But First, A Photo
"How difficult can it be to take a photo of a cup of coffee?"
I can hear the incredulous comments from a couple close to us. I agree, it's ridiculous. It's been more than five minutes since our drinks arrived and I've yet to touch one. In fact, it's quite impossible since we moved all of the necessary cutlery and accompaniments to a neighbouring table. A macabre roulette of orders has seemingly shifted each cup two seats down, then across. All in the name of taking the perfect picture. In this case, you could say I'm working; but how many people have had similar experiences when dining with friends?
It's a phenomenon that every diner is familiar with. As soon as the food comes out, so do the cameras. The perpetrator, stereotypically Asian, absolutely must get a close-up of each of the dishes arrayed on the table, followed by a larger one of the full table. For the more socially-inclined photographers, this might mean a Snapchat/Instagram Story/Live Stream of fellow eaters before finally digging in. Solo eaters aren't immune to the fallout of the food photo faux pas. Perhaps its the novice smartphone snapper using flash at the nearby table. Or it's the DSLR junkie with the too-large lens slowly backing into your chair in a vain attempt to get a picture of the whole group. Whether you find it charming, necessary, or insane, one thing is for sure: our food obsession is here to stay.
In some ways, food is the new religion. With phones in hand we bow our heads, store another few megabytes into the almighty Cloud, then proceed to eat. R-Amen. It's a ritual. A compulsion that often finds us observing the world through our screens before we even realize it. For a dedicated foodie, pics of meals bygone litter our phone's storage like digital leftovers.
Why do we do this? Is it a bad thing? They're questions that I - and, undoubtedly, today's eating buddies - repeatedly ask ourselves as we arrange tables at Cafe Neon's Wallace Street location. We're displaying absolutely horrible picture taking etiquette at the moment. We've annexed enough surrounding tables to declare a sovereign country. One of us is apologizing profusely before standing on a chair to get an aerial view. In my groggy, pre-caffeine state, I'd be irate if I weren't complicit. I just want my drink.
Because we can.
Yet, before sipping my now-lukewarm matcha latte, I succumb to the siren call of my phone and capture one picture for myself. The act is effortless - a couple swipes and taps. The answer to my question could be just that: because we can. Now, in an era of ubiquitous digital cameras, exponentially expanding storage options, and increasingly better ways to share our photos there are no barriers to a harmless picture or two. Gone are the days of carefully rationing film or lugging a separate piece of equipment. Our phones sit on the table, whether we're at the greasy diner down the street or celebrating at a trending restaurant in town. It's certainly part of the answer, but I have a feeling it's not the whole picture.
Perhaps the culprit is this generation's favourite scapegoat: social media. As I catch a glimpse of a man sitting outside taking a picture of his takeout coffee cup, I can understand how we can come to that conclusion. We now live in an era of transparent communication. We can share status updates in real-time. We can invite entire social circles to our meals with the tap of a touchscreen. We also carefully craft what the digital world now sees. Food - especially good food - is still a luxury; it's all too easy to live behind the façade of decadent dining and parties when, in actuality, last night was Lean Cuisine and Netflix. In fact, our collective obsession with this digital one-upmanship is so egregious that it's drawn the ire of pop-psychologists. In 2013, Eater reported that one doctor suggested that people who take a lot of pictures of food could have mental or health problems (well-trained rationalists will also shudder at the same article's mention that Dr. Oz claims that looking at pictures of food porn will make you fat).
But technology is simply an enabler, not the cause for our current food obsession. It's just too easy to blame our current predicament on social media. Where some see a modern-day Frankenstein's monster, I see a mirror. For as long as humanity has been self-aware, we've been staring deep into the waters at our own reflection. Narcissism isn't a new, post-Y2K term; it's a term as old as the ancient Greeks. Some people like to take selfies. Some people like to take pictures of food. Some people like to take selfies of themselves with food. Similar behaviour has occurred for a millennia - we've just taken it to greater heights.
Though our obsessive nature hasn't changed, it's clear that our relationship with food has. Look just a couple generations back and food is more a fuel than a pleasure unto itself. Over the course of time that's changed, and no milestone speaks to this better than the rise of the celebrity chef. Nowadays, Toronto foodies can recognize Susur Lee just as well as they can Brad Pitt. Anthony Bourdain's latest show, Parts Unknown, reports as much on world politics and social issues as it does on food.
But long before we were screaming "bam!" as we rained chives onto a plate, we had Julia Child. Her 1963 show, The French Chef, might have started it all. The program came at the perfect time. A more widespread adoption of television beamed her dulcet tones across the continent; it turns out that TV (and now YouTube) is a great way to learn how to cook. And just as important was the end to a series of World Wars that tapped all resources and collective consciousness. Rations were replaced for a relative time of plenty, and slowly we started to answer the question "what's for dinner?" with "what do you feel like?" rather than "whatever's cheap". Tutored by kitchen personalities and supplied by an ever-growing abundance of new - and quality - ingredients, we've learned what makes good food good.
When our mains arrive, the cameras come back out. Though simply done, it's easy to tell that the menu at Café Neon has been sourced and made with care. The cheeseburger on the menu isn't just a cheeseburger; it's made with dry aged chuck served medium, topped with white cheddar, and served on an onion bun. The Winter Bowl is a behemoth of plant-based satiation - including kale, braised cabbage, wheat berries, and a sesame dressing. Even the cafe's Greek Yogurt Bowl is more than meets the eye: thick, almost cheese-like scoops of yogurt topped with seasonal fruit and a honey drizzle. Because of the ingredients and preparation, the food is special: worthy of a picture.
The Chef's Table effect.
Now, more than a decade after the Food Network singlehandedly launched the restaurant empires of the likes of Jamie Oliver and - sadly - Guy Fieri, our tastes have continued to evolve. The hallmark of that generation was the commercial kingdom: multiple international restaurants, book deals, and a TV show. In this generation, we've come to recognize the potential for a chef to be more than a simple craftsman. Chefs can be artists. The plate - and sometimes the whole table - can be a canvas for a piece of art that attacks all of the senses. We take pictures of food in much the same way that we turn our camera lens to monuments, paintings, or sweeping vistas. Food is, in some ways, even more special because of the fleetingness of that beauty; it lasts only until the first bite. Whether it's a tweezer-perfect arrangement of edible flowers and foams or a cheese-pulling slice of pizza, it's possible to find art. Simply put, we focus on what captivates us.
Just enjoy it.
Cafe Neon's first lunch customers begin to walk in as we sit and resist the urge to pick at one last forgotten fry. For some, the cozy restaurant might be a welcome respite from work. For others, perhaps merely a necessity - the closest spot for midday fuel. If we lingered long enough, we might just be able to spot another moonlighting Instagram Influencer on the prowl for fresh content. Whatever the clientele, one thing is for sure: there will be pictures.
It doesn't really matter the reason why food has become such an ingrained part of our popular culture. Talk about food. Write about it. Take a photo. Ignore it if you find no joy in it (but why are you reading a food magazine?). It matters not what we enjoy, or how we do it. Just, please - don't stand on the table.
Do what we say, not what we do.
Unlike some restaurant horror stories, our photography ruckus was completely sanctioned. We called Café Neon weeks in advance to arrange the perfect time to shoot. It was off-peak on a Wednesday morning; usually a time with more staff than customers in the shop. And the staff was in on our plan to recreate the very worst food photo behaviour.
Getting that perfect shot can be fun - sometimes necessary if you're working. But it's also important to know when you've crossed the line. Unfortunately, the simple advice of "be considerate of other people" just seems too broad for some people. So, here are some of the worst breaches of photography etiquette we've seen and how to fix them.
Don't stand on chairs.
Imagine being on a quiet date, the romantic reverie suddenly broken by the screech of a chair. The perpetrator, rather than sheepishly looking around or apologizing, has instead decided to bring their photography to new heights. They look ridiculous, as if they're going to launch into a Broadway musical number or just plain rob the joint. It's distracting. You're getting footprints on seat. The best case scenario is that you just might topple off of it.
The best example of how I've seen a group of Influencers actually pull this off was with a portable step stool. It's unclear if they requested it from the restaurant or brought it (that's dedication!). But, again, I know they were invited to the restaurant specifically to take pictures, and it was well before the first rush of actual customers.
Don't put food on the floor.
Need we remind you that the floor is a dirty place? In fact, it violates some basic food safety codes. Yes, your plate might look awesome contrasted against the polished concrete floor. But there are much better ways to execute this. Perhaps the restaurant has a nice looking bar to snap a shot on. Maybe you could hold the plate. Maybe you could just accept the table.
Don't block the door.
There's some rather nice coffee shops in Toronto. Some of them have witty doormats or nice tiling. You might be tempted to update your feed with a shot of your latte art and said sign; by all means, shoot away. Just, remember that people also need to use the door for ingress and egress. I don't know why we needed to state that.
Mind your flash.
We've all been there. It's a beautiful plate, but that cozy candlelit restaurant is cramping your style. You might just be tempted to switch on the flash - that's what it's there for, right? Firstly, your iPhone flash is just going to wash out the plate. Still, if you're reading this thinking to yourself "if it's good enough for Martha Stewart, it's good enough for me", consider this: flash is irritating. Please don't blind your guests and others around you.
You might want to consider upgrading to a more robust dedicated camera and lens if you absolutely must hit those shots. And, if that's not enough, consider asking the manager for a private table where you can be more judicious with lighting supplements. After all, if that picture is mission critical, that means you're doing it for work, right?
Words by Nicholas Wong. Photos by Abhishek Dekate.
Shot on-location at Cafe Neon. Special thanks to the amazing staff for the good food and fun.