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Whether or not you view food as an art form and chefs as knife-wielding virtuosos, there’s no question that restaurants place a heavy emphasis on aesthetic expression. From dish plating, to interior design, to waitstaff uniforms, and even the menu fonts, everything at your favorite spot is tailored to convey a specific spirit that they hope you’ll find appealing. The same is true on social media, where they pepper our feeds with lusty shots of new dishes and prized ingredients. But photographic food porn can only get you so far these days, and a number of Brooklyn restaurants have taken to experimenting creatively with video and multimedia in an effort to strengthen their public identities and draw in customers.
Local restaurant commercials have been around for ages (south Brooklyn’s classic roast beefery Roll-n-Roaster has done some particularly fine work), and there’s no shortage of quirky viral content out there, like the Dos Toros team’s cheeky music videos. But with social media as important as it’s ever been, restaurateurs like Josh Ku and chef Trigg Brown of boisterous modern Taiwanese canteen Win Son have joined other enterprising business owners in debuting content directly on these platforms. Last summer, they recruited their friend Robin Comisar, a director at content studio Ghost Robot, who they tell the Voice is “a huge fan of Tim and Eric and the like.” The resulting #ad — a cringingly funny lo-fi commercial made of fake test footage — features a magic trick gone wrong and Ku acting his normcore best. The whole thing is fifteen seconds long and ends on a lingering closeup of Brown’s much-discussed fried chicken bun. It’s racked up nearly 2,000 views on Instagram.
In December, brothers, chefs, and cookbook authors Max and Eli Sussman turned a running inside joke about 80s sitcom Perfect Strangers into a promotional video for the flagship location of their first joint project, Samesa. The small but plentiful market and restaurant, an ode to the Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese food they grew up eating in Detroit, already had its share of fans, but the Sussmans wanted to do something special to commemorate the occasion. Without their beards, “I think Max looks like cousin Larry, and I think I sort of look like Balki Bartokomous,” Eli tells the Voice. So with the help of friend, director and editor Whit Conway, they filmed (and Conway lent his vocal talents to) an extra-cheesy spoof of the show’s opening credits that explains what Samesa and the Sussmans are all about in charmingly retro fashion. The entrepreneurial duo even got some family members in on the fun. To date, nearly 3,000 friends and (perfect) strangers on Instagram have also watched it.
Live-streaming is the next frontier for video, so it’s no surprise that Olmsted, the ambitious Prospect Heights restaurant that melds chef-owner Greg Baxtrom’s experimental yet approachable and affordable cooking with farmer-owner Ian Rothman’s idyllic vegetable-and-livestock-filled back garden, would be leading the charge. “It seemed cool that a guest could be sitting in the dining room watching Greg plate their dish on their phone or be at home and have a viewing glass into what is going on,” says general manager Max Katzenberg, referring to the camera Baxtrom had installed. The tiny Raspberry Pi-connected setup is positioned over the restaurant’s kitchen pass, providing an aerial view of the back-of-house action. Tune in after 6pm on any given night and you might find the countertop cluttered with colorful dishes as the tickets pile up, a flurry of hands darting back and forth while the chefs add their finishing touches. Better still is Olmsted’s YouTube channel of archived broadcasts, most of which run for the entirety of dinner service, making them roughly four hours long — well within Lord of the Rings: Extended Edition, and Andy Warhol territory. While I haven’t watched one all the way through, there’s a definite arthouse quality to viewing the uninterrupted transmissions, whether they’re of the balletic choreography and numbing repetition of the plating process from a fixed angle, or just 40 minutes of a gatorade bottle and a dish towel at the end of the night.
Pushing this streaming premise to its quirky, albeit logical conclusion is Live On Air, a decades-long dream realized by restaurateur Joe Barbour. The Brooklyn native took inspiration from 1998’s psychologically biting Jim Carrey drama the Truman Show, in which the actor plays a man who discovers that his whole life has been a semi-scripted TV show. Barbour’s Louisiana-inspired cafe and performance space features a small soundstage in one corner and cameras set up in the dining room and kitchen. While you won’t necessarily have your reality shattered digging into kale salads and fried chicken and waffles at the Park Slope spot, eating here does come with a very specific disclaimer at the bottom of the menu that gives the restaurant permission to photograph, broadcast, and use your “likeness, mannerism, and voice without compensation or credit.” Feeling camera shy? The note implores you to “inform a member of our staff immediately.”
One thing Barbour got exactly right was the timing. This is a restaurant that could only exist today, in a climate born from our constant collective selfies, snaps, and periscopes. Live On Air amounts to something akin to a safe space for extroverts, where local artists perform as part of an ongoing collective series and diners are encouraged to join in the fun with a 10% discount offered to those who livestream their dinners. Waitstaff are part of the action too, settling into the corner studio’s directors’ chairs to host impromptu discussions or sit for interviews with Barbour, who posts all of these interactions and more on the restaurant’s social media pages. There’s less of a voyeuristic quality than that of Olmsted’s uninterrupted stream, but though Barbour’s yet to launch any careers, the next viral hit could be right around the corner.