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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!