On a typically high-powered night at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new restaurant, the Mark, Martha Stewart sat at a prime table with a couple of friends. While the conversation stalled, she methodically photographed her food and tweeted about what she ate. Blocks away, at the First Avenue Coffee Shop, a guy was taking pictures of his Greek salad. “He really liked the way it looked that day, and he wanted to show his friends,’’ says Peter Kanios, the proprietor, shrugging.
In this Twitterized age of banal self-chronicling, sharing a photo of something you ate is easier than coming up with 140 characters to describe it. It’s gotten still easier with Twiddish, a new social-networking iPhone app, which asks users to shoot and post dishes from restaurants in the moments before they ingest them.
“It’s kind of flattering,’’ says Richie Notar, a partner in the Nobu chain, who admits that he encourages his staff to shoot interesting dishes when they come across them. “But please, no flash!’’
“It’s gone way beyond flash,’’ says Ian Medwin, general manager of the Mark. “They come in with Hasselblads and these big contraptions. I’ve seen other customers go over and ask them to stop.’’
“It’s not so bad if someone snaps a shot or two, but some of these people start shooting from different angles and then involve our staff,’’ says John Fraser, chef-owner of Dovetail. “We’ve had guys literally set up tripods on the table. But we are very careful about the way we treat these people now. Today’s bloggers are tomorrow’s food writers and critics.” For insecure diners, everybody has the power of the press. “The staff will say, ‘There are bloggers taking pictures at that table, be careful of them,’ ” says Vongerichten.
But can’t people just enjoy the food? Some chefs are fighting back. “I think that photography in my restaurants distracts other guests from their experience,’’ says John DeLucie, the former Waverly Inn chef who now mans the stoves at the about-to-open Lion, which has banned the photo compulsion. Momofuku Ko, Le Caprice, La Esquina, and Corton have done the same thing. “When three tables around the photographers complain, I can’t have that,” says Paul Liebrandt, chef-owner of Corton. “Plus the food should be eaten when it’s hot. It loses something while they are fussing around trying to shoot it.’’
“I just got an e-mail from a lovely woman,’’ says Kurt Gutenbrunner, co-owner and head chef at Wallsé, Café Sabarsky, and Blaue Gans. “She said she loved the food at Wallsé, but found it very annoying that there were people to the right and left of her taking pictures of their plates. I feel bad. I would never do it; I just like to enjoy the food, wine, atmosphere, and conversation. But it’s just what we have to live with now.”
Twiddish co-founder Jonny Cottone says any restaurant that bans his following is missing out on a major marketing opportunity. The app only launched earlier this year, but there are over 1,400 dishes already up, “mostly from New York,” he says. “It’s a great way to bring new traffic in and increase the comfort level for more-conservative diners that otherwise might not be willing to try a new dish or cuisine.”
And there is another benefit, according to Vongerichten, who allows chow shots at all of his restaurants. “Sometimes I do dishes and people copy them. Now they are out there as mine.”
Of course, not everyone is entirely professional. Chefs complain that dishes are sometimes mislabeled, and Le Cirque’s Mauro Maccioni is haunted by a particular fear. “What if somebody decides to buy some rubber bug from the five-and-dime, put it in his food, photograph that, and send it out? That would be the kiss of death for us.’’