Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Restaurant Blogging: What It Is Like To Eat Out With Someone (Me) Pathologically Photographing Your Food

This blog post is inspired by the chapter entitled 'Bloggers' in my favourite restaurant critic Giles Coren's book 'How To Eat Out' that came out earlier this year. I approached the chapter with some trepidation, as I honestly did not know what he was going to say about us London scene food bloggers. Was I ready to be mocked by one of the only two restaurant critics I pay a shred of attention to when choosing where to eat next, over halfway through a book that I had rather been enjoying? It turns out what he had to say about us was a mixed bag; we're all fine and good, but taking photos of your food in a restaurant is just plain rude, and why do all the photos of food by food bloggers online have to look so unappetising? I'm always getting asked to write some more 'personal' style blog posts, so after reading his chapter, and before returning to finish the rest of the book I thought I'd share with you all  the stories behind some of my restaurant reviews and food posts. In short, what my friends and family have discovered they have to put up with when they agree to accompany me to whatever lunch or brunch spot I want to try that weekend, lunchtime or evening.

Photo by Nicole Anderson at The Sycamore Kitchen, Los Angeles January 2013

I think, aside from my parents (who I will get to in a bit) my most frequent dinner companion in London is my dear friend and fellow blogger (but of the fashion and music variety) Sherin, and in the London/ Canterbury split which was my life before I moved to Los Angeles (and will become again when I return) is my best friend Kathryn. Sherin's attitude to my shooting everything in sight is pretty blasé. In her role, and in my old role as fashion blogger it is pretty normal to pathologically need to shoot everything in sight so she, like all of my other blogger (of any variety) friends just go with the flow, and don't mind that she's not allowed to even touch whatever food or beverage that has been set in front of her until I have photographed it from every possible angle. Kathryn is another story entirely. I think she has become pretty used to it by now (I will have to test this theory when we are reunited in LA this Summer) but when I started reviewing restaurants for my blog around about the beginning of last year she always got very, very embarrassed when I got out my camera (okay, maybe DSLR's are excessively big) and started snapping away at the food making sure I get the very best light and angle of the food. I 100% agree with Giles that most food blog photography is terrible; sometimes I have forgone reviewing restaurants on the blog at all if the photos have come out in a way that makes the food look unappetising. (Incidentally, if you're looking for a good burger in Central London I urge you to go check out Tommi's Burger Joint which I really enjoyed but did not review for this very reason. It is just around the corner from Meat Liquor: perfect if you don't fancy queuing around the block for hours to get in. This is why I still have not eaten there yet.) I particularly remember her acute embarrassment and furtive looks around the inn when we were eating in The Rose Inn in the little village of Wickhambreaux just outside of Canterbury. Perhaps because she knew so many people who were propping up the bar at the time. 

My parents rarely go anywhere near London if they can help it. They absolutely loathe the city. The only meal I can remember having with either one of them in the city is with my mother (salt beef sandwiches in the Selfridges food hall before a trip to The Globe Theatre a few Summers ago to see Anne Boleyn). Because of this they were spared my London centric restaurant reviewing for quite some time, with perhaps the odd exception of meals in restaurants I felt people might want to travel for, but it was not enough to become a 'thing' my parents (read my father) liked to make fun of me for. However, soon someone (okay it was me, totally my fault) came up with the bright idea of putting bespoke restaurant reviews, with photos in the style of my London adventures on the Pilgrims Nook Holiday Cottages Blog for our guests, and in our welcome packs when they arrive for their holiday. Lo and behold, now every single local restaurant meal I have with either or both of my parents has to be photographed and reviewed for work purposes. A typical meal out goes something like this: the three of us arrive at the restaurant. My Dad sits in the seat which has the best light and I ask him to move as I need to sit there. He does not want to (or is just trying to wind me up, I never can tell), and only does so when my mother tells him to stop being difficult and I'm only doing it for our (emphasis on the 'our') business. We look over the menus. If someone wants to order the same thing as me, I subtly try to get them to change their mind: I want as many different dishes as possible on the table to photograph and steal bites of to review, but god forbid I don't get to order my choice of dinner! The food arrives and my Dad goes to dig in, to be met my a sharp reprimand from me: "Don't you dare touch it until I've photographed it!" He grumbles, hovering over me as I snap away, under pressure until the moment I say the word 'done' and he dives in like a man who has not seen food in months. This back and forth continues with every arriving course until the bill is paid. I can tell both my Dad and Kathryn are both visibly relieved when the camera gets left on the kitchen table when we are heading out for a meal; it can be a review-less evening. 
The specials board at Le Cancalaise in Cancal, Brittany, June 2012

So how do I feel about whipping out my massive camera in the middle of a cafe or restaurant in order to shoot my favourite to put together (I'm essentially a restaurant addict) and my readers favourite column? How I feel about each different eating situation differs depending on where I am. When I'm in France I just snap away at anything and everything; they don't know I actually live there, they can just pass me off as a mad tourist for all I care. The one exception to this rule seems to be Le Cancalais in the little Breton seaside town of Cancal, my second favourite eatery in France. I think it is the upper crust atmosphere and ludicrously expensive items if you order à la carte instead of off the board, the smart service, but I always try to snap photos there when the waiters are not looking, similarly to the amusing afternoon tea spent at Laudrée in Harrods with my friend Victoria, where photography is expressly forbidden. 

In London I feel slightly more comfortable shooting in restaurants because so many people are doing it these days; I don't seem to stick out as much (this makes it that I feel slightly more uncomfortable in Canterbury, or in a country pub, though I rarely review these). That is not to say that there are some places I don't take my camera to in London because I feel self conscious about whipping out such a bit piece of equipment in the dining room, realising sometimes it might be a little bit rude. Now I have an iPhone you might get a surreptitious Instagram of it sometime in the future, but you will never ever see a photo of my favourite dessert in London taken with my massive camera. As much as I adore the Chocolate and Raspberry Slice they have at The Wolseley there is no way on earth you are going to catch me whipping out my camera in that dinning room. But even Instagramming things I sometimes feel a little embarrassed; I could not help myself looking around the room it see if anyone was watching me when I stopped just before the door of Sprinkles Ice Cream in Beverly Hills earlier today to Instagram my Salted Caramel Scoop (it was the first time I'd tried that flavour.)
My LudoTruck feast in Los Angeles, from my Instagram feed, March 2013

I think the place I feel the post comfortable photographing my food is in Los Angeles, where food blogging is even more of a 'thing' than it is in London, and people are positively excited if I have to explain what it was for. When I felt it was polite to ask (though this is something I try to avoid doing in case they say no) if I could shoot inside the tiny 'Lette Macaron store in Beverly Hills for a blog feature I was offered samples. When I declined and said I wanted to buy a box a bag of flavours I had not purchased were slipped into my bag for me to try when I went to pay anyway. When I went to review LudoTruck I had no embarrassment being 'the blogger' as having read Ludo Lefebvre's latest book, Ludo Bites I know that almost every photograph in it was taken by a food blogger and he even invited some of them in to cook in the Ludo Bites kitchen. And besides, it was a food truck. Who could get all up in arms about manners there? However, when the guy standing behind me in the queue (I was second, he was third) started snickering at the woman in front who was ordering gigantic amounts of food, I joined in (it was rather funny, you had to have been there) and then I went up and ordered double a normal persons meal I did feel the need to admit I was a food blogger, I needed a variety to review and I probably would not be eating dinner that night. He ended up wanting to hear about my blog and the places I have reviewed so far in LA, and places I'd recommend in London, a city I'd never had this positive reaction to food blogging in before.

Okay, so be honest; I promise you won't hurt my feelings. What do you think about people who are always snapping photos with either their cameras or their smartphones in restaurants while you are having you meal at the next table?


  1. This post was really interesting! I don't really think anything of it when other people take pictures of food in restaurants, cause it's something I do too, but at times I feel self-conscious about doing it. Depends on the vibe of the place I suppose, but I'm trying to get over the embarassment.

  2. Kristabel Plummer20 March 2013 at 08:18

    Ah a post I can definitely relate to! For me, I'm so used to being a blogger, if seems perfectly natural to photograph things and capture the world around me. Last time at the diner we actually got asked whether we were part of a photography club and I was a bit dismissive- I expect people to just get it. My friend did get quite embarrassed when I was at the cafe at bluebird photographing plates on the wall and I didn't ask the people who were sitting by it (they weren't going to be in the shot). Is it really so bad that I want to share things and hopefully inspire others to visit too? I recently went to mac for a make up lesson and expected to be able to take a few pics but alas, nada (it was in a private room and I only wanted a few pics of my face that i would have taken in the mirror and the brushes laid out, as opposed to the store). It just annoys me when people can't see the bigger picture!

  3. So... you go out for dinner, and you can order what you want but if someone else wants the same, they have to change their mind so you can have some nice pictures?

  4. This is quite interesting really. I don't find it rude at all to take photo's of your food, BUT, that is probably because 1. I do it too and 2. Nobody ever tries to snap my food before i start to eat. (A good way to loose some fingers) However i don't take photo's of other peoples food who are dining with me purely because i would feel silly asking. (Unless it looks amazing, in which case i can get away with it).

    I don't think i would mind someone else taking photo's of my food, as long as they hurried up about it haha! And as for if they were on a different table, well, as long as they aren't taking phone calls, texting all the time or wearing hats and big coats inside then i can't say it would effect my life in the slightest.

  5. It's interesting how some restaurants are reacting to people taking pictures of the food. Some positively embrace it. Gourmet Burger Kitchen have a whole album on their facebook for people's instagram shots of their burgers!
    I think it depends on the venue. It wouldn't worry me if someone at the next table was taking pictures, and I think with Instagram, whipping out your phone for shots is pretty normal. A big camera is more noticeable, but it wouldn't bother me.

  6. Sirens and Bells20 March 2013 at 12:42

    I wouldn't worry if someone on the next table started to photograph their meal - purely because I'm used to doing it myself. Having said that, when I take photographs of things my boyfriend likes to joke about it, I think he feels awkward!

  7. My boyfriend and I just like food so much that we tend to take photos of it every time we eat out anyway - neither of us blogs, we just really like food. And yes, he also has an obnoxiously large camera.

  8. I sometimes get embarrassed but I like to take the attitude that if it's not interrupting the dining experience of other people why does it matter? I love taking photos of food, I think it makes the best subject :)

    Lottie x


  9. Well, when you put it like that it sounds bad, but keep in mind this is usually with my closest friends and family so it is really more of a playful thing, and I only try and not so subtly do if they are on the fence about what to order, my choice or something else and they can't seem to make their mind up; this seems to happen an awful lot with both Kathryn (my best friend) and my Dad! I would not even do it in jest with people I have not been close to for at least the last 10 or so years!

  10. What do you do with all the photos?!

  11. I do try and be fast with it, and with most people I'm in and out with the shot before the waiter has even left the table after delivering it is it is not really a problem, but my Dad, he's fast with his fork!

  12. Well, I would expect the people at The Diner to get it as how many years have London bloggers been making their cafes their unofficial home and snapping away in there?! And that MAC thing is annoying; the only thing I can remember like that, apart from the Harrods one I spoke about where I got away with it anyway, is you can't take photos in the simply beautiful Kate Spade stores here in America.

  13. Well. He keeps promising that he will edit them, but as far as I can tell they just sit on his hard-drive.

    One day I will use them to make people on facebook jealous ;)

  14. This is the fate of many, many photos I have taken that were not automatically destined for a blog post or the Pilgrims Nook website - I will do something with them one day, promise!

  15. I love to photograph my food, but my boyfriend and friends hate it! I tend to stick to a sneaky phone photo most of the time, and only get out my dslr if I want to write a full blog post about it.

  16. I'm one of those don't-touch-the-food-until-I-instagram-it person! My family and friends got used to it by now and don't mind me doing it, but I don't snap away everywhere. Only at places where I think no one can see me. :D

  17. I'm usually the person taking photo's of everything, and sometime do get quite embarrassed about it, but I usually just try and ignore it and get my shots. I agree about the more upper class places though, there's some places I wouldn't feel comfortable at all.

  18. florenceandmary25 March 2013 at 00:36

    My mum thinks I'm crazy and forever asking "why are you always taking photos of food"!


  19. I love this post as it is an ongoing dilemma for me! In Canterbury it really is unusual to have someone snapping pictures of food, decor and other random details that mean I have to sit or crouch on the floor while my husband stands near me in exasperation (apart from the tourists and I am never photographing the same things that the tourists are taking pictures of!) However, I always ask permission, explain what it is for and more often than not the owners of whichever pub I happen to be in ask me for the blog URL so that they can check out my post.

    My friends I am still a little cautious around - I ask permission from parents if I have a nice shot of their children and normally check with people that they are ok to appear in the blog (I check once, then perhaps cheekily assume that they are ok with it from then on!) - so far no complaints.

    I try to get all my photos done early on so I can then put the camera away and be sociable and enjoy the evening. I take some photos throughout the evening but I am really self conscious of this and try to keep them to a minimum.

    My friends have started to get used to it and joke that my camera is always attached to my arm (or in my bag!). Not sure how I feel about this! Parents are a bit bemused but ok with it. I am getting better with the sneaky quick picture as well, although this sometimes backfires with blurry images I can't use!

    Anyway, great and thoughtful post!

    Becs xx


  20. Tell me about it! Restaurants sometimes they just ignore you but in country pubs? Ahh... Heading over to check your blog out now; so I can find some new places to visit when I come home, see what you might have said about some of my favourites and get one massive nostalgia hit for home! Regardless of where I end up in the world Canterbury is where I will always go back to.

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