A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting down with the actress and talk-show host Aisha Tyler. She had just finished an energetic and hilarious performance of “Archer Live” with some of her cast mates from the animated FX series. She took a look at the sliders, chips, deviled eggs and other bar bites that had been laid out for the cast party and did what any sensible, hungry person would do: She ordered a steak off the menu. She didn’t want to shovel bar food, she wanted to dine. She chose a beverage with care and talked a smart game about the cocktails, wine and food back home in Los Angeles.
“I’m really into good food, ” Tyler admitted with a laugh. “Just look at my phone.” She pulled an iPhone out of her bag and showed me: picture after picture after picture of food.
It looked, in fact, an awful lot like my iPhone, which I would say is about 80 percent pictures of food, 15 percent pictures of my cat and 5 percent pictures of my children, wife, city views, sunsets and other assorted wonders of creation. But really mostly food.
I like to think I do it because it’s my job. Pictures make for excellent notes, particularly when the menu translates, say, “arugula, coconut, bull’s blood beets” into a green Nike swoosh, a dollop of white foam and three microgreens.
Photos can also be pretty little liars when shared with others. Look at this fabulous plate of food I just made! The meat is crimson (i.e., as chewy as rubber), the salad lively (completely underdressed), and when you shoot a perfect meringue straight down, you can’t see the puddle of sad pie goop underneath.
When you’re a food writer, you want to share dishes, whether of your own making or served to you in a restaurant, something placed just under the camera of your eye and the eye of your camera.
Because I have an urge to self deprecate to keep from seeming too foodie fabulous, I like to share the occasional unappetizing shot of a trashed kitchen, desperation dinners scrounged from leftovers or bizarre items served to me at restaurants. I once sent out a shot of an inchworm that wriggled free from my pho garnish plate in a Vietnamese restaurant. It was cute, and the pho was delicious. No harm done. But I have learned that some readers don’t tolerate the cat-on-the-counter policy of my home kitchen, no matter how cute the puss. The cat+food shot never goes over well.
But that’s my excuse. What’s yours?
Everybody takes pictures of their food now. I once saw the people sitting at a table next to me pass around their iPhones when their entrees were served. My college daughter always takes pictures of particularly beautiful or memorable dishes, “just to have.”
Sometimes I think food photography has become the secular grace — a moment to stop and show appreciation for the gift of food before digging in.
Sometimes I think it is a sign of our nervous Zeitgeist, a creeping suspicion that an unexamined in HDR life is not worth living.
A few weeks ago, my two brothers and I met in California wine country to celebrate a birthday and do some serious wine tasting.
The highlight of the trip would be a carefully secured reservation for lunch at French Laundry — Thomas Keller’s Yountville restaurant where you spend upwards of three hours eating plate after beautiful plate.
I was anticipating this meal with such desire that I took my first picture from the parking lot behind the restaurant. We were seated in a small room upstairs with 10 other guests and an equal number of smart phones. Some shot their food straight down; others picked up their plates and held them against their faces, as if they were a special prize on a game show.
We ordered an incredible bottle of wine (Didier Dagueneau Silex, a Pouilly Fume) and got our first volley of small gifts from the kitchen. Aha, the classics! Keller’s signature mini-cone topped with a sphere of salmon tartare, and a gougere filled with molten gruyere cheese.
I started to reach for my iPhone, but just kind of slapped my own hand. No, I decided, I was just going to eat this meal, not document it.
The plates kept coming, each more beautiful than the last. At mid-meal, out came servings of the softest gnocchi with preserved truffle that our waitress lavished on top, blanketing the plate in drifts of black snow.
One bite and I felt liftoff — just there in the Zen of the moment, not too hungry and not too full, but open to whatever flavor, in whatever portion, at whatever time would come my way. I no longer felt any urge to photograph my meal.
Of course as soon as I got home the first question out of everyone’s mouth was, “Can we see pictures of the French Laundry.”
In a book somewhere, I think. In a book.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog