingredients separated, with the ingredients tossed, and with their arrangement inspired by a Kandinsky painting!

Result: the participants deemed the Kandinsky salad as more complex, artistic, appealing and tasty. They were willing to pay more for it, too.

Several of the comments on this article pointed out something important: TV chefs ONLY have to worry about what food looks like. Their audience can neither taste nor smell their creations. This really skews their motivation, right? And maybe skews food standards.

In the New York Times: "Your Eyes Are Happier Than Your Stomach:Dishes Worthy of Instagram, but Not Your Appetite.

Former restaurant critic Pete Wells presents his viewpoint on the same question with a slightly different twist. The emphasis on photos of food posted online, and the growing technology of low-light small cameras for instant online sharing has, he believes, "deeply changed food photography, of course. But it’s changing food, too." And not for the better. He calls it "Camera Cuisine."

Wells is mainly interested in high-profile very trendy internationally-known chefs, not in home cooks or food bloggers. He says: "At the influential handful of restaurants pursuing a contemporary style, each plate plays to two audiences. One is you, with your napkin in your lap. The other is a global club whose members, checking out their phones or laptops, constitute an invisible gallery in the dining room."

Wells offers as an example the followers of the famous restaurant of chef René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen. Under his influence: "Ingredients, invariably arranged on earthenware or wood or stone, seem to have washed in on a wave or blown in on a forest breeze."

But, asks Wells, are these followers trying to create a look or a flavor? Few of them have actually eaten in Redzepi's extremely exclusive restaurant. (Another article, "Noma restaurant creates garden as buffer zone against gawkers" recently described exterior landscaping meant to discourage crowds of wannabe diners rubber necking into the windows because hardly anyone ever gets one of the very few tables). Wells writes of this derivative cuisine:
"Not all the time, but often enough, the flavors aren’t as vivid as the image; they’re spectral, washed-out. Foraged plants and other ingredients sometimes seem chosen for size and color more than for taste. That borage flower or sweet potato leaf is almost never dressed in a vinaigrette, which would make it tastier but may also create a distracting glare for the lens and cause it to droop before its photo op."
Wells is very aware of the effect of image on the taste of beautiful food. He's very aware that involved "plating" leads to delivering cold food to the table. In fact, hot food isn't as important to these camera-aware chefs as it used to be. Everyone loves a steak -- not a very photogenic dish, he points out. He says that cooks used to shout: "I’ve got hot food!" And servers were supposed "to get plates to the table right now."

Now, not so much -- if food gets cold while being plated, too bad, implies Wells. It's interesting that the experimental art-inspired plate of food that Amy Fleming described was a salad, so the question of serving hot food was avoided completely! I wonder what would have happened if the experimenter had arranged a steak and baked potato according to a Kandinsky painting.

What does this have to do with food bloggers? A lot, I think. We and our readers form our expectations in the context of the high-level activities by food journalists, food stylists, and the restaurants that make the most splash. Food bloggers who invent recipes or try recipes from cookbooks have to be the recipe author, the chef, the food stylist, the server, the photographer, and also the taster, while these functions are better distributed in magazines and restaurants. So if we cook a modest meal, serve it hot, and take a slap-dash photo of something downright delicious, that's understandable, and if we spend a lot of time "plating" maybe it won't taste as good. The choice is ours, but we can choose mindfully. (I am ignoring those bloggers who repost someone else's photos without attribution.)

The expectations spread through other blogging possibilities. Food bloggers don't just write about what they cook. Many food bloggers describe and take photos of restaurant food, recipes from the mainstream press or published cookbooks, food publications or ads from the recent or distant past, and other food subjects. Besides blogging, they also post on Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram. Is it better to find beautiful food and take a beautiful photo? Or to find delicious food that doesn't lend itself to visual perfection? We are in the same situation as TV chefs: no one can smell or taste what we write about. But I wonder if that means we have to forget the flavor and just make things look good?


~~louise~~ said...

Hi Mae,
I'm afraid I must agree with both of these articles. I wonder sometimes how food bloggers manage to get "everything" done and have it look impeccable! As you know, that is not the case with my blog when I actually cok something, lol...However, nine out of ten times I am going for taste not looks. I have not posted many a dish because it just wasn't eye candy worthy and yet, it tasted delicious. Just the other day I made fried chicken which came out really tasty, however, it was so brown it almost looked burnt and I would up using a better looking image from wiki.

As much as I love the community of the food blogging world, I'm afraid it has changed the concept in food drastically. Don't get me wrong, many, many dishes are fun to learn about and to think about but I do wonder sometimes if they actually taste as good as they sound and now look. I also get extremely upset when classics are tampered with so much so that they are no longer the dish they once were. Why not just change the name rather than obliterate the original recipe and add a "modern" name to it which includes the classic. For example, you Chicken Piccata was true to the original but I have seen some recipes that are nothing like it, someeven using different protien and still using the name Chicken Piccata! I suppose, it is just me, and now I realize I am going on way to much about this issue, lol...Thanks for sharing this post, Mae. Food for thought:)

Mae Travels said...

Hi Louise,
You've extended the discussion of food bloggers in a really interesting way -- not only are they checked by expectations about what their photos look like (and no one can taste the food) they are also pressured, as you say, to be more and more "original" even if that means drastically altering a classic recipe without much testing.

I think your community of food bloggers has incredibly many variations: from bloggers who are just in it for money [posting 'giveaways,' taking freebies] to those really interested in cooking and food history -- and from bloggers who really try new recipes and document them to those who just copy a whole post including photos and pretend they made it. So the changes in food concepts that you mentioned are really varied and very interesting.

Cakelaw said...

I blog for my own enjoyment - I like looking back at what I've made and learning new techniques.