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Navigating the scrumptious world of food porn

Friday - 2/22/2013, 12:50pm  ET

AP: 3db923f9-29ef-4200-b5ae-b2107bdceba4
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Alicia Lozano, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - In a world of smartphones and tablets, food porn has become the more wholesome version of its seedier namesake. Nevermind illicit videos and not-safe-for-work websites -- voyeurs now drool over pictures of pork belly and bacon.

Food porn has become so de rigueur that many eateries enforce no-photo policies. In the District, Komi continues to ban pictures. Rogue 24 has softened its stance against food photography after getting flack for requiring customers to sign a waiver promising they wouldn't snap photos inside the restaurant.

In New York, some chefs are taking charge and offering to shoot professional photos for their shutterbug customers.

All of this points to what Cava Mezze owner and chef Dmitri Moshovitis calls "the Food Network culture," in which everyone is suddenly an expert, critic and aficionado of culinary expression.

"We're at the height of it right now," he says. "People look at chefs and restaurant owners as rock stars and they follow us like rock stars."

Social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram allow customers to have a direct line of access to their favorite personalities and restaurants. Curious about what celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is cooking up in his kitchen? You're in luck:

And it doesn't end with professionals. An unofficial Facebook poll found that many WTOP listeners can't get enough of "foodstagraming":

"I am a huge foodie sometimes I think I should be a critic. I love to cook and I love to share what I enjoy eating," writes Dawn Brower.

"I use Pinterest to do the vast majority of my meal planning ... And when I succeed with a new dish, I usually share it on Instagram or Facebook!," writes Lisa Maloney Keyser.

But not everyone is a proponent of food porn.

"I don't feel the need to photograph everything I cook. I don't need any kudos for cooking food. I didn't turn water into wine, it's food. So sick of all of the food pictures," says Buffy Wheldon Merryman.

Despite the occassional skeptic, recent research shows that most people are guilty of being culinary pornographers. Half of consumers learn about food from Twitter and Facebook, and 40 percent from other websites and blogs, according to a report by The Hartman Group.

"As consumers use social media to discover, learn, and share information about food, they quickly become more active participants in food culture," authors of the study say. "They look to bloggers and the opinions of online others to expand their culinary horizons and make purchase decisions."

Moshovitis, who estimates he has about 15,000 Twitter followers combined through his various restaurants and companies, says social media allows him to interact constantly with his customers. Because he can't be present in all of Cava's nine locations, Twitter gives him the chance to meet his base digitally.

"A lot of the times it's a simple question," he says. "It doesn't always have to be about food. It can be about a sporting event, just anything that's going on in your day."

Some of his most interesting Twitter conversations are about what average people are having for dinner at home. Moshovitis says he gets overwhelmed with responses to the simple query from customers eager to trade tips with a professional.

"It makes people feel closer to the chef, to the owner," he says.

This can also have its drawbacks - a bad photo or review is instantly seen by hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Poor lighting, a half-eaten plate of gnocchi or a disintegrating spicy tuna roll will receive heckles online at best, or draw the attention of a feisty critic at worst.

In one extreme case, a woman in Taiwan was sentenced to 30 days in detention for writing a negative review on her blog, the Taipei Times reports. She was also ordered to pay compensation to the restaurant's owner.

The crime? Writing that the noodles were salty and the establishment dirty.

While bashing a restaurant in the U.S. typically doesn't come with such hefty consequences, director of kitchen operations at D.C. Central Kitchen and "Hell's Kitchen" winner Rock Harper has a few tips for navigating the delicate world of food porn:

  • Ask before you snap a photo in a restaurant.

  • If you're a restaurant owner or chef, offer to provide customers with professional pictures.

  • If you're intent on taking a photo, do it without the flash and don't disturb other customers.

  • Before you post a mean review, remember that chefs have feelings, too.

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