The Daily Edit – California Sunday Magazine : Mark Mahaney

- - The Daily Edit

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California Sunday Magazine

Design Director: Leo Jung
Photography Director: Jacqueline Bates
Photographer: Mark Mahaney

( For more images visit californiasunday.com )

How did the shoot days unfold and how many days were you there?
On the first day of 2016, my assistant and I flew from San Francisco to Sydney, where we were slated to stay for nine days to document Rene Redzepi, arguably the most famous chef in the world, as he and his main team of chefs busily and scientifically attempted to plan the menu for their 10 – ‘pop-up’ restaurant in Sydney, Australia. The whole concept of the ‘pop-up’ was for Redzepi and his staff to entirely close the doors of Noma, his wildly praised restaurant in Copenhagen and for the entire team to temporarily setup shop in Australia where they’d take a crash course in local ingredients and traditions to put together (from scratch) a menu that is innovative, yet delicious, worthy of its $340 per person price tag. For the 10 week stint there were only 5600 individual seats available and they all sold out in about a half hour with 30,000 people on the waiting list. He and his chefs were under an incredible amount of pressure to make something magical happen from local ingredients most of them were tasting for the first time. When I arrived, they were only three weeks away from their opening night and not only did they not have a single one of their 15 or so final dishes perfected, but the kitchen wasn’t even fully built out. The restaurant itself was an active construction zone. Thomas, one of the two head chefs, would be experimenting with new flavors one minute and installing a sink or the oven’s ventilation system the next minute. It was an intense circumstance for me to walk into. Even though they were all super friendly and surprisingly accommodating, I could tell they would’ve preferred I not be there. If I’d been under the amount of pressure they were under, I wouldn’t have wanted ‘me’ to be there either.

But I was there and I felt pretty fortunate to be there. It’s rare to be able to witness the process of an individual who is deemed among the best in the world in their particular line of expertise. And I was surrounded by six of those individuals; not only by Redzepi, but his five person test kitchen team, each of whom specialized in their own particular facet of the eventual menu.

Even though I was there for nine days, we had no idea what sort of access we’d be granted.  There were however a few things that were made known to us. We were warned Rene disliked being photographed and to make it quick and painless. We were told we’d be working around a documentary film crew while we were in the kitchen. We were told to try not to distract or disrupt the chefs as they were under incredible time constraints. We were told we’d need to be flexible.

Tell us about the shooting in this pop-up kitchen.
We arrived at the kitchen on the first day, completely jet-lagged, and were quickly introduced to a few of the test kitchen chefs. We were allowed to walk through the actual dining room which was full of men and women wearing hard hats while drilling, sawing and trying to make sense of a room that at that time bared zero resemblance to the beautiful room it would eventually become. There was so much work to be done, not only on the menu, but also the physical space itself and instead of being there to document the finished product, which is typically the case on assignment shoots, I was there to photograph the process of this whole effort as it inched toward fruition.

On that first day we had come to introduce ourselves mainly to Rene and had planned on coming in the following day for the only one on one moment with him that I’d have for portraits. We never did see Rene that day, or the next. It turns out Rene’s whole family had the flu and it ended up hitting him as well. So, I dove right into covering whatever was happening in the kitchen while trying to stay out of the documentary crew’s shots. The main star of the show wasn’t there, but because of not knowing what sort of access we’d get over the next few days, I had to make the most of what was there.

Between then and the day Rene was able to return to the kitchen, numerous hiccups happened in the kitchen and Rene hadn’t been there to taste or give input on any of the attempted dishes. As a result, the stress level was peaking for their whole team, including those who were dictating the amount of access we were being given. I think everyone was a bit nervous about how Rene would respond on his first day back to having any press inside the kitchen, so we were all told we had to leave and it was left a bit nebulous as to when we could return and how much access we’d have from there on out. So, at this point, I’ve flown around the other side of the world, had been there for three days already without seeing the main person I was there to photograph and was fairly unsure as to how the rest of my time there would unfold.

You mentioned Rene didn’t enjoy being photographed, how was your first meet up?
The next morning we got there bright and early and the writer hoped that if Rene could meet me that he’d feel comfortable with me and we’d be able to explain our intentions and needs. I’m also a father so my instinct was to start talking to him about parenting and figured it’d be a good place to connect with him on; especially since Rene and I are almost the same age and both have younger people helping us who are not parents, who, for better or worse, do not have that added element to their everyday equation. He couldn’t have been more kind and after I shared with him exactly what I hoped to achieve, he seemed excited and told us we were more than welcome in the kitchen, overruling what we’d been told by others I’ve learned in the 8 or so years I’ve been doing this, and well before during my assisting years, that it often helps to go directly to the top when you’re trying to make something happen. In this case, it worked out in our favor.

Tell us about how the portraits came about, they all share the same emotional thread, so much intention; like Renaissance paintings.
I certainly lucked out on this front. Rene and his five supporting chefs are all quite striking and super photogenic. This is rarely the case. It sounds bad, but normally there’s at least a person or two who you aren’t super jazzed about photographing. But literally everyone, including the people we met on the farms later on in our trip, all of them were pretty easy on the eyes. I had that going in my favor for sure. As for the look of the portraits and images of the chefs, there were two approaches to those photographs. While documenting inside the kitchen, because things were still under construction, they had all the windows blocked so it was quite dark with just the existing artificial lighting overhead. Jacqueline Bates and I had brainstormed over email beforehand and had a few ideas for key imagined pictures that were fairly reliant on me bringing in my own lighting. Although, after feeling out the energy of the whole production, I didn’t dare add any strobes and just decided to embrace the existing light. After taking a few pictures, I was pleasantly surprised to see how they things looked on the back on the camera. There were these really bright overheads that would shine down unto the metal cooking surfaces, creating this incredible bounced glow on the chefs. It was like having a permanent, built-in bounce reflector everywhere you turned. That’s why all the images of the chefs at work in the kitchen have that unified look. I did a decent amount to them in post to take the look a step further. Even though everything looked great, it was still very dark in there. I was shooting mainly handheld since I was constantly following the action, often positioning myself under the lens of the documentary film camera or jockeying for position with the sound guy, etc. I was shooting at slow shutter speeds with the lenses aperture as shallow as they’d go, so I was thankfully able to capture most situations without blur. Some of the main portraits California Sunday chose to publish were taken in this setting.

Where were the portraits taken? kitchens are typically bright.
I tend to always gravitate toward daylight, especially the sort that tends to hang like that in those old dutch paintings. So this is what I did for the second approach to some of the portraits. During very rare slow moments in the kitchen, I asked and the individual chefs were gracious enough to give me 2-3 minutes to photograph each of them. I’m so grateful they gave me this time. 2-3 minutes sounds like nothing much to give, but they were pulling 20 plus hour days on their feet, so to get any of their time felt like a victory. My assistant and I found this little spot that was basically inside of a small closed off area that was under construction. And at a certain point in the afternoon, the light was just right in there. We figured out that if the door going outside was positioned just right, almost closed, but not quite, that a sliver of sunlight would reflect off the building next-door and would bounce perfectly through the small crack in the door. We photographed Beau first this way one day late in the afternoon. The other chefs weren’t available. The following days we were to leave to photograph down at some of the farms. After photographing Beau we were told that whole area we used to shoot his portrait was likely going to be dismantled by the time we returned to Sydney. My assistant and I were so bummed to perhaps have to photograph the rest of the portraits anywhere else because it had been so great. Thankfully, after two days at the farms, we approached the restaurant, my fingers were literally crossed, and was so relieved to see our make-shift studio spot was still standing. We did the remaining 3 portraits there and would eventually get nothing more than a few minutes to do something similar with Rene. Again, I’m so grateful it worked out that way.

Your food still life, looks like a painting, it’s so rich, did that direction come from the magazine?
There were some key pieces of direction given by Jackie, but the main objective was to shoot as many different aspects to illustrate what it takes for a world-renowned chef to build a restaurant and new recipes from scratch. So it was important to get pictures of ingredients from the farms that paired well with recipes the chefs were testing with those same ingredients.  You’ll see this in a few of the final images they selected. In some still life images at the farm, I photographed muntries and lemon aspen being held in the palm of a hand. Those ingredients ended up being the key ingredients of one of the main dishes they came close to finalizing while we were there, which was the ‘Native Fruit Dish.’ Seeing something in the field and then on the plate ended up working out well together.

As for the lighting and approach to the still life food images, I treated them in the same way as the day lit portraits I described above. They were literally taken in the exact same space and lit in the exact same way.  For backdrops, I either used pieces of wood I found in the scrap pile at the construction site or we used the raw, unfinished floor. In the case of the ‘Native Fruit Dish,’ it was on the last day we were there. We begged Thomas Frebel to create something that resembled a final dish to photograph. He obliged. The construction crew had just pulled some of the cardboard up off the floor of the dining room, so we decided to photograph the dish against that newly revealed reddish floor. I’m pretty happy with the lighting on that one. I wish someone had taken a photograph of me and my assistant while during that shot. It would’ve looked like we were nearing the climax of a game of Twister, our bodies contorted in odd ways to either block or bounce light. The majority of that image is lit by subtracting light.

As for the still life images of the ingredients at the farms, it was unrelenting and sort of unflattering sunlight all day long, so in an attempt to bring a bit of continuity between that fairly harsh light condition and what I’d already done at the restaurant, I tried isolating the main hand or ingredient against either a dark backdrop or an area of shadow.
I feel like it nicely works with that sort of glow that happened in the kitchen images.

Working there is executing at the highest level, ALWAYS.
What was it like to experience that and in turn try to capture that?
It was impressive to watch the process of the individual chefs. The setting was quite interesting. Each chef was typically completely engrossed in their own individual world while testing or playing around with a recipe. Often German house style music was blaring as the soundtrack. Pretty funny touch of ambiance.

There were times when it was a bit confusing what the chefs were even doing. Like true scientists in a lab. Like witnessing unbridled creativity. That’s essentially what you taste when you eat food they cook.  Every once in awhile, the chefs would meet up at one of the stations to take a moment to taste what the other has conjured up. I witnessed such focus and optimism and truth in their reactions to the taste tests. So supportive of one another. Like they were fully aware that they strength of the whole unit was greater the sum of their individual strengths. It seemed like an egoless space. Even with Rene, he was clearly the decider, but you could tell how much he respected the input of those working for him. I’m sure there were plenty of heated moments that arose within that kitchen during the 10 weeks, but I certainly didn’t see any of it. It was fascinating to watch the faces of the chefs as Rene tasted what they made. Their expression didn’t really change much whether Rene loved it or disliked it, but energetically a bit of glow appeared if his reaction landed on the side of love.

Did you try any dishes?
Because there weren’t any final dishes created during our time there, we didn’t get to try much of what they made. At one point, Thomas put down a bowl of chunks of something yellow with a green oily substance drizzled over it. He motioned for us to enjoy it. I had no idea what I was eating other than the fact that it was the most dynamic taste I’d ever tasted in my life. I’d spent hours watching them do what they do while thinking to myself, ‘how good could this really be?’ And believe me when I tell you it was absolutely mind-blowing. It turned out to be pineapple (I had no clue at first)with a reduction of oils from certain local plants over it. And that ‘Native Fruit Dish,’ yeah, I ate that and it was insanely good. The lemon aspen in it, which we were popping in our mouths at the farms like one would raspberries off a bush in the US, tasted like tiny explosions of lime sherbet. So good.

How difficult was it to edit your own work for this?
Well, even though there were days we couldn’t shoot or days where we only had access for a few minutes, I was there for nine days, so there were a ton of photos to sort through. That was likely the most overwhelming part. It took a few days to go through once returning back to the states. Beyond that, I don’t recall it being much different from other projects. In post, as I mentioned, I tried my best to bring some continuity to the treatment from photo to photo. It’s not everyday a magazine orders around 40 final images for one article. It was a lot to tackle, but so worth it. It’s also not everyday you get 21 pages of photos in a magazine, including the cover. I have a ton of respect for California Sunday. They’re certainly deserving of all the praise that’s been heralded in their direction. I’ve been trying to be super selective about the work I take on, but Jackie could call me and ask me to take a photo of a tire and I’d run to do it.

How did that experience transcend if at all, into your own pursuit of excellence?
I’m not certain it impacted much. I, like so many photographers am highly critical of my own work. I’m always trying to please and never disappoint, so I’ll keep trying at something, reworking the light, or moving something here or asking the subject to turn their neck ‘just a little bit this way’ and I keep going until I feel like I’ve gotten it right. I just do the best I can do considering the situation and depending how resourceful, calm and creative I happen to be in that moment. I think that’s no different with the chefs. I mean, they’re literally geniuses, in a league above all else, but it seemed like their pursuit to just genuinely do the best they could do was not dissimilar to my own.

Heidi Volpe

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