food

Bunker Vietnamese - How to take better food photos on location

Bun-Ker was one of the restaurants that really put Ridgewood on the map. Back in the day, Ridgewood was just a sleepy neighborhood with nothing exciting around. The first touch of hipsterdom was Bun-Ker Vietnamese, this restaurant in what was basically the middle of nowhere on an industrial stretch of Metropolitan Avenue. I remember when I first drove by and saw a crowd of people huddled outside and thought "where the hell are they going?" That popularity begets growth, though, and times change. Bushwick has grown radically since those days and Bun-Ker traded one obscure location for another, and simplified its name to just "bunker". The food, though, has gotten even tastier. Have a look.

Bunker Vietnamese
99 Scott Avenue
Bushwick, Brooklyn
$$$
★★★☆☆
February 16th, 2017

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This was one of my first photos of a restaurant dish that I did some intentional styling on. For years I've been photographing dishes exactly as they're served, which doesn't always make a compelling image. So this time I played around with adding some of the ingredients that make up the dish. In this case, the summer rolls, or gỏi cuốn,  contained mint and basil and the sauce contained peanuts and chilis. Deciding what to do with each of the items was a bit of a challenge, and I definitely moved that pepper around several times. Here a few photos I took along the way, to give you an idea of how it came to be.

So that was a fun beginning to styling food images, and you saw that I got much better at it by the time I went to photograph Cebu later in 2017.

I didn't do a lot more with the styling here after that initial experiment, though. On the papaya salad, I had a sad little pile of peanuts that looked a little too intentional. But the light is good, so that's nice. I tried a few different compositions and styling, but the light shifted away from this spot so none of them were quite as good as this one.

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The next dish they brought me was this fried crepe filled with bean sprouts, called bánh xèo. I had no idea what it was at the time. I was also surprised by the amount of greenery on the plate, which is always a welcome addition.

I decided to switch up the location on this one and move to a spot with better light as well as a little bit of character from the restaurant. they have this round counter with a planter in the middle filled with bamboo, something unique I've not seen elsewhere. I felt adding the bamboo leaves to the frame helped to put the food in context, giving a little a little hint of vietnam's tropics.

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I kept the bamboo leaf vibe going for the next dish as the sun was just starting to hit the leaves and give them a nice glow, which I felt added a nice dimension fo the images. Although looking back at it, they may be a little too bright and stealing attention away from the rolls. This whole looking at year old images thing really gives some perspective, haha.

I think these are called c hả giò, spring rolls.

I think these are called chả giò, spring rolls.

Next up was the Pho, which for me was one of the starts of the show. I struggled to include some stuff to style in this one and ended up with just the two little peppers. I'm also noticing now that that bamboo leaf is a little on the sad side. But the red bowl and the spots of red beef in the pho pull the eye, so it's still pretty eye catching (and tasty).

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We picked up the pace to move through more dishes, so I cut back on the styling and just went with simple images for the rest of the shoot.

This next dish went through a minor change in styling, but I feel it makes a bit different for folks who obsess over patterns: going from three cucumbers and two tomatoes to three cucumbers and three tomatoes. I also rotated the pork chop slightly to give it more prominent placement. I also had never before seen the steamed pork quiche, called Chả Trứng Hấp, and that was pretty mind-blowing. So luscious and fatty.

I really love the design inside Bunker, it's a very fun and colorful spot with a lot of character and I wanted to work that into these images. You know how I love interiors, given that the bulk of my photography is either food or places. Why? Because it all goes together to inform the experience. Being in the place sets the mood, it starts to transport you, and then the plate arrives, culture and history right before you that you get to ingest and become one with. It's a beautiful thing.

Anyway, that's why I always want to get a bit of atmosphere in with my food images, because when you're eating at a restaurant, you're not just having some food, you're getting an immersive experience. 

Blurring out the colorful chairs in the background helped to play them down a bit so you can still focus on the fish. Your eye starts in the top left corner and is lead right by the colors and lines, then your eye hits the vertical lines of the bottles, which brings you down to the lovely fried fish

Blurring out the colorful chairs in the background helped to play them down a bit so you can still focus on the fish. Your eye starts in the top left corner and is lead right by the colors and lines, then your eye hits the vertical lines of the bottles, which brings you down to the lovely fried fish

I kept the theme of showing off the restaurant's character going in the next shot. There was this beautiful painting on the floor that struck me as a great backdrop for this curry. I started with just the bowl in the center, but I needed a little something else to feel lively. Adding the diagonal lines with the chopsticks did it, and adding the rice bowl gave a little more bulk to the image and also shows off the complete dish. 

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Daylight was fading fast, this being February and all, so I was getting up in several second exposures that aren't so great for food that is quickly getting cold. It was time to get out the lights. Bunker has a great night time vibe and I wanted that to come through some of the images as well, so I started working on some darker flashed images. The first pictures were a little too heavy on the darkness to fit in with the rest of the set, so I found a good balance with a contrasty flash lit foreground and a soft, inviting tungsten background, that says "come in and enjoy this fantastic, perfect plate of shrimp.

And were they ever amazing! For all the amazing flavors present in the other dishes, the spicy, sweet, lemongrass tinged sauce and perfecty juicy shrimp of this dish won me over as my favorite of the night.

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Thanks for reading!

Have you been to Bunker? Do you like Vietnamese food? Hit me up with your favorite dish in the comments.

Cebu Bar & Bistro - Food

Let's eat. Day 2 of the photoshoot at Cebu was of the menu. It was a long day filled with many delicious eats. I started to experiment with styling here. For a long time I'd been shooting food at restaurants mostly as it came, with little to add to the image beside maybe a fork and a napkin. This time around I asked the chef for every ingredient that made up the dish and I created a palate for the food to go on. The best results were with the fritters and the fish tacos. I also really loved the images of the fritters dunking in the sauce, and I just cannot decide between the two I posted below. One is nearly perfect and elegant, the other is more messy and intense, getting up into 'food porn' status. I also really enjoyed telling the visual story of the tomahawk steak, from the chef salting and preparing them, then grilling them, to the final plated presentation.

Cebu Bar & Bistro, Food
Client: Cebu Bar & Bistro
Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Project Date: May 9th, 2017

Rustic Farmhouse Style at Saraghina

There are few restaurants that really take me back to the Brooklyn of yesteryear, but this place always does. The style is often imitated these days, but as my mother pointed out on a recent visit, this is the genuine article. It really reminds me of why I love this place, along with upstate new york. There's a coziness to it that is just so comforting. It's a great place to go for a slow, drizzly day.

The pasta is pretty, the pizza is better.

Saraghina Restaurant
Italinan / Pizzeria
435 Halsey Street
Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn

The Story

Oct. 24th, 2017, Tuesday

My mother and I were roaming around in Williamsburg running errands while Regina was having hear hair put into braids in anticipation of our honeymoon trip to Hawaii. Braids are no-muss, no-fuss, so Regina can collapse in to bed at night and hop out in the morning without having to do any daily maintenance. Very good for traveling. She was having it done in Bed-Stuy, and she was finished around the time we were ready to have lunch. Any time I'm out, I try to find a restaurant in the neighborhood I'm in so I can have excuse to go there without having to travel. But nothing in Williamsburg was really jumping out to me. However, the last time I'd dropped Regina off at the salon to get her hair done, I wandered around the neighborhood and seriously considered having dinner at Saraghina, so much so that I was standing at the door reading the menu. I decided to have my money and go home that time, but the desire to eat there lingered. You know that feeling when you really want something, but don't get it and it's still nipping at you in the back of your mind. Yeah, that's the one. So I had to go.

It was a drizzly day, which felt perfect for this place. It was slow and there were only a few other diners present. So we got a great seat right by the windows, and I was able to get a few photos of the place without having to avoid patrons in the photos.

There's a quick photo tip for you. Want to photograph a restaurant? Go in the middle of a weekday. This was 2pm on a Tuesday. I only had my iPhone 7 on me because I'm trying to be more conscious about not carrying my camera constantly. It's nice to go out in the city and not have a heavy bag with me. But of course I always get into a situation where I wish I had my camera so I could take better photos. This is one such occasion. But still, I'm happy with the results. It's not like the iPhone is bad, per-se. Just not as good. But if you're reading this on your phone and the images are small, then it's not as obvious as it is on a larger display. So, there's that tangent.

I focused on photographing the space right around the windows, to capture the mood of the day and a bit of the design of the the place. I went very minimal on the edits, but now the lack of perfectly straight lines on that one picture of Regina with the windows behind her is making me a little crazy. But I'm not going to change it. It's important to be comfortable with imperfection. I slipped a few photos of Regina's silhouette in because 1. I love her & 2. I've been playing with more silhouette and dark areas in my photos. So a lot of these were a trial in embracing having really dark areas in my images. I shot so many super bright, light filled images for so long that I'm looking to go in a different direction, and these are experiments in that realm, pushing my iPhone to see what it can do.

After the interiors I took a photo of my menu, which reminds me of a book I made in college out of an old pair of pants. I took a bookbinding class that has always stuck with me. Hand made books always catch my eye and I have to pick them up and inspect how they're put together, which is exactly what happened with this menu. The denim cover is really what too me back to my pants book, which I believe my mother still has on her mantle. I don't make books much anymore, but I still seeing handmade ones, so this was exciting for me. The stamped logo is really nice, too.

The drink was a special that day. Spiced, Spiced Cider. It was fantastic, comforting, a great herald of fall. Regina and I were flying to Hawaii the next day, but we both really love fall, so it was good to get a potent taste of it right before we left.

Finally, the pasta. I don't eat much pasta, so it's a great treat when I do have it. So I was very excited to order this Tagliatelle al Ragu. It's the dish I was eyeing that other day when I was outside looking at the menu. It was good, but the pizza Regina ordered blew it out of the water.

Sorry, no pizza photos, because I've gotten over the hump of making my fellow diners wait while I photograph their food. No reason they should suffer for my craft. If I'm going to take food photos it will be of my own dish, and I try to get my shot as fast as possible so I can enjoy my food at its peak, too. Somethings, though, I get caught up in the moment and keep snapping. But that's how I know I still love doing this, so I'm never going to chase that feeling away.

Zazie

Zazie
Cole Valley, San Francisco
$$
★★★★★

Brunch places can be a dime a dozen, and still lines will be out the door. I was pleasantly surprised with the amazing quality of the food at Zazie. Though the line is often an hour long, there's a helpful little guide by the door to let you know very accurately what your wait will be. You can also grab one of the first-come-first-served tables out front, but I prefer the garden in the back. Get there early to get the Miracle (ricotta) pancakes before they sell out. Also try the Poached Eggs La Mer (dungeness crab eggs benedict, basically). Fun Fact - Zazie pays its staff full wages and benefits, so tipping is not required. More restaurants should follow suit.