I thought things were all in order for me to wear a GoPro camera obnoxiously strapped to my head and record the entirety of the $200 dinner I was about to consume in New York City. The restaurant, Aquavit, a two Michelin-star purveyor of Nordic cuisine, had taken a leap of faith by giving me the green light to do so. The management promised me a waiter that would roll with the punches, and would seat me in such a way that my third eye wouldn’t accidentally capture other patrons. But there was still one more crucial hurdle—my brother was pretty pissed off about the whole thing.
In his defense, I hadn’t warned him or my roommate, both of whom were dining with me for the evening, of the mission at large: to pull back the curtain on how the 1% wines and dines by documenting my experience from a first-person perspective. Furthermore, the idea was to push the limits of documenting one’s dinner in the Instagram age, and see how being watched changed the experience for all parties involved.
Despite these noble goals, my brother was not feeling it (hence his blurred out face in the video here).
If anything, I had reason to be upset—my companions were two minutes late to the most important meal of my life. Plus, I was wearing a blazer and neither of them were, so my semi-formal attire, minus the device gauchely strapped to my forehead, put us at an equal playing field.
In the end, my brother acquiesced. The argument was the first in what I’d assumed would be many acknowledgments of our fourth wall. After all, the loose game plan going in was to chat with the waiter about the GoPro on my head. I wanted to address it up front just to get it out of the way and to give him an eject button option if it made him feel uncomfortable.
It didn’t work that way though. As soon as we got into the restaurant, it became clear that none of the staff was going to directly reference the camera on my head. Clearly this wouldn’t have been the case had they not been forewarned, but they seemed to have an edict to play it cool—no matter how strange the circumstance. My brother protested still as the hostess greeted us, but she insisted there was nothing out of the ordinary.
Things felt normal in the moment, but the tape tells a different tale. In the video, it’s pretty clear that the couple of staff members in the entrance were looking at us (understandably so), as well as those in the adjacent dining room. There are even a few frames of foreshadowing where our captain strolls through the frame, head cocked in our direction, looking for a preview of what he’s signed up for. The GoPro on my head winked at him with its blinking red light.
Admittedly, a head strap with a camera attached is much more intrusive than the type of devices people normally use to capture special moments at restaurants. By now, most places are used to smartphone snapshots. The appropriateness of the next step up, Google Glass, is still up for debate, but at least that one strives to be inconspicuous. Chefs too have broken the fourth wall via Persicope. But the GoPro is not subtle in any shape or form: It’s a wide-open acknowledgement that you are being watched at all times, which almost steers the experience away from the realm of documentary into that of surveillance.
“The GoPro on my head winked at [the captain] with its blinking red light.”
I wish I could tell you a bit more about the surroundings, but I felt trapped. One of the restaurant’s few rules for us was that we not film other people, which meant I was doing my best not to turn my head more than necessary during the evening. That meant that I couldn’t entirely enjoy the finely appointed furniture that I’d ogled in Google Image results while checking out the place, something I sort of felt like I deserved given what I was paying. Also, I was in pain starting at about 30 minutes in after keeping my torso and neck in a static position to avoid accidental tracking of other diners. I hoped aloud that maybe others wouldn’t realize that it was a camera, that they would maybe mistake it for a medical device and imagine me stricken rather than obnoxious.
Making things harder, I’d failed to break the ice with the captain. Going into the evening I sat down with my editors and planned a couple of lines, real-deal zingers, that would surely gain me a new ally. It never really panned out.
For someone like me, the environment was jarring. I’d never really had a dining experience of this caliber before, one featuring many dishes arriving on many different plates, accompanied by many different kinds of forks. I didn���t know what amuse bouche meant. At one point, a canape landed on the table at a crooked angle, only to be corrected to 90 degrees by our captain, who insisted that right angles were important.
While the environment was somewhat sober, it was fun to watch things whiz by and arrive at our table through various Rube Goldberg configurations: a man brings a fork, bows out for another to deliver a marble disc capped by a glass orb; said orb is removed and dramatic smoke rises to reveal the gravlax and quail egg beneath. Oftentimes things are not really ready for consumption right when they arrive—they need some contributor to come in and pour a mysterious liquid or powder over them. I got to have a conversation about bone marrow. I ate something called an arctic bird’s nest, which turned out to be a chocolate doppleganger of an actual bird’s nest delicately draped in goat-cheese parfait. Very attractive. And, hey, if all this effort is made for the sake of the visual presentation, someone may as well record it.
After all, such a big part of the experience was obviously about performance and theater. There were costumes worn by all—staff and patrons alike clad in things meant to establish their characters in ways that their words might not. There is a plot to be played out, with rising action at each course that really started to ramp up around the calf’s liver and burgundy truffle with celeriac, oxtail, and crouton, and probably hit its peak at the venison. Rehearsed lines of dialog drive the plot, probably at a level that resonates deeper with a more sophisticated diner than myself.
There is also the choreography, where the lesser men and women carrying the dishes must not arrive without the accompaniment of the captain, or someone qualified to explain the compositions to us. This choreography lapses only a few times during the three-and-a-half hour experience, when an underling shows up too soon, delivering an abstract piece of food and then frantically searching around for his superior to arrive with the exposition.
So why shouldn’t a meal be captured on camera? The players are already used to performing their duties under the watch of people who paid a lot for the ticket. It’s somewhat disheartening that one can’t truly own the pure experience and take it home in a figurative GoPro doggy bag. But, in this post-Snowden era, I can afford to be sympathetic toward the notion of not wanting to be watched.
“But why shouldn’t a meal be captured on camera? The players are already used to performing their duties under the watch of people who paid a lot for the ticket. It’s somewhat disheartening that one can’t truly own the pure experience and take it with them in their figurative GoPro doggy bag.”
Suspicions about the Panopticon effect were all but confirmed in the wake of my filming. An hour in, the camera died. I didn’t realize this, but my brother let me know, happy to find an escape from his embarrassment. My Stellar Wind campaign was over and I was no longer recording everything I was doing, which meant, among other things, that I could finally go to the bathroom.
When I got back to my table, the camera now dormant on my seat, looking at nobody in particular, things had changed. I arrived to find our captain chuckling for the first time, engaging in what appeared to be small talk with the others at my table. I could still feel the formality—my napkin had been picked up and folded neatly on the table—but the spell of rigidity had broken.
We could all trust each other again, and my brother was warming up to my excellent japes. As more courses stretched the distance between the recorded and unrecorded portions of the evening, the captain was ready to acknowledge what had just happened.
“How did the GoPro experience….go?” he asked. I still felt alien to some extent. I don’t wear a blazer that often, plus I was wary of mishandling some of the food during the course of my meal, perhaps eating in a way that suggested I was inexperienced. Even the doughnuts at the end scared me. Could a fork be right for this?
As we exited, I exchanged some brief words with the captain, letting him know that he’d come highly recommended and that we appreciated his service. In turn, he let me know that the glare of the camera is maybe too bright for fine dining at this point, for this restaurant, for this night.
“I don’t do very well on camera,” he let out. “I hope it didn’t affect my service too much. I was trying not to acknowledge the camera. If you’ve seen the selfies my wife takes of us, you’d know this was a good version of it.”