As I write in today's review, there's almost nothing missing from The Whale Wins, the wonderful new restaurant from Renee Erickson. But what's missing from our coverage is a portrait of Erickson, who was felled by bronchitis before a photo shoot.
According to our photographer, Joshua Huston, Erickson initially indicated she didn't want to pose for a picture unless she could first read my review. After Huston explained nobody's allowed to read the review before it's published -- and assured her that we never run portraits with pans -- she relented, even offering to supply a photograph when she couldn't make the appointment.
Erickson's gesture was much appreciated, but I'm still not certain exactly what a chef or restaurateur's portrait adds to a dining review. As a reader, I'd much rather see the food or the venue, which is notoriously difficult to describe accurately in the short space allotted for scene-setting. I nearly always devote a few sentences to the room's lighting, layout and furniture (a weekly task that always makes me grateful for a graduate school class devoted to American cabinetry and chairs), but images do a far better job than words of conveying a restaurant's look.
Perhaps because I'm accustomed to sizing up restaurants, I like review photos crammed with information about what restaurant guests wear and how they order: Arlington Club, the subject of a recent New York Times review, may fancy itself an old-line steakhouse, but the Times' photo of three women in fashionable black, drinking martinis and eating sushi, makes clear what's really afoot. The image is unlikely to win any awards -- or even second glances -- but it helps the reader, which is my overriding goal.
I wondered whether perhaps Huston shoots portraits because the process helps him forge a deeper understanding of the restaurants he's sent to cover. Turns out he just likes taking pictures of people, and he's following a directive that dates back a few art directors. Since his portraits are reliably lovely, I hope they'll remain a fixture of his accompanying slide shows. But the logic behind running a portrait with a restaurant review continues to elude me, just as I don't understand why book reviews are sometimes illustrated by an author's photograph. I suppose it's nice to know who to congratulate should you see him or her walking down the street, but what difference does it ultimately make whether a meal's made by a fat chef or a thin one?
There are exceptions, of course: When a restaurant is inseparable from a person, such as the barbecue pit masters who've dedicated their lives to one-man operations bearing their names, a portrait can be fantastically evocative. Interestingly, when asked to name a portrait which was more successful than a food or interior shot from the same session, Huston picked his portrait of Heaven Sent's Ezell Stephens, who nearly fits that description.
Yet in the vast majority of cases, a portrait's not necessary. Nobody needs to see Erickson to appreciate the excellence of her roast chicken, for example. For more on that incredible chicken, and everything else that makes The Whale Wins so special, my review's here. And a slideshow of non-portraits is set to post shortly.