You probably know the scene all too well: You’re seated at a restaurant with friends when the dish arrives. It is so expertly presented that someone feels overwhelmingly compelled to pull out a cell phone to snap a photo. With a quick tap of the finger, the glamorized food image is uploaded onto Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest – for millions to see.
The phenomenon has been referred to as “food porn,” and lately, French chefs are becoming increasingly fed up with it.
A growing number are hanging signs banning photos or reprimanding customers in an effort to crack down. What’s at stake, they say, is not just the convenience of other customers, but a large-scale disruption of the venerable art of French dining by modern social media addiction.
Parisian Chef Antoine Westermann says he is all too aware of the invasive photo-taking. A longtime owner of the three-star Michelin restaurant Buerehiesel in Strasbourg, he now heads the Drouant restaurant in Paris that traces its heritage to 1880.
“This phenomenon happens very frequently. Social media networks are part of our lives now,” says Mr. Westermann. “There are also blogs and journalists … who film their dishes and publish them online. These people started the trend.”
According to the online visual bookmarking tool Pinterest, food photos and discussion were one of the site’s top categories in 2013. A group board called “A Table sur Pinterest” is a popular spot for France’s foodie community.
François Pasteau, chef at the Epi Dupin restaurant in Paris currently awaiting its Michelin star, says that the French controversy over photo-taking has reached a breaking point and that tourists are to blame for most of the problems.
“More and more chefs want to make this practice forbidden,” says Mr. Pasteau. “When you have a customer standing on a chair in the middle of the restaurant to take a photo, we can all understand that this is highly irritating.”
On top of that, says Pasteau, photos often do an injustice to the food, exasperating the country’s top culinary masters.
“The photos are not professional, have terrible lighting, and make the food look bad,” he says. “They go onto the Internet and stay there forever. This can contribute to a poor critique of the restaurant.”
More than just an annoyance
Apart from vexing customers and chefs, photo-taking may also risk disrupting the culturally sacred nature of the traditional French meal, which UNESCO enshrined on its list of world intangible cultural heritage in 2010. The highly complex social practice requires extensive culinary and aesthetic know-how, from top-secret recipes to the art of setting a table.
The French meal is “the act of coming together in a festive way and a moment of identity for French people,” says Giovanni Scepi, UNESCO’s regional officer at the Intangible Cultural Heritage section.
The custom is so sacred that French diners still stay as long around a dinner table today as they did in 1986: an average of 2 hours and 22 minutes, according to a 2010 survey by the official statistics agency INSEE.
The fact that the French still spend quality time around a good meal is “very encouraging,” says sociologist Anne Lhuissier who studies French food habits. It’s a particularly good sign that the custom has stayed strong “despite the increase in fast food and the speed of life, especially in Paris,” she adds.
Because mealtime is so cherished in France, Ms. Lhuissier says the incessant photo-taking by tourists and some technology-obsessed locals could be that much more disruptive to the dining atmosphere for chefs and other guests. If going out to eat becomes a flurry of flashbulbs and demands for photo-ops, local diners may opt for calm, quality meals at home instead. At a time when weak economy has caused many to cut dining from their monthly budgets, restaurants can’t afford to lose even more customers.
A 2012 study by food marketing research firm Gira Conseil showed that restaurant dining at moderately priced establishments declined by about two percent in 2012, and that overall food consumption outside of the home had one of its weakest rates of growth since 2000. Another study by the firm in 2013 revealed that hamburgers have emerged as France’s new favorite food, with most sales coming from McDonald's.
An intellectual property right violation?
Some restaurants, aware of the effects of the crisis, are moving away from the goal of Michelin stars in favor of smaller, more personal establishments. Sociologist Lhuissier says that there has been a shift towards the “restaurant-pub,” where young chefs aim to create the same top quality dishes found in Michelin-starred restaurants, but without the pretension.
“This puts more pressure on Michelin-rated chefs to safeguard their recipes so that these young, innovative chefs don’t steal their ideas,” she adds.
And here too, your cell phone pictures of your dinner are a disruption. Paris chef and culinary professor Erik Seguran goes as far as to call online publication of food snapshots a possible intellectual property theft.
“Restaurant dishes are a work of intellectual property in a way, and this is a big reason why many chefs want to make photos forbidden,” says Mr. Seguran. “You don’t want chefs from other restaurants copying what you’re doing.”
But Béatrice Holtz, a Paris-based intellectual property attorney, says that despite the controversy, food dishes are not protected by the law.
Even when published online, a photo of a food dish does not fulfill the conditions of intellectual property or copyright laws, she says. “If restaurants want to protect themselves, they should put a sign banning photos. Customers have to respect the laws of the restaurant because it’s a private establishment.”
La Grenouillère, a restaurant in the northern town of La Madelaine-sous-Montreuil, recently did just that – by putting the image of a camera with a slash through it on their menu.
But Fred Pouillot, chef and owner of Le Foodist, a center that teaches French cooking and culture, says his business benefits from word of mouth, and online photos play a large part. Chefs offended by Instagramming diners need to move with the times, he says.
“If restaurants don’t want photos taken of the food, they should offer professional-quality photos of the dishes that customers can take home,” he adds. “If they did that, they’d keep control of the photo and get publicity at the same time. A visual image is the easiest way to relate to food.”