Food for the eyes, but not the stomach
NOT long ago, at a restaurant that regularly tweets photos of dishes as lush as one of Monet's lily ponds, I found myself poking cautiously at perfect circles of glossy black sauce, discs of potato puree that looked like white roses, and cylinders of gnocchi so tiny, they seemed to have been pushed out of a drinking straw.
Tiny, delicate flowers and tender sprigs of leaves rested gently here and there, as if a woodland nymph had tossed them casually from a basket before running off to play hide-and-seek with a den of baby field mice.
The dish was definitely ready for its close-up. It was also, by and large, very cold - no surprise, given how long it must have taken to squeeze and tweeze everything into position.
Not for the first time, I wondered: Am I supposed to eat this or take a picture? I did neither. Instead, I stored the memory away in my growing files on something I've come to think of as camera cuisine.
A side effect of the digital age in food photography, camera cuisine is any dish that was inspired by a picture or aspires to be one.
Like any genre of cooking, camera cuisine varies widely in quality. But, in its purest form, it is both exquisitely photogenic and peculiarly bland and lifeless.
Cameras are on chefs' minds far more than they were a decade or so ago, when most pictures of food were taken in studios under blazing lamps.
Digital cameras that capture high-resolution images in low light opened the game to anyone sitting in a restaurant, from a blogger with a tripod-mounted DSLR camera to an Instagrammer holding an iPhone at arm's length.
As soon as those devices began plugging into the Internet and social-media accounts, food photography stopped being just an illustration for a cookbook or magazine. Now, the picture itself is the story.
"Food culture today is spread as much by visuals as it is by word of mouth or written reviews," said David Sax, whose recent book, The Tastemakers, takes an incisive look at the power of food trends. "It's become a visual medium. We're eating with our eyes first."
The technology has changed food photography deeply, of course. But it's changing food, too.
At the most obvious level, new ideas and techniques zoom around the world with head-spinning speed. It took years for nouvelle cuisine to book passage across the Atlantic.
After Dominique Ansel unveiled his doughnut-croissant hybrid, the Cronut, in May last year, it took less than two weeks for a copycat to appear in Melbourne, Australia.
Chefs who serve camera-ready plates find their dining rooms full of volunteer publicists, who work for free and leave money on the table when they go home.
But the combinations often feel knocked together at random, as if the dishes were determined not by the chef's palate, but by a lottery.
Why does the monkfish get a single roasted kale leaf while the Mangalitsa pork gets tiny cups of raw Brussels sprouts leaves? Why not the other way around? What kind of cooking is this?
I puzzled over this for a few months, and, now, I think I've got it figured out: It isn't cooking. It's plating.
"Kitchen designers say there has been a seismic shift in how kitchens are being designed" during the past 10 years, said David Kinch, a chef who had been talking to designers about redoing the back of the house at Manresa in Los Gatos, California, which was damaged in a fire this week.
Restaurants, his designers tell him, are putting in "more counters and less cooking area, more plating space", he said, "so food can be more composed".
Newer ovens and cooktops gobble less space, making it possible for chefs to install vast runways where plates can idle like fighter jets on an aircraft carrier while every last detail is finessed.
But great food is rarely static. As soon as it leaves the kitchen, it's changing. In general, it's getting worse. The souffle is sinking. The arugula is wilting.
Sax notes that Instagram is clogged with pictures of barbecued brisket and steak. When we taste something spectacular, we still want to take a picture. I hope chefs can remember that, or we'll all have to get used to eating things that our mouths will never like as much as our cameras do.