In 2014, Pete Wells, restaurant critic for The New York Times, coined a new phrase: camera cuisine. In the age of Instagram, he argued, many chefs consider the aesthetics of high-end dishes to be as crucial the way they taste. He spoke with journalist David Sax, who told him, “Food culture today is spread as much by visuals as it is by word of mouth or written reviews. We’re eating with our eyes first.” Some kitchens, Wells reported, had even been redesigned to have more space for plating.
Three years later, Wells’s thesis holds true. Instagram has changed food photography forever, elevating it to the realm of fine art. Popular accounts like Gastro Art, The Art of Plating, and Gourmet Artistry cater to a public that’s hungry for images.
Instagram is democratic in that way; it gives everyone a peek into the world of haute cuisine. Fancy food has become accessible. A parody Instagram account run by the fictitious “Chef Jacques La Merde”– who was later revealed to be a Toronto chef named Christine Flynn— features affordable “junk foods” plated like gourmet meals.
We asked five leading food photographers to take us behind-the-scenes on some of their shoots and tell us what exactly it means to turn edibles into art. Here, they share some of their best stories and tips for working with chefs and food stylists to create unforgettable shots.
1. “Make sure that you’re the one managing when the next dish is going to come out for you to photograph.”
What’s the story behind this photograph?
This was shot for Edible Reno Tahoe. I was the guy at that time who would profile the restaurant/chef featured in each issue. This was for a resort restaurant that was actually closed in the winter, so we had to arrange the shoot with the chef, who came in and made some dishes while the place was actually closed.
We made up a white tablecloth table like they had when they were open, and I worked with the chef, slowly photographing some examples of the menu that he wanted to feature in the article, which would then be on newsstands by the time they were open. They plated this roasted beet, goat cheese salad in the kitchen and brought it out to me. Usually, with chefs, I have them put any liquid on the plate on the table where I’m shooting so it doesn’t flow around the plate and leave marks.
How do you work with chefs and/or food stylists to create artful plates that look great on camera?
It really depends on the client and their budget. I’ve worked on projects that had both the chef and the food stylist there, and that was a kind of collaboration with the food stylist and me, overseen by the chef. I’ve also worked with chefs in restaurants who take plating seriously. Beyond that, I’ve styled my own shoots when I felt the need for an artful presentation in a shot.
Working with chefs and food stylists can be… meticulous. At times, it’s a fantastic collaboration; at times, it’s an arduous process. It takes patience. Usually, the more “cooks in the kitchen,” so to speak, the longer it takes. Sometimes in this process, it is not only me and a food stylist but perhaps an art director with a vote and also the client. And it could be that one or both of those last ones are remote, so it’s an adjustment. Maybe we email or text an updated shot back of forth, etc.
Yesterday, I worked for six hours on a shot of two bowls of chili. On the flip-side, we’re literally getting paid to play with food, and it’s pretty great!