There will never be an opportunity to have a conversation with Anthony Bourdain while sitting in a small plastic chair hunched over a bowl of pho on a street in Vietnam. The whizzing screams of hundreds of motor bikes passing by will not drowned out the sound of chopsticks and slurping on soft beef and noodles. I will never hear candid tales of globetrotting adventures Tony had in search of food and stories of cultural importance. There will never be an opportunity to pose Tony, asking him to turn his chin to the right a bit more, lower, and bring your eyes towards the lens. The sound of the shutter clapping, opening and closing at 125th of a second or slower, documenting his travels is something I will never hear, moments of exhilaration that I will never feel. I will never get the chance to thank Anthony Bourdain for his influence, how he helped shape my life as a creator, and for his unrelenting passion to seek, eat, drink, and tell stories from various places around the world that I never would have thought to travel to. Undoubtedly Tony influenced a lot of people and his reach was far and wide. Shit, if it weren’t for him I wouldn’t have the desire to wander around Laos.
I did not learn to cook from watching Tony beat competitors out on Chopped. I did however watch him through the lens. He entertained millions through the screen, telling stories charged with politics, cultural significance, and of course food. While his shows changed networks, what did not change was that he used the camera and screen as an instrument to educate those willing to learn. I found inspiration in his travels. It left me with a desire to travel, more than I thought I would want to. Tony was a brilliant creator, gifted with the ability to tell a story. The stories he shared influenced me early on and quickly I set a goal, I wanted to photograph Anthony Bourdain.
Back in January I sat across from my friend Jason and his wife as we sipped on locally crafted beers, freshly poured from a tap at a brewery in SoCal. I am not sure how the conversation turned to the topic of Tony, but I told Jason that I had missed out on seeing Tony when he was in the area a few years back. Jason lit up and with bravado exclaimed that he did in fact go to that show and it was great, but he also bragged about having a polaroid photo with him. My heart sank and we both became a little bit sad as we took another sip. I did not immortalize or heroicize Tony, rather I looked up to him with much respect and regard as an artist, a photographer, an author and of course, most importantly a Chef.
Anyone who knows me, all my friends on Facebook who are status blasted with my food porn, know that I love to cook. I have never worked in a restaurant and chances are I won’t unless I am making photos or producing a film. I don’t want to be a Chef because Tony was some hero to Chefs around the world. I cook, eat, and enjoy food because I learned from him that there is more to life than standing in a line to order a pile shit by numbers. There is an entire world out there full of ingredients that I either can’t pronounce yet or do not even know exist. Somewhere right now there is food being passed around a table made by someone who learned it through a generational practice of incorporating ingredients in a way that defines their family, their culture, their people. That’s why I cook. That’s why I want to travel the world. Thats why I am still saddened by his passing. Primarily the sadness exists because I will never have the ability to share with him, to create with him, to eat and drink with him. One day, thats what I keep telling myself. One day. I said that to myself for years. One day I will make some images and those images will land me the dream job, meeting Tony, photographing him, talking about how as a child I would spend summers on Cape Cod and how Provincetown is as much a part of me as it was the beginning of his career as a chef. That day will never come.
Recently I asked Chef Andrew Brow to come into the studio to be a part of a portrait project that I am working. This series is due to be release around the start of summer. He eagerly agreed to be a part of the project. Once he was back from a trip to wine country in Cali, he would come to the studio. I had an idea. After seeing a portrait of Spike Lee that Art Striber made at the historic Beverly Hills Hotel hours after the Oscars, an homage to Terry O’Neil’s iconic post-oscar shot of Faye Dunaway in 1977, a photo that Art has wanted to recreate for a long time, I took inspiration and asked Chef if he would like to recreate the cover of Tony’s book, “Medium Raw.” I made a screen shot of the cover and sent it over. “Hell yea” was all I needed to hear. We set a date and time and my excitement peaked. I immediately fired off an email to my assistant and told her what we were doing, when we were doing it, how we were going to do it. I shared the cover image of the book with her and said, THIS.
I knew it was going to be impossible to reproduce the background of the image that Tony posed for. That was one aspect of the image I wouldn’t be able to recreate, nor did I want to. As an homage to Tony, an homage to his work, it was important that we nail the look as best as we could, as best as I could recreate. I racked my brain as to what I could do for a background. I wasn’t even going to attempt to research the location, knowing it was probably to far out of reach. I decided I would try and get the look as close as I can with props and the table, leaving the background to be “similar.” I searched google for a distressed table, made a screen shot, posted on Facebook with an ask if anyone had something similar. Someone I know must have a distressed table, something, anything. Perhaps a table sitting in the back of a garage or barn somewhere. Almost immediately my friend John Grossman, Chef/owner of Holyoke Hummus, left a comment, “I have what you need.” He did indeed. He sent me a few images of the table and I was shocked at how similar it was. John is the kind of friend who would dismantle his dinning room table and lend it out for a photoshoot. He is the kind of entrepreneur that supports other creatives, so it was no surprise he let me rob him and his family of the table for two days.
Once in the studio and set up, the table was the prime focal point to build the image around. I just needed Chef, his knives, a small cup of wine, and the background. The day before the shoot I procured the background you see from a Home Depot. I managed to fit a 4x8’ panel into my wife Subaru. Sorry honey I made it fit. The light source would be dialed in once my assistant was in studio the next day. Once Chef arrived we dressed the set with his knives and he cracked a bottle of wine, which we would toast and share throughout the shoot. The results of the shoot were a direct result of both of us channeling the energy and spirit of Tony.
Once we nailed the look, leaving a few details to be a mismatch, a juxtaposition of sorts, our take on the image, we moved on to some images that I dubbed “influenced by the cover.” We had a little bit of fun with the set up that we built and totally played off of it. We used this as a Segway to lead into the portrait project, the very reason I asked Chef to come in. Those images will be released soon, expect to see them.
I said to Chef, who can out a “who can out a knife in your face and get away with it, a chef and a photographer, thats who.”
My wonderful assistant was able to capture some behind the scenes of the set up and of me photographing Chef Brow.