Pictures are an integral part of cookbooks these days and last week, we shot the photos for The Banh Mi Handbook. It was scheduled for only three days but our shot list (an industry term for a master list of photos) was jammed packed with 8 to 10 images per day. The working subtitle of the cookbook is “Recipes for Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches” so our goal was to create crazy-delicious looking photos.
On the banh mi team were photographer Paige Green and her assistants Tessa and Morgan, stylist Karen Shinto, prop stylist Tess Watson, editor Melissa Moore, and art director Betsy Stromberg. We’d huddled about the shoot the week before but Melissa, Betsy and I had preliminary discussions long before that. Last week, it all came together. Here’s a look at what went on during the book shoot.
Many people look at the photos in cookbooks and assume that the compelling images are solely made by the photographer. The truth is that it’s a collaborative effort, the product of a whole lot of people.
For example, there’s my food stylist, Karen, who’s worked with me on all of my books. Thank god we’re friends because I ask a lot of her. She works on many projects but mine are not run of the mill. The other day she said, “If you wrote about tacos or cupcakes, I’d totally know what to do because it’s routine food for me to style.” That is, she wouldn’t need me around to pester her to cut or present things in particular ways.
Karen loves physical and intellectual challenges but we always divide up the prep work. I need her to make the food look good on set so I support her however I can. For the banh mi book, I made all the pickles, charcuterie, and baked some bread.
Karen prepped a zillion other things, purchased a mountain of bread and drove all the stuff to the studio. We unloaded the day before the shoot started. During the shoot, I prepped and cooked off things, letting Karen compose and craft the finished “star” sandwiches. We shared the clean-up duties. There was no dishwashing machine in the tiny kitchen.
Each shot took about an hour of set-up, fussing and fiddling. Karen often had to go on set to move things around with tweezers, refresh stuff with a mist of water, and readjust the subject for Paige’s angle, etc. It’s precision work that she makes look easy. There’s an art to creating the food photos look slightly messy. Really. Drips and crumbs are serious things.
We had a small number of props for The Banh Mi Handbook because it’s a sandwich, not fine dining. Tess brought an array of things that would potentially go with the art direction that Betsy devised. These items filled up an 8-foot table and some shelf space.
To make a photo, we conferred about the colors and textures of the composition. Then Paige and her assistant worked with Tess to do an initial set-up. Karen readied the “star” sandwich and brought it on set. A bunch of photos would then be taken, then we critiqued it on the computer screen. Adjustments were made multiple times to the various elements in the sandwich, the lighting, angle, props, surface, etc, until we were satisfied. With this photo shoot, it was definitely a group photography effort. We cracked a lot of jokes along the way too so it was more fun than grueling.
If the star sandwiches weren’t spent, Karen cut them up and we ate them for lunch. It’s always a bit unnerving to see your editor try your food – especially when it’s cold and prepped for the camera, not necessarily for the pinnacle of flavor. Fortunately Melissa liked what she tasted.
When our energy was low, we snacked. Almonds are my brain food, so Betsy got her husband to roast some spicy ones for me. Karen bought me a one-pound bag. Like a squirrel, I was kept quite happy with such a nice stash of nuts. There was chocolate and a Nespresso machine too.
What happened to all the leftover food? We put it all out on tables and people took what they wanted. The mountain of bread was left for the folks who lived in the building where the studio was located.
After a shoot, we typically go out for drinks. Last Friday, we were all so tired by the time we finished cleaning and loading up our cars. It was 7 o’clock and we’d been there since 8 o’clock in the morning. We took a rain check on the celebratory martinis.
When will The Banh Mi Handbook be released? Not until July 2014, exactly a year after I sent in the manuscript. It takes that long so I’m sorry that we can’t get it to you faster. I hope you enjoyed this peek into cookbook publishing.
If you have questions, let me know below!