I’ve been in restaurant kitchens before, but not in a hot, fired up kitchen right in the middle of service on Saturday evening, the busiest night of the week. Working.
Not, that is, until I was asked recently by Nathan and Matthew at 1885 Restaurant in the village of Stainland, nestling in the Yorkshire Pennines near Halifax, to go and shoot their kitchen during Saturday night service. To get right in there with them and the staff and to record a restaurant kitchen at its most hectic. To try and convey in pictures the clattering, shouting and rushing, the flames, the searing and the sizzling; amidst the heat, the supercool attention to detail as ingredients are assembled and plated. Only without the sound, the smell, or the colour, just as black and white photographs.
It’s been done before – think “White Heat” and Marco Pierre White. The brothers know their heritage and Nathan and Matthew are familiar with that classic of food photography, which sits on my bookshelves. Shot on hugely grainy black and white transparency film by one of the masters of black and white printing and one of my personal heroes, Bob Carlos Clarke. If you just know the classic image of Marco with his head round the kitchen door, bearing a cleaver, well there’s more of that in White Heat, including horseplay in the kitchen led by Gordon Ramsay who was working under Marco Pierre White at the time.
The boys show me a few other tomes of masterly food and kitchen photography when we arrive from Leeds early on Saturday evening. Not much pressure there then. The brief – to record the 1885 kitchen at work, in black and white. Not staged, not slowed down, just documented as it happens. Not lit, except for a couple of speedlight units which weren’t used very much thanks to the low light capabilities of today’s digital cameras. Having shot carefully set up photographs of their food, interiors and the brothers themselves before, tonight I’m off the leash.
“Give us some blur” says Nathan. That’s fine – movement is on my agenda too. I want to try and capture the adrenaline and the rushing – always controlled – and the processes of producing dishes that look and taste like works of art in a kitchen environment that is purely functional, like a foundry. It’s the atmosphere I want to capture, I’m not after precision, exquisite lighting or pixel perfection.
I’m with second photographer Catherine, drooling at the opportunity to do her own thing in the busy kitchen. But that’s two of us to get in the way of the brothers, the sous chef, the other kitchen staff and the waiters and waitresses, in a kitchen that’s compact.
A meal for two at the end of the evening is part of the deal, an opportunity to try what has been created. To unwind in the oasis that exists at front of house where the products of all that effort and skill in the kitchen are presented in an atmosphere of calm elegance.
We spend a couple of hours. It’s quiet at first then it really starts to move, the shots present themselves and in an instant they are gone. Move fast. Don’t get in the way. Those top lights over the counter are just so bright but just a couple of metres away by the range its dark. The waiting staff, efficient, well trained, whisk plates away the moment they are ready to go. It’s hot. Except in the walk-in fridge where meat, champagne and yet to be burnt creme brulee are laid out on trays, waiting to be transformed.
We get the shots. We review them, we shoot a few more. We leave the boys working and walk outside into the cool evening air before entering the restaurant via the public entrance to claim our reserved table, the last of the night. We don’t bother to put our camera bags in the car or to use our intended changes of clothes, we managed to stay quite clean. We relax, we order. Despite seeing all the dishes made it doesn’t spoil the surprise of tasting them. It’s all delicious. We taste, we unwind.
By the time we finish the boys have clocked off and left the restaurant manager and staff to finish off and close up. The brothers are up early tomorrow to cater for a shooting party. It will begin all over again for them.
We catch up in the week, everyone has different favourites, Catherine and I each have our own, Matthew and Nathan have theirs. They love most of them, they think a few don’t work. We may disagree on what works best but in this case it doesn’t matter because everyone has something that does it for them.
What do you think?
See more food photography in my portfolio.