Dear Salty: I was in New York City recently and dined at one of those expensive, four-star sushi restaurants. It’s my once-a-year splurge. The reservation was hard to secure, and I was really excited to sit at the bar and experience the omakase menu from the renowned sushi chef.
The meal was spectacular, except one thing really annoyed me. The chef insisted I not take photos of the sushi. For the record: There was no flash, the phone was on silent, and I’m definitely not one of those annoying folks who takes a million pictures of food and posts it on Instagram.
I respect the tradition and ritual of the sushi dinner, but I’m also peeved that I can’t take a few silent photos when I’m paying $300 for my night out. Am I in the wrong? Can you explain the mindset of the chef?
I’m not sure I can explain the thinking of the chef, hon: I’m a Salty Waitress, not a mindreader. But if I had to guess, there are a few possible explanations for what the chef said.
Let’s focus on your case, the ultra high-end sushi bar. You ever see that documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi? They won’t even let the apprentices cook rice until year seven! (I was wiping snot and cigarette ash off the counter on night one.) At a sushi temple like that, my guess is chefs see their restaurant as, well, a temple. You don’t dab your hand roll into soy sauce, you don’t request spicy mayo, and you’re here to be present and enjoy the moment, not feed your Instagram feed. Their house, their rules.
Or maybe your sushi chef had a bad experience. The New York Times had a story a few years back explaining why “Restaurants Turn Camera Shy,” which included some diners complaining that they couldn’t even start eating until their friend or relative took a picture of their sumptuous meal. And it sounds like not everyone is as conscientious as you are, Kevin: Some folks use flash or even stand on chairs to get that perfect food shot. So when restaurants start getting upset, the article points out, is when that photo-taking begins to interfere with the guests sitting nearby. Said one chef, “It’s hard to build a memorable evening when flashes are flying every six minutes.”
But you’re asking Salty for a possible explanation, not a justification. Because as someone whose goal is to serve customers and make them enjoy their experience, that’s an awfully shitty rule, especially when it’s 2019 and taking a photograph no longer involves explosive flash powder. That sushi chef, I’m guessing, is definitely in the minority.
Takashi Yagihashi, a James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Tabo Sushi & Noodles by Takashi in Chicago, said most chefs accepts customer photography as part of modern day’s dining experience. The stuffiness of fine dining is relaxing even at the super high-end places, he says: “People are going toward that more casual style of dining. And I don’t think we can change that.” Maybe 15 years ago, there might be a few holdout restaurateurs who would flat-out ban photography, but that ship has sailed: “[There’s] no way we can tell the customer, ‘Hey, could you not take a picture?’” The overwhelming number of sushi chefs, Takashi says, will be indifferent, especially if you don’t use flash.
All that being said... I just don’t see what the point of all those damn photos are.
Maybe because nobody really wants to see a picture of a patty melt from my diner. There seems to be a sharp FOMO message—yes, I learned that phrase on Instagram—that folks who want to snap their food are sending out to the world: “Look at this delicious thing I’m about to eat! And you can’t have any of it!” I see both sides: It probably takes no more than 5 seconds to take a photo of your food. But why not just enjoy the food and the pleasure of your company? I am definitely in the minority, because it’s an accepted norm nowadays.
I’m sorry your chef wasn’t flexible, but I hope I’ve offered some possible reasons for his mindset. Maybe he thought you’d be stealing the soul of the food if you took the picture. Most likely he’s a control freak. But I like to think that maybe he just wanted you to focus on that fabulous sushi, instead of on the picture of it you would probably take and maybe not even look at again. After all, not getting the picture didn’t change your overall dining experience, right? I bet it was still delicious.
But if you really like taking food pictures, just head to my diner. Maybe you could even make our patty melts look good.
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