Spreading life stories on a plate
Photographer Jeff Scott describes his new book, 'Notes From a Kitchen,' as a time capsule that contains what famous chefs around the world did at a particular moment in history.
"Most chefs that I know carry around a notepad in their pocket to capture thoughts and inspirations on a whim. I started carrying around notebooks in 1999, while I was still in culinary school. It's pretty humbling to open up a notebook and read your thoughts from 10 years ago, ideas that at the time seemed brilliant but today are embarrassing. When Jeff first asked to photograph them I was hesitant. Chefs are usually shy and deeply private people. Part of the reason we are chefs is because we are hidden away in the kitchen, not having to interact with the public. You don't always see those traits hidden beneath all the glitz and glamour of chefs you see on TV these days. It takes a special kind of person to put your emotions on a plate every single night for hundreds of strangers to judge."
This excerpt comes from the introduction that Sean Brock, the executive chef of Husk, a restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, wrote for the book "Notes From a Kitchen," published late last year in the United States. Jeff is Jeff Scott, a photographer and artist who documents American life and culture, and who was recently nominated for the James Beard award - known as the "Oscar of food" - in the photography category, for the book.
Scott's first, acclaimed exhibition was titled "Vanishing America," and featured a series of photographs depicting a journey across America to typical street corners, all of which are in various stages of decay and disintegration. His photos also received publicity thanks to fashion designer Ralph Lauren, who displayed them in his stores.
Scott's next significant project was documenting the personal effects of Elvis Presley, among them the singer's gun, razor, golden telephone and driver's license. The project, undertaken with the cooperation of the directors of Graceland, the deceased star's estate, constituted the basis for an exhibition and book, "Elvis: The Personal Archives" (Channel Photographics, 2005 ).
Documenting Presley's belongings allowed Scott to better understand "the King" as a person and not just a cultural product per se, says Scott in an interview on Skype from his studio in Austin, Texas. Thanks to that experience, too, the photographer began to work with chefs - and not because of the peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches that the singer was known to favor. One American chef came across Scott's work on Presley and asked him to create a similar project documenting him and his kitchen. That did not pan out, and instead Scott decided to photograph 11 young American chefs, all in their 30s, some of them running their first restaurant, others in a senior position in the culinary hierarchy of a well-known establishment. Scott accompanied them nonstop, photographing them in the kitchen and elsewhere - including in the places where they grow, hunt or gather their raw ingredients. He followed them around in their free time at home and even at the gym. In addition, he asked the chefs to give him journals in which they had jotted down their personal and professional thoughts.
All told, Scott shot some 150,000 photographs as well as many hours of video footage including interviews. Together with chef Blake Beshore, he edited all the materials and adapted them into the two-volume work "Notes From a Kitchen," which runs to 932 pages. A third volume is in the works, as well as a documentary film and an exhibition.
"The American public sees chefs as celebrities," Scott says, "and there is a focus on that [in the media], but that's not the interesting part about who they are. I am trying to restore them to being individuals who spread their whole life's story out on a plate."
The first chef Scott contacted was Emma Hearst, co-owner of Sorella (Italian for "sister" ), an Italian restaurant in Manhattan. A distant descendant of the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Hearst was the youngest contestant ever on television's "Iron Chef," where, ironically, the battle involving making a dish with mozzarella spelled her downfall.
Hearst's male counterpart in the book is Johnny Iuzzini, the pastry chef at Jean Georges in Manhattan, who made his name concocting complicated desserts based on favorite American kids' treats like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Like Hearst, Iuzzini is a chef who looks like a model and has received much television exposure. No fewer than 30 pages of photographs accompanied by text are devoted in Scott's book to his training as a boxer.
Zak Pelaccio is also a New York City chef. His cuisine combines the American barbecue tradition with Asian flavors - a mixture inspired by his experience working at a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. Pelaccio is famous for his use of less conventional cuts of meat, such as internal organs and the heads of young she-goats.
"I do have a moral issue with the treatment of animals and with larger-scale corporate farming," reads a quote from Pelaccio that is printed over a photo of him in his kitchen. "I think that meat should be expensive. We shouldn't take it for granted that we can go to the grocery store and buy huge quantities of cheap meat. I find that disgusting. That's horrible."
The photographs are the foundation to which Scott added layers of text, in the form of quotes, in various styles and colors, from the chefs. The picture of Pelaccio mentioned above, for example, juxtaposed with his comments, reflects artistic thought and feeling, but also the fact that the issue here is how one deals with organs of dead animals. Scott manages to tell the story of Pelaccio's intellectual curiosity, which seems to be looking for an alibi for a murderousness that he cannot avoid.
Chef, filmmaker or poet
Of the 932 pages in the book, 300 or so are devoted to chef Sean Brock, who seems to exemplify for Scott the book's subtitle: "A Journey Inside Culinary Obsession." The latter trait is evident even in Brock's tattoos: One entire arm is tattooed with pictures of his favorite garden vegetables.
Brock is a son of the American South. He grew up in rural Virginia in a coal-mining town that lacked grocery stores, so his family grew most of their own food.
He began cooking at a young age, and after working at restaurants and hotels throughout the south, he settled in Charleston, where he dedicated his efforts to reviving lost Southern cuisine.
"Charleston is a place whose cuisine disappeared into junk food and industrialized food," Scott explains. "Brock's mission was to bring that cuisine back to life."
At Husk, the restaurant Brock opened in 2011, he uses only ingredients that originate south of the Mason-Dixon Line, which demarcates the border between America's northern and southern states. He contacted growers and collectors of heirloom seeds, and together they "resurrected" certain plant species that were staples in the southern kitchen 200 years ago. For example, he has at his disposal in the kitchen a few varieties of rice and peas that have otherwise become almost extinct, pigs whose breeding he monitors, and large marsh mussels that are not in the least reminiscent of the Normandy coast. In 2011 Bon Appetit magazine crowned Husk the best new restaurant in America.
The notebooks the chefs gave Scott are the real gems of his book. Actually, the word "notebooks" is somewhat misleading: For the most part these are little pocket-sized notepads, sometimes just piles of notes.
"Journals are an important way to understand creativity in any artistic field, whether we are talking about a chef, a filmmaker or a poet," Scott says. "Notebooks herald future ideas and also reflect the fear of losing those ideas."
Some of the chefs write in long paragraphs. Others detail lists of ingredients and in between include sketches of dishes. More than containing recipes, many of the notebooks include long lists of ingredients. George Mendes is the chef of Aldea, a New York restaurant offering contemporary cuisine with Spanish-Portuguese influences. Though it opened in 2009, Aldea already has a Michelin star. Mendes makes a point of listing every ingredient he encounters and every dish he has prepared or tasted - from peanut butter to turtle soup.
Sean Brock jots down in his notebook: "What does lilac taste like? Or, "We need a beet salad." And he declares: "I am going to be dangerous working w/Maria" - a reference to Maria Baldwin, whose farm grows the produce for his restaurant. Elsewhere he makes a note to himself to check what chef Inaki Aizpitarte is doing in Paris, and also admonishes himself, "Keep these f------ notebooks nearby & constantly read them - you moron!"
Scott describes his book as a time capsule, containing what chefs did at a particular moment in history. Part of its importance stems from the fact that he views cuisine as the most interesting art that exists today. His work underscores the place the chef occupies in contemporary popular culture, as one who connects the instinctual and the creative, the physical and the spiritual. As the cultural hero standing proudly alongside singers and soccer stars.