If there’s one thing I learned from adding six cookbooks over Christmas to my makeshift cardboard box “bookshelf,” it’s that there’s a not-so-fine line between the cookbooks that languish as the bookend supports and those that never really find a proper spot because it keeps getting picked up and flipped through.
The San Francisco Chef’s Table has been the most recent cookbook to fall into the latter category and it’s one that’s grown on me the longer I’ve had it. Aside from being stuffed to the brim with gorgeous photography and irresistible recipes, it immerses you so deeply into the food scene of my home metropolis through a series of chef-sourced recipes and fascinating backstories on award-winning restaurants that you’ll never want to leave.
Written by Carolyn Jung, an award-winning food and wine writer and blogger, and photographed by Craig Lee, an award-winning photojournalist, the cookbook is like taking a tour through the best of the San Francisco food scene practically for free–with the bonus of being able to re-create those amazing recipes in your own kitchen!
Craig, who worked for the award-winning Food and Wine department of the San Francisco Chronicle for many years and has shot for other cookbooks such as The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook and The Working Cook, also happens to be my uncle. He generously took some time out of his day to talk to us about his latest cookbook project!
There was too much good stuff to fit into one post, so I’m breaking the interview up into two parts: in part one of the interview (today), you can learn about the process of shooting the cookbook, the importance of lighting in food photography and more.
Part two will feature tips for aspiring food photographers, hit recipes from the book and unique recommendations for the SF food scene that you won’t find anywhere else!
An interview with Craig Lee, Part I:
How did you get started in food photography?
While I was a staff photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle, assignments for the Food and Wine section were rotated among the photographers. It was different from photographing news and sports events, and I initially wasn’t that interested. After photographing the Pebble Beach Pro Am golf tournament in February 2003 however, I was assigned as the main photographer for the Food and Wine section.
After a couple of months, I found food and wine to be something new and interesting to photograph, but also challenging and not as easy as it looks. Lighting makes all the difference in a photograph and even more so with food and drinks—looking at great food photos on covers of food magazines makes it look deceptively simple. One person might tell me that food photography is just a matter of a soft box and fill card, but it’s not that easy. A lot of it has to do with capturing the texture of the food.
This got me to concentrate my skills in lighting. I would constantly look at images I liked and tried to think how it was photographed. Back in 2003, there wasn’t much information or many classes on food photography, but I would constantly look for general information on lighting. I ended up really enjoying the section because I got to photograph people, portraits and events in the culinary scene as well. I enjoy photographing people and capturing moments.
What was the process of shooting the book like?
Getting to work on the San Francisco Chef’s Table was great experience. I was thrilled to receive the offer from Carolyn.
It was a great project featuring the Bay Area—I knew many of the chefs and restaurants from my years at the Chronicle and it was great to see them again. I had photographed one husband and wife chef couple, Stuart Brioza and Nicole Kransinski, nine years earlier for Chronicle’s “Rising Star Chefs” yearly feature. Their current restaurant, State Bird Provisions, was recently awarded best new restaurant in America by Bon Appetit Magazine in 2012 and the same award again in 2013 by the James Beard Foundation.
My years of experience at the Chronicle helped me set up a routine: I spent a few hours at each location photographing the dishes, chefs, interior and exterior of the restaurant, keeping my lighting and photo gear compact in a rolling luggage case for easy travel and setup.
There were many people and places to coordinate within a tight deadline for the book publisher, but we made it and it was exciting to see the finished cookbook when it was released.
What’s it like shooting for a cookbook versus shooting for a newspaper?
I think I was in a rare position when I was the dedicated photographer for the Chronicle Food section. It was a great experience to focus on just the Food section and produce the best work possible. This was very similar to working on the book.
I prepared the shot list with Carolyn’s help and visualized how I would photograph each person, dish, and location before I got there. I always let the restaurant know I would arrive early before the actual photo shoot time to give myself time to scout out each location.
Thanks Uncle Craig! If you happen to be in San Francisco this weekend, the award-winning duo will be holding a book signing at Duende! You should check it out!
[Update: read part II of the interview here.]
Now, to cake.
My initial reservation about the book was the fact that the recipes were all contributed by the chefs themselves, and industrial recipes are notoriously hard to properly scale down for the home cook. I figured at worst, if the recipes didn’t work, the cookbook would make for really pretty reading.
Luckily, my apprehension proved to be for naught–these buttermilk cakes turned out gorgeously, even though I scaled down the recipe to just ¼ of the original. As soon as I sliced the first perfect, structurally sound, beautifully-crumbed dome off of the first cake and popped a piece of the plush cake in my mouth, I thought: I have to make a layer cake out of this. But then I realized that these are best made as they are photographed in the book: as dainty cakes adorned with something fresh and sweet—fruit, whipped cream, ice cream—and accompanied with a (generous) drizzle of honey caramel.
I omitted the hazelnut gelato that’s also listed in the book in favor of a dollop of whipped cream (Greek yogurt on another day), but these were still some of the best cakes I’ve ever made. The recipe as written makes an awkward three mini cakes (or mondo cupcakes), but I mean, that’s kind of perfect. One for you, one for a friend, and a leftover for tomorrow 😉
And now for the giveaway! I love this book so much, I’m giving away a copy! One lucky reader will win a copy of San Francisco Chef’s Table.
To enter: Leave a comment below about… anything, really. But I’d love it if you tell me about your favorite spot (or desired spot) to eat in San Francisco! You can earn additional entries by: The giveaway will end next Friday, April 11. I will notify a random winner by email. Good luck!
Congratulations to Margot C.!
These plush little cakes (or large cupcakes) are some of the best cake to come out of my kitchen. The honey caramel was quite runny, so expect to use it more as a sauce--an extraordinarily delicious one.
- For the buttermilk cakes:
- ¾ cup + 2 tablespoons flour
- 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 tablespoon table salt (yes, TABLESPOON)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- zest of 1/2 lemon
- ½ teaspoons vanilla
- 2 egg yolks
- ½ cups buttermilk, room temperature
- For the honey caramel:
- 3 tablespoons heavy cream, divided
- 6 tablespoons honey
- 1/4 teaspoon corn syrup
- 1/4 tablespoon butter
- 1/8 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- berries, whipped cream, Greek yogurt, or gelato, for serving
To make the buttermilk cakes:
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F and grease three 7-oz. ramekins.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
With an electric mixer, cream together the butter, sugar and lemon zest until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add the vanilla and egg yolks, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Mix until the batter looks smooth.
Add the dry ingredients and the buttermilk in alternating additions, ending with the dry ingredients. Mix until just smooth, but do not overbeat.
Divide batter evenly between the three ramekins and bake for 25-30 minutes or until cake springs back under your finger and/or a tester comes out clean. Let cool for 5-10 minutes before removing from a pan.
To make the honey caramel:
In a microwave-safe bowl or measuring glass, whisk together 1 tablespoon heavy cream, honey and corn syrup. Microwave for 30 seconds, then stir. Microwave for another 20 seconds and repeat until mixture is slightly thickened. Whisk in the butter, vanilla and salt until the butter is melted. Whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons of heavy cream until you reach the desired amount of runniness. You can also cook this on the stovetop instead of the microwave and add a little bit of cornstarch mixed with water to thicken up the sauce if you like.
Level the cakes if desired and serve with a dollop of whipped cream, Greek yogurt or gelato and berries. Spoon honey caramel over the top or smear it--you know, artistically--along the plate.
Adapted from San Francisco Chef's Table.