Make Restaurant Food Ugly Again


Since there are no bad ideas in brainstorming, here are a few new restaurant concepts:


Sure, the proprietor will have to lowercase random letters or add a pointless "z." They can paint a mural of angel wings near the bathroom and sell distressed logo tees with ampersands in heritage fonts. Whatever needs to be done to get a 5-star Yelp review in this economy.

But know this: It's time for a correction when it comes to aesthetic food. We must release chefs from their photogenic prisons, from the pressure to adorn plates with inedible objects of suspicious provenance. It's time we return to a simpler social media aesthetic, one that rewards a blurry .jpg of a salmon filet shot on an iPhone 3GS and posted to Facebook in 2009. For only then were we free.

The leading evidence is the curious case of the foxtail ferns at a swanky Florida restaurant. The Tampa Bay Times found that workers at Ko, which shares owners and a space in Tampa with Michelin Star winner Kosen, snipped decorative plants from the courtyard of nearby apartments.

My first thought was, "Tell them to come to my house, where ferns subsume my lawn like a botanical heavy blanket." However, the foliage in question came from a high-traffic area where garage water runs off and dogs like to, shall we say, see a man about a horse.

The pruned shrubbery landed among a 10-course dining experience priced at $180 per person before tax and tip. By extension, the pretty platters landed on the social media accounts of influencers who smiled atop blazing green beds of engagement, unaware a beagle named Leroy Brown may have enjoyed his evening constitutional in proximity of the tempura mushrooms. The restaurateurs say they disinfected the ferns, the ferns they no longer use.

And, look. I don't just understand the impulse to share flashy fern pics; I am the mark. As a person raised three days a week by the internet and a tithing member of the Church of Phone Eats First, I take photos of food and don't care who thinks that's annoying. I have not been to Ko, but had I visited in the fern era, my chump face would have been all over Instagram with luxury apartment greens up my nose.

Why? Dining can be a multisensory artistic experience, a communal joy, a cause for celebration. Plenty of cultures take pride in presentation, and there's evidence that a visually pleasing meal literally tastes better. Celebrating a chef's mastery of color balance and spatial restraint is worthy and simply fun. It's also helpful exposure for business owners trying everything to turn a passion into a living.


But the ferns are just one extreme example of a swing toward desperation in an attention economy, a parsley garnish gone wrong. When social media influencers ply restaurants with posts in exchange for payment or free food, the same sharing behaviors trickle down like Leroy Brown's... never mind.

I've fallen prey more than once to emotionally hollow stunt treats. Does a cocktail really taste better inside a pineapple hull? Why is the exterior of the glass covered in crushed sugar that has now fallen down my sleeve? Does sorbet thrive among a nest of acorns? Is a tater still a tot when a foot long? (Spoiler: no.)

I'm not arguing that every plate should be devoid of flair, though there's something to be said for a paper-wrapped breakfast sandwich or a low-lit slab of steak. A spectrum of design exists between "artisanal clippings from the deck" and a "bag-o-Arby's" (also delicious, no hate). Avoiding more Ferngates will require chefs to stop making goofy, obtuse plating choices and diners to resist incurring debt for goofy, obtuse photos.

Besides, anyone who has spent hours zesting citrus and chiffonading herbs in a home kitchen only to turn up a bowl of sludge last seen at the bottom of a garbage disposal knows that chefs deserve a break. Dispense with the eyedroppers and the tweezers. Put down the gelee and the foam. Step away from the mixed-use landscaping, and let the food be yummy. The real content creation is for our stomachs.


Stephanie Hayes is a columnist at the Tampa Bay Times in Florida. Follow her at @stephhayes on Twitter or @stephrhayes on Instagram.


Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate Inc.




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