This week, I posted a photo that caused quite a stir.
While those who commented or replied agreed with the sentiment that I attached to the photo (which I posted to Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr), I realize, from the reactions it elicited, that my sentiments were slightly misleading.
So, I’ll take a moment to clarify them here.
First, here is the photo and the caption that I attached to it on Flickr (I had to shorten the caption on Twitter, taking out the parenthetical):
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Just because food looks like this doesn’t mean it tastes good (neither does it mean it doesn’t taste good). It seems more and more people are eating with their eyes and ears instead of with their mouths and minds.
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To be sure, this photo was not intended as a jab at Rene Redzepi (chef of noma), or Andoni Aduriz (chef of Mugaritz), or any other chef or restaurant that is plating food in this modern, landscaped fashion. Neither is this a dig on foraging.
Rather, this photo is a commentary on what I’ve observed to be a growing blindness among eaters – be they gastronauts or cooks, bloggers or food journalists – as to what they’re eating. I question whether we’ve arrived at an era where form has outpaced function at the dinner table. Are we eating with our eyes and ears – chasing aesthetics and hype – more than with our mouths? Do we no longer care whether food actually tastes good, or is properly cooked, as long as it follows a certain, visual protocol, which we’ve collectively decided is “cool?”
Or, have we become so smug in or modernity that we dismiss food just because it doesn’t look “modern,” even though the version we prefer is nothing more than a revision of something we’ve seen before?
Do we ignore this version of baba au rhum just because Paul Bocuse has been serving it for decades, and favor instead Marc Aumont’s stunning version at The Modern just because it’s new? Both were fantastic; I really couldn’t choose between them.
Look at Diego Velásquez’s “Las Meninas,” painted in 1656 at the court of Philip IV of Spain. Now look at this version of “Las Meninas,” one of over fifty painted by Pablo Picasso in 1957 in a series of studies.
Who’s to say one is better than the other? Certainly, we all have our preferences. I am not saying that modernity has nothing to offer. Food is art, and art evolves. As a photographer, I’ll be the first to cheer on beautiful food.
At the same time, I eat primarily because I love the sensation of flavors and textures in my mouth, temperatures too. To me, these aspects of food give me the most pleasure. If meaning and looks can be added, that’s also great.
When all the color is stripped away, what I see now is a whole lot of strutting and not a lot of originality. Even worse, sometimes the food isn’t even properly made. Are people fawning over the food, or the style in which it’s presented?
We’ve become so accustomed to this modern, landscaped style of plating that, at a quick glance, the photo I took might be mistaken for a plate of food you’d find in a modernist restaurant. If so, then the photo achieved my goal. I’ve gotten quite a few emails and responses in which people admitted to having been fooled. And their initial reaction was curiosity – they wanted to know which chef, which restaurant served it. Here, form gave it legitimacy, even though it’s largely inedible.
The reality is, I went into my garden and randomly gathered a bowlful of dirt, rocks, twigs, flowers, and weeds, threw them on a plate (with a tiny bit of style) and took a picture. The whole process took less than five minutes.
Very little thought, a whole lot of strutting.