Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Food Styling Adventure

The photo above was the result of a food styling adventure.

Perhaps some background is in order. It has been brought to my attention that my food photography is lacking. I have committed a great sin. I have used tungsten bulbs as a lighting source for my food. This probably explains why cooked meat looks raw and one can confidently describe the colours in my photography as ‘lurid’. I needed help, so I have turned to someone who knows what they are doing: food stylist Chris St. Onge. Chris' work is very well acclaimed (check him out here).
Oh, the lessons I learned in a few short hours.

I don’t intend to share everything from our workshop, but one critical lesson I took home with me is the importance of using natural light. Open any cookbook that was written in the last ten years and look at the photography: natural light. Also, and with my past dabbling in fine art history it should have been apparent to me: food should be a still life. Peace, tranquility and the ever important artistic characteristic of stasis. The food itself can show dynamism, but the context needs to be at rest. For example, this 18th century painting by Luis Melendez captures the calmness of a food image; the surroundings are as placid as a mill pond, yet the heirloom tomatoes are alive with their gnarly, colourful beauty.

Anyway, over the weekend I got together with lifeastudy blogger Emily Martin, for a photography walk-through.  The dish I chose to photograph was an especially difficult one: whole cooked trout and risotto---two things that I have had great difficulty photographing in the past. The results in the end were astounding. I originally envisioned coating the fish in crazy glue or drizzling liquid silicon all over everything to make it look good. Quite the contrary in fact.  It really is amazing how little trickery is involved in this kind of photography. It is real food folks; what you see on the plate ended up being our lunch. So first, let’s look at the recipe.
Roast whole trout and lemon ramp risotto
This recipe should actually use ramps. However, leading up to the day of the shoot, I could not get my hand on any (every chef in the city has taken them), so I opted for a lovely and tender spring garlic shoot instead. I retain the name only because it sounds good with that ‘ramp’ in there. Anyway, here's what you do:

Take two whole trout, give them a good wash, and then get some spring garlic (cut into a few pieces) into the fish belly cavity. Follow this with a couple of bay leaves and a bit of seasoning. Then tie up the fish with a couple of butcher loops to keep the cavity closed. Drizzle some oil on the fish and generously season it with salt and pepper, and then get it into a 400F oven for 15 to 18 minutes. That’s it. Easy peasy. Next, the risotto.
I have blogged about risotto in the past. For the basics, go here. This particular risotto is a recipe I have been developing lately, and I was quite pleased with the result. I sometimes find that a risotto can be a bit heavy tasting once the cheese and butter is added. Given that I was working with fish to begin with, cheese is a real no-no. However, I also wanted to develop a general recipe for a very clean and light risotto that was creamy, but not too heavy. I’ll call it a spring risotto. So the accompaniments were simple. I made a light vegetable stock without carrot or celery (you can see a discussion on the stock here), and then started sweating some shallots in a bit of butter and organic canola oil. Instead of deglazing with white wine, I used Noilly Prat (a French vermouth). It has a lovely herby note to it. Then it's stir, add stock, stir add stock as per usual. The only other additions to this risotto were the finely chopped spring garlic (or if I had them handy, ramps) for which the white parts are added at the beginning and a bit of the green stalk added toward the end, then lemon zest (lots of it – some during cooking and some to garnish) and finally lemon juice squeezed in at the end. It was a beautifully bright and clean tasting risotto and paired very well with the trout. In fact, this risotto would work with many other oily fish like salmon or char. 
Once all the cooking was done, the photography began. Some experimental compositions on plates were executed until the preferred tableau was arrived at. Then lots of natural light, little cheaty additions of glistening oil with a brush helped, and in the end a beautiful shot was created (the one at the top of the blog). There is a real artistry to this type of work, but as Chris has shown me, a few simple modifications to my past approach and I already have ended up with a much better captured image that I can completely call my own (see yesterday's pork cheek ragu).

My thanks to Chris St. Onge for helping get me to the next level!
Prepping the dish with a 'natural looking' scattering of lemon wedges

Then some clever touch ups with a bit of olive oil to make things look glossy

..and the fun part - taking the shot - note the natural light

1 comment:

  1. A great way to get trout in you.

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    (¸.•´ (¸.•`      ¤ Amateur Cook