Long, long ago – before I got into the restaurant business — I was a commercial interior designer who traveled frequently to New York. Even then, dining out was a passion.
I can recall the beauty of Andree Soltner’s dishes at Lutece. I remember the thrill of eating at La Cote Basque, La Caravelle and Gino Robusti and Bruno Caravaggi’s spectacular Quo Vadis. In the mid-‘80s, when Jonathan Waxman opened Jams in New York, his stunning and thoughtful combinations of sweet and savory, soft and crunchy, blew me away.
LIVING WITH ADDICTION (TO FOOD PORN)
Being a highly visual person, I always, ALWAYS carried a camera which I used for copious visual notetaking — not just of plating, but of the tabletops themselves, plantings, décor, uniforms. As I wrote last week, this occasionally got me escorted out of restaurants – once even chased down the block by an owner who was after my film.
Back before the Internet and the Food Channel, my photos were absolute gold – they allowed me to record dining innovations in New York, London and Paris, and then bring them back to Minneapolis where I could claim them as my own.
The problem was: How to organize and index a bunch of photographs in a pre-digital era? For example, if I enjoyed a wonderful appetizer of, say, smoked salmon at Lafayette, would I classify it under the name of the restaurant, or under appetizers, or under smoked salmon, or under New York? To be comprehensive, I’d have had to make several copies of the shot and file them in several different albums.
And that’s what I did.
As you can imagine, it quickly got out of hand. The Parasole offices were clogged with bookcases filled to capacity with photo albums. If I had a memory of bread service at a restaurant I couldn’t quite remember, it could take half a morning to track down the photo. And the money we spent on film and developing – many thousands of dollars. Remember Brown Photo? I sent the owner’s kids to college!
ENTER THE AGE OF COMPUTERS
The blessed age of computers…and the new ability to scan and store all those images in this thing the youngsters call a database – a key-worded database!
Now I was able to take my previously mentioned smoked salmon appetizer and classify it under all six categories. I could hit any one of them and up would pop up my photo.
Armed with this ability, I uploaded to my database thousands of culinary photos (well, actually, I had Joanne upload them) representing decades of accumulated images – archiving my trips to Italy for Pronto Ristorante and Buca,
the hundreds of steakhouses I visited prior to (and ever since) the opening of Manny’s. We went up and down the coast of California developing Figlio;
all those made it into the database, too.
This was the beginning of the Roberts Restaurant Archive (catchy name, right?). Today, it houses over 70,000 images gathered from our travels around the world and from scanned clippings from the 72 (I just counted them) culinary and city magazines
I subscribe to from around the country and the globe.
It’s easy to imagine my pathetic life…sitting in my easy chair at home with the TV tuned to Pawn Stars as I plow through eight magazines at a time, indicating what needs to get torn out and scanned into the system so that I can return to it later in the day to assign the necessary key words to each image.
THE LIFE OF AN AFFOGATO PAPARAZZO
Here’s a laundry list of what I can call up instantly: 2,540 images of BREAD SERVICE…
6,304 images of STEAKHOUSES…
1,624 images of UNIFORMS…
3,519 images of BISTROS…
and 1518 TABLETOP shots…
Couple that with information on the restaurant category….”What’s Hot” in Paris (1,041 restaurant photos)…in New York (1,242 photos)….in Argentina (276 photos)….
Then there are the food categories. I currently have 7,464 photos of APPETIZERS (186 of CARPACCIO
223 of CALAMARI
479 shots of OYSTERS and 597 shots of SHRIMP appetizers.)
And DESSERTS? 4,217 images (1,308 of them CHOCOLATE.)
A PICTURE’S WORTH A THOUSAND BITES
How do we use all this information? Two ways:
First…IN-HOUSE. Key colleagues sit around watching the images appear on a giant screen for discussion as we explore new possibilities of menu offerings at our family of restaurants…or SUMMER UNIFORM ideas, or GAME DINNER possibilities, or SPRING DESSERTS…
Second…OUR CONSULTING GROUP. Parasole does a fair amount of consulting for other restaurants (when there’s no conflict of interest). And because of our vast reservoir of restaurant information from around the country and the world, it’s extremely valuable to be able to visualize and communicate ideas and sensing images in a form that’s utterly and immediately understandable to our clients.
I’m not sure, but the content, scale and scope of this database just may be unlike anything else in the industry. Maybe Bon Appetit has something along these lines….I don’t know – because it’s not just the images but the keywording – the hundreds upon hundreds of keywords – that make the database so comprehensive and valuable.
One thing I do know about the value of the Image Archive: It sure keeps us SHARP!