Shoots, eats and leaves: Lynda Hallinan's unpalatable crash course in food photography
OPINION: Bring a plate, said the invitation, so I packed six into my satchel: a silver serving tray, three op shop finds and two chipped English china plates from my late grandmother's crockery collection. I also took along a clutch of tarnished vintage cutlery, an old school friend and my cellphone charger.
It was a dinner party with a difference.
Last weekend I joined 40 other paying guests at the inaugural #foodographynz dinner at the New Zealand School of Food & Wine in Auckland. A workshop for wannabe food bloggers, we were there to eat, drink and merrily hashtag our way through five photogenic courses, from roast lamb on a bed of peeled broad beans to pannacotta with kaffir lime syrup, for our social media feeds.
How quaint it is to think that, only a few years ago, it was considered rude to photograph your food in public. Top New York chefs threw hissy fits and banned camera-clutching customers from their restaurants, while food writers foamed at the mouth about bad manners and a lack of dining etiquette.
But a generation of food bloggers took no notice as they set up tiny tripods or stood on their chairs to pap their plates and, these days, no one bats either an eyelid or an iPhone at the practice.
Etiquette aside, taking appetising photos of food is harder than it looks. As someone who has never worked in hospitality and whose general idea of plating up is to segregate the protein and homegrown vegetables with a mountain of carbs, it is also, I can attest, quite stressful.
My spare bedroom doubles as a sometime photography studio. While recipe testing damson plum preserves recently, I styled up a bottle of homemade damson plum and peppercorn sauce complete with retro tablecloth, spice jars and a deliberately dirty ladle.
It wasn't until I looked at the photographs later that I realised a blow-fly had committed suicide in the bottle; if you zoom in, you can see its wings sticking out of the sauce.
If food styling is an art form, competitive food styling is a blood sport. The #foodographynz dinner was as high stakes as MasterChef, except we didn't have to actually cook anything, just assemble the ingredients in a suitably arty fashion.
We had just 40 minutes to plate up, post a photograph online, polish it off and move on to the next dish.
No sooner had I started on the Asian chicken salad that my time management skills proved lacking. When the 10-minute bell sounded, I was still dithering over how best to scatter the sperm-like mung bean sprouts over my untidy nest of soba noodles.
Tensions ran high. There were mutterings about some competitors taking more than their share of the snowpeas, while others hogged the sauce bottle.
There were paralysing philosophical debates about whether any dish really needs three types of puffed quinoa as a garnish, or whether it was symptomatic of what Slovenian sociologist Renata Salecl labelled The Tyranny of Choice in a consumerist society.
This is what I learned:
1. It's easier to pimp food that someone else has cooked. It's quite liberating to nonchalantly fling ingredients at the plate, like Jackson Pollock flicking paint at a canvas, when a behind-the-scenes team of minions has simmered, sauteed, sliced and diced everything in advance.
2. You can never have too much greenery. Not just because it's Pantone's 2017 Colour of the Year but because everything from raw fish to roast pumpkin looks tastier with a casual scattering of sprouted coriander or mustard microgreens.
3. Toasted black sesame is crack. (Also, if you eat enough of it, apparently it stops your hair turning grey.)
4. Wait until after you've taken the photo to drown your dinner in delicious gravy, jus or dressing.
5. Smash it. From crushed meringues and pureed peas to chocolate cake reimagined as topsoil, demolition, rather than deconstruction, is the order of the day.
6. Only eat out before dusk. Unless you're a vampire, everything looks juicier in natural daylight.
Private chef-for-hire Gemma Miles was judged overall #foodographynz champion with her sassy composition of salmon and trevally sashimi with caviar pearls, sliced daikon, cucumber ribbons and wasabi crème fraiche on a slate plate. But we were all, as sportswriters love to say, winners on the day.
Seated across the table from me was Pam, a 73-year-old floral artist.
"Goodness," she chuckled. "This is a first: a dinner party where it's actually polite to keep your phone on the table."
- Sunday Star Times