I first met Heston Blumenthal in the development kitchen of his restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray,Berkshire. It was about a year a go at the usual Friday morning meeting, set to discuss the new Fat Duck tasting menu,along with any other business. I’d been invited by James‘Jocky’Petrie,Heston’s pastry chef, whom I had met the previous year at Goodwood Revival. We’ve been friends ever since. The development kitchen is the hub and starting point for all of Heston’s culinary adventures. It has an industrious yet warm and comfortable feel; a good place to work. It’s a very high ceilinged room, surrounded by stainless steel work surfaces, sinks, cookers and all manner of gadgets, plus glass-fronted cupboards, some of which seem to house what looked to me like chemistry sets. There’s a large bay window at the far end, and most importantly, a marble and stainless steel island which we all stand around for the meeting.
‘Heston would like you to shoot food for a potential new book and wonders if you are interested.’ What do I say? Sorry I’ve never photographed food before? Obviously not! It took me exactly two seconds to reply.
I feel very nervous and also acutely aware that I am in the midst of something very special. The room is packed and I stand in a corner, and it is only after a minute or two that I realise Heston is there at all! Head development chef Kyle Connaughton produces several dishes of asparagus. Everyone grabs a small, clear plastic spoon and begins to taste these puréed peculiarities. I stay still, not really knowing quite what to do. After all, I’m a photographer, not a chef, so what could I add to the discussion? After a few minutes of tasting, Heston turns to me with a smile and offers a spoon, I accept and join in. It doesn’t stop there, as he looks to see my reaction to the first dish. I nervously manage to find some words that explain the explosion of taste that fills my mouth and he listens intently. Although I, along with everyone else, know that we wouldn’t be here without Heston, there is the distinct feeling that everyone’s opinion counts (even mine), and this is a team. In fact, team doesn’t seem a big enough word; it’s almost like a collective culinary consciousness. Of course, Heston is at the head of this, but everyone here is respected and respectful, and it feels level and there is no indication of a clash of egos or power struggle; just pure passion, energy, enthusiasm and, most importantly, a shared vision to do the extraordinary. This passion is contagious and I decide right there and then that, in some way, I want to be a part of this. The following Thursday I pitch up with my camera and a couple of lenses and hang out with Jocky for the morning. I had asked if I could shoot some pictures as a test. As usual, I keep it simple with the Canon EOS 1Ds MkIII, an 85mm and 50mm 1.2, and I shoot reportage with the occasional set up for portraits, and we have a lot of fun. A couple of weeks later I drop in again on my way into London to photograph a wine tasting with Jocky, Otto Romer and Isa Bal, head sommelier and winner of the European Sommelier of theYear, and again we have great banter and, among many other things, I learn how to pronounce the word Riesling correctly. Each time I visit, I meet yet another member of the team and all are helpful, polite, welcoming and have that same quiet drive, determination and enthusiasm. I spend several days editing and post producing my work, then another couple of days making a dozen prints on the usual Hahnemühle 308 photo-rag. I put them in acetate sleeves and a print box and post them off to Jocky.
A couple of weeks later I attend the Friday development meeting again and this time I am on the agenda. Heston has asked if I would bring my portfolio as he has looked at the prints along with my website and would like to see my work. It’s normally only art buyers at ad agencies who will ask to see your book, as many clients will simply commission a photographer based on work seen on the website, so this is unusual. I take my place next to Melissa Lyons. Melissa is Hestons event manager and is a first point of contact and all my dealings with Heston and The Fat Duck are through her. Like Jocky, Kyle and many of the team, Melissa has been with Heston for several years. Most were there at the beginning and it’s hard to imagine what it must be like to have risen to the heights at which they now find themselves, and yet there is no evidence of this affecting any of them. As the meeting begins, Heston looks to me and asks if I want to go first so I can leave early. I very quickly explain that I am in no rush. Each time I am at a development meeting I feel I am witness to something unique and feel immensely privileged. I also learn more and more about ‘Brand’Heston, The Fat Duck and the team, all of which I see as important research if am to work with these people in the future.
Another tasting session and this time I have a lot more to say and offer my opinions freely and with far more confidence. I then produce my leather-bound book with my name embossed on the cover, and containing 40 hand-printed pages. Ashley Palmer-Watts (‘Ash’), who is head chef and a very keen photographer, appears, as Heston pores over my work, while I explain each picture from the shoot to the final print, including all the processes in between. He seems to like the selective focus and sensitivity, in particular the macro beauty shots of make-up, eyes, lips and skin. A few months go by, and completely out of the blue, I get a phone call from Kyle. He says: “Heston would like you to shoot food for a potential new book and wonders if you are interested.”What do I say? Sorry I’ve never photographed food before? Obviously not! It took me exactly two seconds to reply: ‘If he thinks I can do it, then so do I.” Heston has a way of instilling you with a confidence that, up until two minutes previously, you didn’t know you had. He has the extraordinary capability to mentally picture your shooting style and then apply that approach to how his food is photographed. This results in the invitation to record Heston’s work to a photographer who has never photographed food before. Previously, Heston has asked non-food photographers to shoot his books, including the beautiful Big Fat Duck Cook Book with the extraordinary photography from Dominic Davies, along with a fabulous minimalist portrait of Heston by Nick Knight (a big Heston fan). In fact, Nick and Heston have collaborated on several projects in conjunction with SHOWstudio.com. Having been in the enviable position of working closely with both of them, I recognise that they share the rare ability to perform what I can only describe as modern day magic. I watch what they do, I understand the processes, I’ve been behind the scenes and there is definitely no smoke or mirrors, and yet their work still feels and looks like magic. As the nearest I’ve come to photographing food is when I once mistakenly pressed the shutter release while holding a bacon sandwich, I decide I’d like to do a test shoot. Melissa obliges and the following week my assistant Billy Waters and myself spend the day in a rented cottage called ‘Tigger’s’, situated around the corner from the restaurant, shooting all manner of ingredients and dishes, with the help of Dale Bowie, Stefan Cosser and Jocky.
I’d spent the previous evening with a good friend and passionate chef Peter Dale, who is a huge Heston fan. I’d borrowed all sorts of stuff from him, from pans to food mixers and chopping boards. Pete had no idea why I wanted this stuff and looked confused as I lugged a beaten-up old green Magimix to the car. The day begins with sunlight streaming through the living room window, which Billy defuses with frost, and we create makeshift flags.We build a small still-life set while Dale is chopping onions and we spend the next hour photographing them, and to my surprise, I find this both really interesting and rewarding. Next, we move on to tomatoes, and again my enthusiasm for these glossy red rascals grows. I start to see each ingredient as an individual personality. If I feel this way about a tomato then how will I cope when it comes to a triple-cooked chip?! I begin to wonder what type of mushroom it was that I had tasted earlier that morning as I photograph everything from saucepans to chopping boards – even an unassuming lampshade gets it. As the October light fades, we move to the kitchen and set up three LED lights, a 1×1 Litepanel (daylight) plus two MiniPluses (daylight), all on stands around a central island along with a couple of Arri 650s and all through frost. It’s like creating a tiny studio as we think about key, fill, rim and highlights. Food starts to arrive from the Hinds Head (Heston’s local village pub, which is an extraordinary historical gastronomic destination in its own right). Clive Dixon, the head chef, supplies us with dish after dish, which Stefan and Dale cook to perfection in the cottage. We add a white table cloth and start to shoot the food the second it is plated. I use the 180mm macro and 50mm 1.2 and move around the dishes without a tripod (as Kyle calls it: “guerilla style”). The food looks and smells amazing and we work quickly to capture the immediacy of sauces hitting oxtail and kidney puddings with steam rising, blow-torched soused herrings with beetroot and horseradish, along with duck and smoked guineafowl terrine with spiced apples. I have to admit to an almost religious appreciation of Heston’s triple-cooked chips, and after a long discussion about how best to photograph them, we decided on laying the 1×1 Litepanel flat and placing the crispy golden wonders onto it. It acts as a lightbox and illustrates the key feature: ‘the exploded centres’. We use fill light and then start to create a still life with a sauce bottle I’d brought from home. The backlight looks good and we create a fictitious still life of tea Heston style, which includes a chemist beaker, thermometer, cup and tea bag. It looks interesting enough for a test, but fresh loose-leaf tea would be far more accurate. For this shoot I had made a conscious decision to treat the food just as I would people, shooting lots of frames and following the action, letting the chefs lead while I follow. This is in stark contrast to a conventional food shoot, which can take many days or even weeks of painstaking work perfecting every aspect of each dish.With more time and the right type of food, I would love to experiment in a studio and craft the light pouring over every detail, in search of picture perfection. Of course, the style is dependent on the individual project, but for now it’s great fun and we all laugh and joke as I lie on the floor and climb on the table, talking to the food as if it were a model, burning through memory cards while Billy experiments with the light. I start spouting expletives as I get more and more excited at what I’m seeing in the frame. The shoot goes on long into the night until finally, after 16 hours, we call it a wrap. Having patiently waited in quiet anticipation and been subjected to the evening’s olfactory excitement, we tuck in and savour this photographic food feast. On looking at the clean white empty plates, we laugh as Billy likens this to photographing a supermodel and sleeping with her afterwards.