Lifestyle

Saturday 23 August 2014

It's the eat-and-Tweet craze!

We all enjoy a nice meal out, but do we need to document it too, asks Joe O'Shea

Not in my restaurant: Michel Roux Jr doesn't like diners to photograph their food

Diners who Eat and Tweet had better beware. You could be driving your fellow gourmets to distraction and making a mortal enemy in the kitchen.

The recent craze for live-tweeting restaurant experiences, complete with arty Instagrammed photos and a course-by-course critique, is causing consternation among chefs and customers in some of the world's best restaurants.

And a growing number of high-class establishments are banning smartphones and cameras from their tables, coming down hard on what one Michelin-starred chef has called "the height of bad manners".

So-called food bloggers, amateur critics who record their dining experiences in often minute detail, are facing bans from posh eateries in London, Paris and New York.

Known in the restaurant trade as "gourmet tourists", they are accused of irritating fellow diners (often by using flash-photography and tapping away on smartphones or tablets), boasting about their lifestyles and showing disrespect to their chef.

In London, celebrity chef, Michel Roux Jr, has advised customers at his two Michelin-starred Le Gavroche, that his staff will not look kindly on tweeters and bloggers who show "the height of disrespect".

"It should be flattering, but it annoys me when I see people taking photos of their food," says Roux.

"It's disruptive for the people around them and it spoils that person's enjoyment of the meal. Personally, I think it's incredibly poor manners."

Roux says that while a persistent offender may get a quiet word from the maître d', a smartphone and camera ban would be too difficult to enforce.

However, his counterparts at the seriously fashionable Momofuku Ko restaurant in New York's East Village are not so reserved when it comes to dealing with amateur food critics.

Staff at the white-hot "American Nouveau" establishment have been known to ask customers seen taking snaps of their food to put their smartphones away or risk the ultimate and highly embarrassing sanction, a stern request to vacate the premises mid-meal.

Here in Ireland, our leading chefs and restaurateurs say they have had to adapt to the rise of social media and the fact that a smartphone now makes every customer a potential critic.

Máire Flynn, who together with her chef husband Paul runs the very popular Tannery Restaurant in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, says the rise of food blogging and "Eat and Tweet" has taken a little getting used to.

"I did look at people who constantly had their phones in their hands, tapping away or taking pictures, and wonder if they were really relaxing and just enjoying the meal," says Máire.

"And it can be a bit unnerving, when you realise they could be doing a running criticism of the food, especially when you might know that they have thousands of followers on Twitter."

Máire says she and Paul decided to just jump into the social media revolution, they both now use Twitter and regularly interact with customers, even if it's to deal with complaints.

"If somebody is unhappy with any part of their experience at The Tannery, we will try to interact with them and deal with that.

"It's just part of the business now, you can't ignore Twitter and Facebook."

"And we are both now very big tweeters. We are in a pretty out-of-the-way location here in Dungarvan so it's a great way to reach out and interact with people, to let them know what we are doing and build up a personal relationship with customers."

Celebrity chef Neven Maguire, chef patron of MacNean House in Blacklion, Co Cavan (recently named the "leading restaurant in the country" by the author of The Bridgestone Irish Food Guide) is entirely positive about social media.

"If people are tweeting about their food, if they are taking pictures to say to their friends; 'Wow! Look what we're eating!' I take that as a great compliment and to be honest, it's free advertising," says Neven.

"I do it myself. But I always make sure to ask the maître d' if it's okay. I was over in Gordon Ramsey's place in London recently and I was snapping away, because I enjoyed the experience. I have a lot of followers on Twitter who are chefs or just really into food and I love to share that experience with them."

Neven believes the super-posh restaurants in London and New York who are now clamping down on smartphones could be seen as being slightly snobbish.

"Look, as long as you are not annoying other diners with lots of flash photography, what's the problem?

"When people come to high-end restaurants, it's often a big occasion, a birthday or whatever, and I think it's only fair that they can share that experience with their friends". Neven also interacts with his followers as much as possible, even live-tweeting the launch of his most recent book, The MacNean Restaurant Cookbook, to his followers.

"I had a man recently who tweeted me to say he was having problems getting through to make a reservation so I asked for his number and told him we would look after him.

"When he was finding it tough to get a reservation for the day he wanted I told him we would put him on a cancellation list and do our very best to get him in. It's just part of the business these days".

Máire Flynn says that in a tough economic environment, restaurateurs have to see social media as a valuable tool.

However, she warns of the dangers, including the risk of inadvertently offending customers.

"When we did start off on Twitter, we would occasionally mention something funny that a customer had said or done in the restaurant, pretty harmless fun," she says.

"But we soon realised that while it might strike us as hilarious, the customer themselves might not find it as funny if they recognised themselves on Twitter or Facebook. So we stopped that!"

Irritating or complimentary, it seems the craze for live-blogging our dining experiences is here to stay.

In the wider hospitality business, sites like TripAdvisor, which generates ratings for hotels, bars, restaurants and visitor attractions from the public, have become immensely powerful (Maguire says he seldom goes anywhere abroad without checking it out first on TripAdvisor).

Restaurateurs who ignore the power of social media, or try to enforce smartphone bans in their dining rooms, may find they are on the losing side of the social media revolution.

Irish Independent

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