The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, Part 2 - Modernist Cuisine

The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, Part 2

MCMay 19, 2011

Climbing the Learning Curve

[See part one of this series for recollections by photographer Ryan Matthew Smith about how he came to join the MC team.]

After editing photos for a couple of months, we realized that we would need quite a few more images to flesh out the layouts of the first few chapters of Modernist Cuisine. Nathan, however, was increasingly busy with both his day job and author duties, so much so that he had almost no time to generate new photos. I was asked to do more shooting; it wasn’t seen at the time as a shift in the lead photography role, just a temporary necessity.

A shot from my first day of work on the book
A shot from my first day of work on the book

To make it easier to shoot freshly prepared dishes, we decided to set up a photo studio around the corner from the newly constructed research kitchen at the Intellectual Ventures laboratory. Our head chef, Maxime Bilet, served as lead food stylist and schedule master for the photo shoots.

Another first-day shot
Another first-day shot

The first months were quite the learning process for Max and me. I had just earned my photography degree from the Art Institute of Seattle, but still I had very little studio experience, and zero experience shooting food. Max had an art background and experience plating food, but only for diners, never for the camera.

The best photo from my first shoot
The best photo from my first shoot

Back then, I didn’t know much about Max or even chefs in general. During one early photo shoot, I saw a fly buzz around and land on the cutting board we were about to photograph. I quickly grabbed the chef’s knife from Max and chopped down on the cutting board as if wielding an axe. Whack!

I cleaved the fly clean in half. Amazed at my feat of dexterity, I grinned over at Max, expecting validation of my daunting skill. Instead, I was met with a stern glare that said “don’t ever do anything like that again.” It turns out chefs’ knives are finely crafted tools and are not meant to be whacked like axes on cutting boards.

Who knew?

The *right* way to use a chef's knife
The right way to use a chef’s knife

Those first few months were like a crash course in cooking, fine dining, and what is (and is not) acceptable in a kitchen. Every day I learned new lessons about the details of gourmet and modernist techniques; knowledge that turned out to be absolutely necessary for both shooting and selecting the photos we used to illustrate step-by-step procedures in the book.

After a month, our style starts to click in place
After a month, our style starts to click in place

Although I started with the cooking skills of a typical American college student, knowing little more than what I had read on boxes of dried pasta, I had to learn quickly what a PID controller is, the difference between braising and pot-roasting, the names of exotic foods such as Buddha’s hand (a citron fruit), and myriad other bits of specialized information.

Buddha's hand citron
Buddha’s hand citron

Luckily, I was working side by side with a team of talented chefs who were happy to share such knowledge and correct me when I missed some important point.

Today I am much smarter about food than I was. I still might not be able to reproduce in my own kitchen all the amazing dishes created by the chefs on the Modernist Cuisine culinary team, but three years of working with them has given me much greater appreciation of their incredible skills and understanding of their techniques. And I’ve also learned how to stay out of their way and respect their equipment!

Maxime has a talent for making food look stunning
Maxime has a talent for making food, such as this cocoa tajarin, look stunning

3 Responses to “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, Part 2”

  1. Bård Standal

    Some of the photographs in the book are just fantastic. Is it possible to buy some of them? I would love to have a couple of them on my wall.

  2. Any comments on equipment used?

    Your work is obviously fantastic- as a former annual report photographer etc. I am most appreciative- lighting is where it’s at, and you have nailed that one.

    I had to get a second copy because my professional chef son to whom I gave the first one was treating his with such reverence that only he could look at it.

    Now, I am involved with the production side of photography. I couldn’t get rich taking photographs nor am I getting rich from the production side although our largest client is in Morocco and the furthest is in China.

    Take a look at out website sometime- we work with some pretty amazing artists- you will recognize some of them. Most are great to work with.

    Now that you are successful, don’t take photography for granted- it is a great way to explore one’s mind.

    best John g