Food Photography

Love Notes to Culinary School by Anne

I've had almost a year post-graduation to reflect on my experience of culinary school, and it's almost been enough time to clear the weird post-school haze out of my brain. There was so much focus, angst, passion, apathy, tomfoolery, testosterone, and Sriracha sauce behind the scenes.   Soon I hope to share useful or interesting info and ideas from school that I learned along the way but was too harried to sit down and jot out, let alone photograph.

But meanwhile, for today, here are a few pictures.  I've had the joy of being "allowed" around campus with my camera.  I hoped to give a sense of what life is like at Seattle Culinary Academy when people are in the zone.  It's a great school--in my opinion, the best one around here.   I love the fact that we didn't just learn traditional French cookery, although that was one component.  Where else in the world would I have an intense, high speed opportunity to learn about and cook different cuisines around the world, from Japanese to Oaxacan to Middle Eastern?

Then, of course, there was the sustainability component.  At school they had classes on sustainability in the world of food.  This focus ranged from farm to restaurant to policy-building.  The classes--and the instructors' passion--were key to the quality of the program, in my opinion.  They were inspiring and motivating.  There were farm visits, growing our own greens in the campus greenhouse, and practicing nose-to-tail butchery (using the whole animal).

We learned fundamentals, such as making a good stock, sauces, and how to season properly.

bakeshop.spreading
bakeshop.spreading

I know less of the pastry side of things because the program is separated so that you select culinary or pastry for your focus.  I did have several rotations in the bakeshop (or as the culinary students called, it, Bakation. It really does have a balmy, dreamy vibe in there).  However, my friends in the program liked it as well.  It's just a completely different experience, the two programs-within-a-program.

One thing that impressed me about the chef instructors is their desire to see us succeed beyond the program.  In other words, if people needed a job they would definitely look to the instructors, who would help them find leads using their own connections in the industry.  They weren't just great teachers, they were mentors.  People sort of gravitated towards their favorites.  One of mine is pictured below, preparing for a modernist cuisine lesson.

It wasn't my favorite part of the program, but we also did "Front of House" training (i.e., serving the guests/customers in the two restaurants the school runs).  I used to wait tables, and how in the heck did I do it?  I must have changed.  Some people really do an amazing job of it, making it look effortless--they appear gracious, friendly, and thoughtful.  I only hope that I appeared that way, but inside I felt awkward, physically uncomfortable, and grumpy.  There is a real psychic toll that it takes, and I don't even know why.  Guests would be perfectly nice, and yet by the end of the shift I would be gasping to get out of my uniform like it was made out of lead.  Anyway, I have a true respect for waiters that I only thought I had before.  In my opinion, being in the kitchen was better, but front of house workers can make or break a restaurant.

One of my favorite parts of school, that I wish I could keep doing forever, was experimenting and recipe developing.  What a fun job it would be to create new, delicious dishes out of a given palate of flavors.   It would be a bonus if I could do this with healthy, sustainably grown, beautiful food.  I've had a little bit of a chance to do that out of school for my various jobs, so that feeds me, so to speak. 

The Tin Table by Anne

This weekend is special for my friend Hallie Kuperman.  She owns the Century Ballroom, and Friday kicks off  The Century's 15th anniversary party, which this year will be a weekend-long celebration. You are invited.  Have you ever seen this place?  It's upstairs in the Oddfellows Hall on Capitol Hill.  Shiny wood, swirling dancers, vintage details...it is a timeless place that sends music out of the open windows and into the world, intriguing passersby outside.  Those inside feel lucky to be there. In fact, I remember dancing at The Century's first anniversary party--how can it already be 14 year ago?--and thinking how amazing it was to be part of such a magical place.  I still do.  A few years ago Hallie extended that magic right across the hall by creating the restaurant The Tin Table.  It's named after a giant tin fire door they found inside a wall during remodeling.  It now proudly welcomes guests into the heart of the dining room, repurposed as a majestic table.  I love that they reclaimed this treasure that was stuck, hidden behind walls, and they brought it out into the open for people to sit at and celebrate around.

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IMG_7891

Recently Hallie asked me to take some shots of The Tin Table's latest menu for their website.   Chef Travis Chase has such a natural and elegant style!  He just makes it all look effortless.

Chick Pea Fritters.  Honey Yogurt, Frisée, Cucumber, Chive Oil,  Preserved Lemon

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IMG_7929

Sturgeon. Shaved Fennel, Red Onion, Red Pepper, Scallion, Harissa Vinaigrette

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IMG_7908

Braised Beef Short Rib.  Creamy Parsnip Purée, Braised Greens, Rapini, Smoked Port Reduction

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IMG_7975

Cassoulet . Pork Belly, Lamb Leg, Flageolet Beans, Herb Brioche Crumbs

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IMG_7954

 Warm Pear Tart. Cream Cheese Crust, Pears, Praline Ice Cream, Goat Caramel

If you come out to The Tin Table, I hope you enjoy one of these beautiful dishes.  Or maybe try the egg noodle tagliatelle with rabbit ragu and black trumpet mushrooms.  It's the soul-feeding kind of dish that makes you feel like your dearest one lovingly prepared it for you after a long day.  Especially if your dearest one has a sense of elegance, style, and beautifully balanced flavors.

Whether you come out this weekend to dance and drink a toast to the Century, or you visit another day to sample some of Chef Travis' creations, I think you'll find yourself deliciously transported into a place that could be your second (fabulous) home.

IFBC Part III - What Would Penny Think of this Pic? by Anne

Penny De Los Santos, a phenomenal photographer for magazines such as Saveur and National Geographic, sent me into engrossed contemplation about my photography these past couple of weeks since the International Food Bloggers Conference. And I’m not alone.  Dana Treat

Her presentation on food photography moved us to tears, shouts of laughter, and a standing ovation at IFBC. When I sat there, inundated with her stunning images and her passionate wisdom, I felt helpless with a heart swelling out of its shell—enough to break that shell. The tips and gems of her philosophy about photography were simple, perfect, and true, and they hit me at just the right time. It was food for the soul.

I would like to share another batch of pictures from the conference, imagining what Penny might think or say.

First, I loved her reminder about a picture telling a story. Surely I have heard this tip before, but Penny’s pictures illustrated this storytelling in a deep way, further helping me to get inside this idea. Even if my story is simple, it helps to involve the viewer in what she’s seeing. For this reason, although I made several compositions of the gemlike beer glasses below, my favorite is the one that has a hand in it. I am really in love with that hand.

zbeer

Penny also suggested that photographers give food some space—some room to read what is happening. Here, I did it:

Theo Chocolates

Here, I didn’t:

Grapefruit

In this picture above I made a shot of something that you, the viewer, may or may not even understand, but I couldn’t help myself. This grapefruit peel, striped with light and riddled with texture, called to me. I don’t know how I could have given it space while still being inside the pitcher, unless it was in a series of photos showing the final Sherry cocktail, the “Fino Sling,” being poured here:

Making a Fino Sling

I think it turns out that I love hands. And stuff being poured.

Anyway, Penny says to find the light, and then make a picture. I'm all over that.  I found some light in that pitcher of grapefruit peels, and if I hadn’t been ravenously hungry after a long afternoon of panel discussions, I might have taken more time with this picture story.

In her presentation, Penny also encouraged us to stretch ourselves by concentrating on different compositions. You know you are in a rut if you keep taking the same kinds of pictures over and over again, at the same angle, at the same distance.  

She also encouraged us to give ourselves assignments and take at least one picture (such as a “journal” picture) every day. I love this—it’s so true that the more we produce, the more we grow. I like how she told us to trust our instincts. To listen. To make pictures (not take them). And to be open. This one is really hitting me right now. Being open. Speaking of an artist being open, check this guy out.

Flamenco Guitarist for Secret Sherry Society Cocktail Party

Is he open? Is he serene or is he distant?  From my perspective I felt like a giant wall thicker than those bricks between me and him when I took this picture. What do you see? When I first saw him, he seemed to be ignoring all of us, his audience, when he played.  Maybe it was a soulful thing. For some reason, I find this picture compelling in its closed-off quality. He’s a handsome dude, but it just adds to the discomfort. What do you think?

Look at this guy, now.

Mike Dash, owner of Rolling Fire Pizza

He’s also looking off into the distance, doing his creating thing, like the guitarist. But he looks more serene and open to me. He has spaciousness in his demeanor, but the other guy doesn’t. Was it the shot I took? Was it their own spirits at that moment or even all the time? Hard to say because photos are so elusive. They are simultaneously a single moment and forever. Beautiful photographs me feel happy and lonely all at once for this reason.

It just occurred to me that I find (m)aking pictures of people and food to be weirdly similar. Once I get into working on a shot with, say, an apple, it doesn’t take long before that piece of fruit becomes like a person for me—complete with a personality and a presence and a history. The big difference is time: many foods—but not all foods—are more patient than people. So I have time with an apple, to find its side that says the most about its soul. We don’t always get that chance with a person on the street. All the more reason why I admire Penny’s work. She really seems to be plugged into the world with gusto, and you can tell by her pictures.

Anyway, I feel so grateful to Penny de los Santos for bringing me into a new place of openness with myself and others as I create pictures right now. It seems like I’m getting back to making pictures of people again, after a fairly long hiatus from portraits, and I think this change will actually help my food photography. And I think it means that my heart is growing and my eyes are opening. After her talk I even had the courage to find a candid laughing moment of Penny in all her vibrant power. 

Penny de los Santos

Thank you, Penny.

Pistachio Portraits by Anne

pistachio.rosemary.loop On Wednesday I took a food photography class taught by Helen of Tartelette, which was hosted by Viv of Seattle Bon Vivant.  It was a lovely time.  I cast a handful of pistachios as the special guest star of my camera, with a supporting role played by a sprig of rosemary plucked from my front yard that morning.  It's deeply gratifying having time set aside like that, with no other reason to be there than to observe and capture images of a beautiful food subject.   I feel lucky to have had that time.

pistachio.hammered.metal.perfect

The longer I sat with the pistachios, the more in love with them I became.  As you can see, I was close enough to kiss them.  Their subtle color nuances astonish me.  Since Wednesday I continue to think about those pistachios--they even followed me along into a salad I made tonight.  I love how their colors interact with changes in their environment.   In tonight's salad I was blown away by how bright green they became when they were wet with orange juice.  Something tells me there's another pistachio photo shoot in my near future.   Here are a couple more pictures from Wednesday. 

Rustic Pistachios

pistachio urban close

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Food Styling Workshop by Anne

biscotti As the food stylist Delores Custer says, "When you like a food photograph, who do you usually give credit to? The photographer."  And where are the credits for the food stylist?  "In the gutter."  I thought she was making some kind of bitter joke, but actually, the gutter is the place in the magazine that's so close to the binding that we hardly see it.  I just went and checked the gutter of a few magazines and saw no credit for the stylists.  From here on out, though, I'm keeping a lookout and giving due props for pictures I like.

A food stylist is responsible for making food both visually appealing and mouth-watering.  These two qualities don't necessarily go hand-in-hand.  Have you ever seen a food photograph that is gorgeous and artful but not necessarily something you would want to eat?   Maybe that shot was intended to "sell" something else besides the food (such as a lifestyle shot).  Or maybe the person is a great photographer but has little experience with styling and shooting food.  I could go on about this for a long time. It's a fascinating and subjective part of food photography--making it mouth-watering.  Delores would show us two beautiful food shots that were presented differently and asked us which we would rather eat.  The response was, literally, 50-50. 

Even though "mouth-watering" is subjective, food stylists do have some great tools that they bring with them on shoots to help optimize a food's beauty and delectability.  Some common tools include a small atomizer to create subtle moisture on produce, a paintbrush and vegetable oil to create sheen, and tweezers to carefully move tiny items around, such as a wilted piece of lettuce.

Delores pointed out that a food blogger has to be the art director, food stylist, prop stylist, and photographer for food shots.   Good point!   I have a hard time imagining these jobs being separated out for four people. I wonder what that is like. Those people would have to be real team players.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons Delores split us up into pairs to style food for our photographs.  This was challenging and completely hilarious.  Viv and I paired up.  Viv is a gracious, gregarious, generous soul who didn't mind that I was completely spazzing out with the vegetables.  At one point someone stopped by our table to see what we were up to, and it looked like a salad spinner sneezed on our table.  Whatever we were working on seemed to be buried under three kinds of lettuce.  We laughed more than we styled.  After much flailing with the salad concept (the "art director's" job), our various chopped and sliced veggies evolved into something kind of elegant-looking. This final arrangement took about 3 minutes after half an hour of the aforementioned spazzing and flailing. 

endive salad

As another part of the assignment we also took some pictures of biscotti (as seen above and below), but in comparision to the salad assignment, this seemed more natural and effortless. 

I learned a lot working with Viv.  Much of this seemed to occur to me after the fact.  Her natural elegant flair was really great to be near, and I will be able to take that with me to future sessions behind the camera.  I'll bet that lots of people learned much from their partners in that class.  It was a really good idea.  And--I'm not surprised to learn--Delores used to teach 5th and 6th grade!  Go, teachers!

biscotti square

Gorgeous Glut of Cupcakes by Anne

cupcakes

My friend Ammi loves baking so much that she has often celebrated her own birthday by baking herself a cake.  The whole experience makes her happy, from finding a recipe to try, to taking the first bite with friends.  It's inspired me for several years and has caused me to want to bake cakes, too. 

Since Ammi had a baby, though, baking cakes has taken the back burner--or bottom shelf-- for now.  Instead she chose to celebrate by inviting us to indulge with her in obscenely delicious cupcakes from Trophy Cupcakes.  I could be wrong about this, but only a few years ago it wouldn't have been possible to find an individual cupcake this good.  Nowadays, however, it seems like Seattle cupcake spots are as ubiquitous as coffee shops.  No, that's crazy talk.  But seriously, where did all of these places come from?  How are they staying open?  

I remember hearing around town that gourmet cupcakes were The Thing, and feeling charmed by it.  How long ago was that?  Five years?   I think the trend started with a Sex and the City episode, but wow.  Obviously people were ready for it.  Between those and fine donuts, it's as if our poor little rich country was starving for sweetness and comfort, in small, hand-held servings.  Soon after this Atkins-backlashing phenomenon, there even seemed to be an influx of gourmet carb coma products that weren't even edible, such as buttercream lipgloss. 

I loved the notion of cupcakes.  They are adorable, sweet, like your cute little buddy.  A tiny island of luxury.  So when I first went to pick up a gourmet cupcake at a shop dedicated to these confections several years ago, I was surprised to taste a dry, crumbly cake with a too-sweet frosting that was also a bit dry and crumbly.  I returned to that spot some time later and ordered another cupcake, selecting one that was recently frosted.  Then, at least, there was a chance that the frosting would be soft and creamy.  That worked.  Those two experiences cured my curiosity for awhile, but when I would sit at that shop for the free wi-fi, sometimes I was tired of coffee and obliged to pick up another cupcake to buy my time at the table.  Obligatory cupcake-eating. It was fine, but far from transcendant.  For several years, my feeling was, "Yeah, yeah, cupcakes." I'd try a new, seasonal flavor, but I'd never write home about it.

Fast forwarding to the last year or so, it seems that a new, robust competition has arisen among cupcakeries in the Seattle area.  Nobody has said this, but I sort of get the sense that the place I first tasted a "gourmet" cupcake has become more of a ghetto cupcake place compared to some recent specimens I've sampled. 

Trophy Cupcakes and Wink Cupcakes in particular are both phenomenally dreamy.  These companies seem to make a concerted effort to ensure that their cakes are delicate, moist, and loaded with intense flavor.  The frostings are also not overlooked.  When I first saw the tall layers of frostings on these cupcakes, my stomach turned as I imagined a sickly sweet, yet flavorless goop that was colored with dye to match the cake. However, the frosting is just as thoughtfully prepared-- created to enhance and complement the cake. 

For example, tonight, my lucky husband's "Chocolate Graham Cracker" cupcake was topped with a ridiculously smooth and velvety marshmallow cream, piped on in a textured tower and then toasted with a torch to accentuate this texture in swirling, golden-brown stripes.  That is correct: Michael was eating the most elegant yet playful S'more you ever saw (it's partially pictured on the far right in the pic above).  Also, I was relieved that Rosalie was not interested in the cupcake that I ordered for her, because that lemon cupcake tasted so vibrant next to its coconut frosting, topped with a toasted puff of shredded coconut.

Only now am I starting to respect the cupcake phenomenon.  I mean, if these are supposed to be gourmet cupcakes, I am glad that there are places worthy of the cupcake connoisseurs out there.  And I'm glad that my friend had a chance to enjoy the cake experience that she loves so much, even with her cute little cupcake of a daughter hindering her own birthday baking this year. 

wink.cupcakes