This September, Ten Speed Press will publish my new cookbook on Asian dumplings. Though we’ve not finalized the title, I will tell you that it’s a pan-Asian collection of recipes that will give you lots of “Ah hah!” and “Wow!” moments in the kitchen. I’m working with my editor, Clancy Drake, to polish the manuscript (no, a submitted draft doesn’t go straight to print!), and in the midst of that process, we do the photos.
Cookbooks of the past didn’t have photos but nowadays, photos help to set the visual tone for a cookbook. They’re an integral part of the publication. In fact, people often ask me, “Does your cookbook have pictures?”
For the four-day shoot, Clancy put together a great team comprising photographer Penny De Los Santos and food stylist Karen Shinto. Penny is a seasoned photojournalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including National Geographic, the Wall Street Journal, and my favorite food magazine, Saveur. (Her dynamic, vivid photography appeared in 3 stories in the December issue of Saveur.) Based in Austin, she flew in for the shoot.
Karen has styled many cookbooks, including my first book, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, for which she took a research trip to Vietnam. Based in San Francisco, her styling regularly appears in Sunset magazine (just check the tiny print for her credit). Karen also was among the 13 recipe testers for the dumpling book so she knew the manuscript well. That's the two of them concentrating on a coconut at the top of this page.
Prop stylist Natalie Hoelen was brought in to gather an amazing array of dishware, flatware, fabrics and surfaces for Karen and Penny to work with. In professional food photos, not all those dishes are laying around someone’s house. The props are bought, borrowed, created and rented. After Karen unloaded all the props and arranged them, it looked like a high-class yard sale. Think of the food like actors and actresses who need special props and styling to make them inspiring to their audience.
My friends Sue and Jerry volunteered their spacious home for the shoot. A week in advance, Karen scouted the location for Penny to ensure that there was sufficient light. Excellent food photography is done with natural light because the food is illuminated with warmth; artificial light tends to make food look unappetizingly hard and cold.
Karen prepped the food and I assisted her. The first day establishes the momentum so Karen and I strategically planned to have most of the first day’s dishes well-prepared or ready to assemble. We started at 8am and finished with clean up around 5pm, just in time for cocktails and dinner. During the four days, we shot 30 styled food photos and did about 15 pickups (impromptu shots of ingredients, techniques, etc.).
Karen composed each of the shots and worked with Penny to get the best angle. A lot of fine tuning went into getting the final image, and often times, Karen used tweezers to arrange the minutiae. She ironed cloth surfaces and props to crisp perfection too. The finished photos are reviewed and posted so we can make sure that the color and composition flowed well. Clancy and Betsy Stromberg, the book's designer, were on hand to monitor our progress.
Chasing the day’s best light is part of the work, and Penny moved the shoot table (a lightweight folding table I bought at Costco) around the house and eventually outdoors. January has a limited amount of daylight so we worked under pressure to capture the best light. We lost light around 4pm. Our shot list was long.
As a photojournalist, Penny shoots fast and she has the knack for finding just the right sweet spot for each shot. Not all photojournalists can capture action and food but Penny has the unusual ability to do both. She also loves food and couldn’t wait to eat the set as soon as she obtained the shot. In fact, we all joined in to eat the ‘models.’ Everyday, Sue and Jerry ate leftover dumplings for dinner. On one of the days, we shot all deep-fried foods: spring rolls, taro puffs, samosas, sardine puffs, and more. They were so all so good but as Penny said in the early afternoon, “Man, I'm going into a carb-induced coma.” We brewed a pot of green tea and got her workin’ again.
Despite what you may have heard about styled food being inedible, that wasn’t the case here. Karen made the recipes as they’re written and artistically presented them. I was her kitchen slave and dumpling robot. When Karen wasn’t satisfied with my work, she let me know it.
That was the photo shoot for the Asian dumpling book. Lots of fun and creative hard work for a ton of wonderful images. Sorry you’ll have to wait till the book comes out to see them.