Last week found me biking to an industrial building in Verdun to visit a professional food photo shoot. Les Chèvres' pastry chef, Patrice, was working on the pictures for his cookbook and he invited me to come and have a look. I am glad I did. First of all, the pictures they've done so far are incredible. True, his desserts are beautiful, but God knows a bad picture can ruin a beautiful subject. (And the reverse is also possible: a beautiful picture of a bad subject.) The best thing I learned was all the smoke and mirrors involved with food photography.
Flipping through copies of glossy cookbooks can cause serious lifestyle envy for some. I count myself among those who dream of summering at the Vineyard, hosting clam bakes, and having drinks poolside. I don't even have matching silverware. Gorgeous pictures of food, as seen in said glossy cookbooks, make me feel woefully under-equipped and under-funded. I found the antidote to this affliction in Verdun, or at least the cause.
Entering the space, you feel like you're in a long-forgotten storage unit used by a film production company. The lofts are cavernous and filled with large shelves. These shelves are filled with random things, like pieces of cloth, various glasses, boxes, some hunks of wood... I made my way through the different photo shoots until I reached the kitchen studio. A small table was set up for the plated desserts, surrounded by lights and screens. A huge camera was aimed at a piece of wood set on top of a mauve cloth. It looked so surreal. I couldn't help but look past what was framed by the camera: the wires, the mirrors, the piles of random props.
I took the photo above of the noisette et pruneaux dessert from a different angle than the photographer did. It looks like any old snapshot of a plated dessert. In this case, it's a hazelnut cake with caramelized hazelnuts, poached prunes and, oh-oh, was it chevre ice cream? You get the idea. A classic winter dessert. The picture, once it was taken, was so much more than the sum of its parts. The same hunk of wood and scrap of cloth suggested a rich leather sofa beside a fireplace in fall. You could imagine the cigar smoke lingering, the brandy, the dog sound asleep at the foot of the ottoman... After the Hunt, I called it. It was incredible how much they did with so little. And this was only the first picture.
For the next dessert, the mood changed completely. A few changes to the lighting, surface, and colour evoked a lovely farmhouse in spring. The sun was streaming in through the screened off porch. My mind wandered from the house and into the charming country garden. The peonies which have been there since 1921 bloomed in profusion. The children were always careful not to disturb the flowers.
I watched them take five different photographs, each with its own style. All of it was done with only a few props. Of course their camera was top-of-the-line, but otherwise it was very simple and understated. These people are professionals. They took great pleasure in photographing Patrice's beautiful desserts.
Patrice Demers' book will come out in October. I highly recommend it, both for the recipes and the photographs.