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October 18, 2013 4:22 pm
A reader emailed recently to relate what had happened over dinner at Medlar in Chelsea, London. The evening, he said, was spoilt by camera flashes as the couple at the next table took photos of one another and of every dish they were served.
This is now an all too common feature of restaurant life. So too is the sight of smokers picking up their wine glasses and heading outside between courses for a nicotine hit, a practice that, ironically, coincides with a trend for tasting menus that rely on a constant speed of delivery.
As I pondered these things, I came to the conclusion that the two individuals who have had the most influence on contemporary restaurants are neither chefs nor restaurateurs. They are Michael Bloomberg, who as mayor of New York initiated the ban on smoking in public places, and the late Steve Jobs, whose iPhones collectively snap more pictures of food in a day than the most illustrious food photographer does in a year.
Before attempting to find a modus vivendi for these issues, I spoke to William Guidara, the restaurateur behind Eleven Madison Park in New York, which has a complex tasting menu; and Mark Williamson of Maceo and Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris, where smokers are at least “chic”. I also talked to Bruce Poole, chef-proprietor of Chez Bruce in London who, unlike many chefs, puts himself in the customer’s seat.
It was Poole who raised a novel consequence of the smoking ban: the increasing popularity of electronic cigarettes. “We weren’t particularly happy about this when it happened for the first time quite recently,” Poole explained, “because it [the electronic cigarette] looked real and even gave off an admittedly odourless vapour. We chose to do nothing but it caused a few raised eyebrows.”
Williamson spoke for most restaurateurs when he referred to the smoking ban as a “godsend” that has led to a healthier environment for his staff and millions saved on redecoration costs. While Guidara acknowledged that smoking breaks do make the timing of a tasting menu more difficult, he highlighted a far trickier issue: how to handle a solitary smoker at a table of non-smokers. “We ask the table whether they would like to continue waiting – or do we put the absentee’s dish under a cloche?”
The problem of cameras in restaurants is more complex. All agreed that the small number of their colleagues who choose to ban phones entirely are in the wrong. For three reasons I agree with them. First, restaurateurs make a considerable amount of their revenue from customers celebrating an event – a birthday, a wedding anniversary or a family reunion – so to ban even a brief commemoration seems mean. Second, to argue that it could interfere with the privacy of others seems undemocratic. And, finally, to ban this practice outright seems a reflection of weak management. As Poole put it: “By banning them altogether, we seem pompous and overly serious.”
It is not just the recording of pleasure that is at stake, either. Williamson admitted to “doing the photo thing too, and that any restaurateur would be a fool to knock free publicity”. It is the flash that is the unwanted aspect in the dining room for restaurateurs and, I believe, for the vast majority of restaurant goers.
Guidara’s team, who explicitly ask guests to refrain from using a flash camera, go out of their way to help preserve the memory of what is an expensive, but excellent, experience (the menu is $195 per person). Poole, who has been responsible for the success of Chez Bruce for the past 20 years, put forward a broader perspective of the scene he is directing. “We like quite dark, cosy lighting here, which obviously maximises the discomfort caused by the flash of a camera and this is exacerbated wherever the tables are close together which, given the way rents are going, is increasingly the norm.”
I would argue that flash photography should be banned, and cameras permitted, but at the discretion of the management. Williamson ended our conversation, by noting that today’s clientele has evolved, and the 21st century has brought in the “Nomadic Diner”, someone who cannot sit still for longer than 90 minutes. Restaurateurs need to evolve too.
Someone within the industry should lay down new ground rules for the use of cameras. I suggest restaurateurs should upload photos of all their dishes on to Instagram, leaving their customers more time to enjoy the occasion.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
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Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10010, +1 212 889 0905, elevenmadisonpark.com
2 Bellevue Road, Wandsworth Common, London SW17 7EG, 020 8672 0114, www.chezbruce.co.uk
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