Should I Be Able to Photograph My Food?
Due to the uproar that has stemmed from the new policy at Momofuku Ko whereby diners aren't allowed to take photographs of their food, I thought it was a good time to take a look at what has become an issue in the dining community. There was a post about it on Serious Eats, and the follow up comments do a good job of demonstrating how opinions are split on this topic. From my own perspective (not forgetting that I am biased since my blog is replete with photos of the food I have been served,) I think there are three issues at play here.
Should it be banned because it bothers other diners?
I've heard this one argued extensively, and despite the fact that I think that it should be banned if it indeed does bother other diners, I have yet to see a single diner complain about it. And I am someone who has taken thousands of photos at restaurants and never once have I ever had a single complaint. And I use a flash extensively. But the truth is, the range of a flash is so narrow that you can hardly see it at another seat at the table let alone another table. In fact a number of years ago there was a very long and contentious discussion about this on the OA discussion forum. Then one night there was a dinner at Eleven Madison Park where I was shooting photos with a flash, and the next day they turned up on the site and the person sitting directly across from me commented that they hadn't even realized that I was taking photos with a flash. So much for taking pictures actually bothering people.
But if I had to take a guess at what causes the split of opinion, it has to do with people wanting to control the environment that they eat in. Each of us have a different relationship with food. I believe that what causes people to say they are against photography in restaurants, even though they have never complained about people who are taking photos, is that they want their sensibilities about dining to dominate the social situation. I run into a similar problem when I discuss cuisine in terms of hierarchies in order to rate food. Some people simply want to enjoy their dinner and they are not interested into entering into a comparative discussion about where the meal ranks in the annals of dining. And while there is nothing wrong with that, why do they care if I like to do that? Yet you can't imagine how many times people have complained to me about it. It always makes me wonder, since they aren't interested in discussing cuisine from that perspective, why do they care that other people do it? But for some reason they feel threatened by the idea that people have a different relationship with the dining experience than they have, and if I had a Euro for every time someone interrupted a discussion to say something like "can't you just enjoy your food," I would be jetting off to have the tasting menu at Marc Veyrat this weekend. Taking photos in restaurants seems to fall under the same category. Lots of people who complain in concept, but I've never seen anyone actually complain, or articulate a legitimate reason why it should be banned.
Does a photo of food violate a copyright that is owned by the chef?
The simple answer is no. Yet some chefs try and claim that a plate of food has some sort of copyright protection. As someone who owns hundreds of copyrights and a number of different trademarks, I have yet to see someone state a case for it that makes sense. Still, I've been prevented from taking photos at Pierre Gagnaire because the restaurant was claiming that there was some type of intellectual property rights that they owned over the finished dishes. This explanation smelled fishy to me and I pressed the Captain on it until he finally admitted that he knew I was right. What the restaurant was actually trying to protect was their commercial rights which are discussed in the paragraph below.
Does a chef/restaurant owner have a valid commercial reason or right to ban photography?
The answer to this one is an unequivocal yes. But not because what they serve on a plate can be protected as intellectual property, but because they are allowed to control the environment in their restaurants for a number of commercial reasons that have nothing to do with whether photos bother other diners. First of all, they may view their cuisine as some type of trade secret, and they want to prevent competitors from easily copying their creations. This is why Starbucks doesn't allow you to take photos in their stores. They don't want their competitors to have easy access to how they put their installations together. If you walk into any department store like Macy's or Nordstrom's, you will find the same policy. But while I understand why Bloomingdale's would want to prevent Sak's Fifth Avenue from having photos of the way they are marketing certain designer goods, Gagnaire's thinking here is misguided. Unlike point of purchase displays, a chef's reputation relies on what he creates. Why would a chef want to cut off public access to his creations? The argument for it would be that if other chefs were able to see what Gagnaire was preparing, they would copy it and he would lose business as a result. But the fine dining community doesn't work that way because diners want to experience culinary creations at their source because of the unique hand of the chef. People interested in the arts don't want an imitation of Picasso, they want the real thing.
The other reasons have to do with public inspections by the health department etc. Let's say that a restaurant has a water circulate but has not been approved by their local health department to cook using sous vide, and photos make that easier for the health inspectors to spot. Or how about employees not wearing gloves when they are supposed to and they are caught on camera and the restaurant gets in trouble for it? I'm sure there are other back of the house reasons for banning photography that I'm overlooking but you get the idea that this could be a problem.
So Should They Allow it or Not?
Given the above, I just don't see the argument for not allowingphotography in restaurants. Even concerns about health departments are mitigated by the free publicity a restaurant gets by allowing bloggers to take photos of their delicious cuisine. And if that means that the staff needs to dress a certain way, or to use certain equipment to come within the code, or to get approval for certain cooking techniques, the trade-off for the free publicity seems more than worth it. And for those of you who object to the practice of diners taking photos of their food, even though you haven't been able to offer any evidence that the practice bothers you in any tangible way, I wish you good dining on your own terms, provided you wish the same for me on mine.