Friday, September 27, 2013

Day Two at IFBC: Photography with the funny, easy on the eyes, demi-god of oozes, Andrew Scrivani

I've said it before, but when I started the journey of writing my cookbook, it never occurred to me that I'd need to become a photographer. You may notice there isn't a single photograph in She-Smoke, which also happens to be the single greatest critique of the book.

I'm learning that when writing about food on the web, the hook is no longer your opening sentence; it's the opening image. This post has little to do with the peppers you see above, but they are pretty eye candy to draw you in.

My range of emotions toward this need, nay, requirement, for me to produce better photos has been like the five stages of grief. I started out in denial (whatever, I'm a writer), to anger (I bet these food photographers can't cook their way out of a box of mac-n-cheese!), to now one of excitement to learn, to stretch out of my comfort zone, and to go shopping. Yeah, that's right. I'm pretty sure shopping is one of the stages of grief. If it's not it really should be.

I'm not blaming the equipment, I swear, but it's time I had some better tools. Sure, I can cook with crappy knives and pans, and even ingredients, but though I may be able to make a fine Tuesday night dinner with saltine crackers and canned tuna, it's not going to knock your socks off. Give me some fresh Ahi, however, and I might get an Oooh out of you. At least an Aaah.

Still, even with saltines and canned tuna (a.k.a. my Droid phone and point and shoot camera with the battery that pops out), the photo session with NY Times photographer Andrew Scrivani took me to a better place, photographically speaking, in less than two hours.

It's doesn't hurt that he's freakin' adorable. If day one of the International Food Blogger Conference had me wanting to kidnap Dorie Greenspan to bake me cookies, day two had me wishing I could be a fly on an everything bagel in Andrew Scrivani's food photography studio.

Thankfully he showed us a window into that studio so no one need go Kafka with poppy seeds.

By window, I mean no metaphor. He showed us an actual window around which he has built a white box on a table where he shoots most of his food. It's a southern facing window that lets in delicious natural light that makes food drip off the plate and into the photograph. The white box captures that light.

I think this week there will be a slight tick in white paint and plywood sales at Home Depots across the country.

That was my first takeaway from his session. The second was a heading in his presentation called, "Drips, Oozes and Pours." He talked about connecting to people's desire of food. I loved his example of a photo of an ice cream cone. Instead of taking the shot right after it was scooped, his photo was taken after the ice cream started to melt with a drip down one side. As he said, it makes you want to lick that drip, and then another. It brings you into the photograph.

He also noted that people are drawn to smoke and flames. That's good news for those of us in the barbecue and grilling world. We're already there.

Desiring to lick the ice cream cone leads to the third aha moment of his talk. There were lots of other great technical tips, trends, light management details which I will go back to in my notes, but he talked about thinking of every photograph with two frames; the main subject of the shot, the "hero", and the story framed around it. A photo of a grill is framed by the face of a well-known Cajun cook concentrating on the coals, a creme brulee is framed by a hand holding a spoon, and so on.

In other words, stepping back from the food to really plan the composition, the statement, or the art of the shot.

I tend to be too literal with food. I want the photograph to be true to what it tastes like, the ingredients, the cooking method, but that's what goes into the writing. The photograph is something else.

Incidentally, right after his talk I had to run to work and cater a wedding. This time, instead of photographing the pulled pork in a chaffing dish, something I've done dozens of times at events with the same completely underwhelming result, I took a photo of the bread with a cool shadow cast on the table from the pickle bowl. I took it with my phone camera, so it's not professional quality, but it's already an improvement in composition. It's not drippy or oozy, being bread, but a start.

I look forward to bringing you lots of drips, oozes and pours in the future.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Day One Takeaways from IFBC: Pirate gold

I'm attending the International Food Bloggers Convention this weekend, and while the gift bag booty from day one was a pirate-worthy haul, my takeaways do not come in a package or treasure chest.

The first three nuggets come from the opening talk by Dorie Greenspan. Dorie is the author of, count them, ten cookbooks, including one with Julia Child (me: genuflecting), and two with Pierre Herme' (pastry god of Paris). She has her own cookie company, lives in Paris and New York...she's nothing short of a food goddess, and the nicest, down to earth cooking and baking elf you ever met. Really. I want to take her home with me. She could bake cookies for me and encourage me to write that next book inside me, I'd made us jasmine tea... sigh. Aside from that little fantasy, here are three quotes I loved from her talk.

1) "Concentrate on the work." It's deceptively simple, but I for one get so disgruntled about the foodie world of hype and social media, and the overall noise of the web, that it often stops me from writing. All I really want to do is write, but sometimes it feels like it comes with so much baggage. I post something and then I have to put it on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, and oh I really should update the blog roll, and darn I really should comment more on other people's blogs, and, shit, this blogging is taking me away from working on my next book, that it weighs me down.

Dorie reminded us that all of that none of that really matters unless you are doing and loving the work. Right. Check.

2) "It's a great time to be a writer." Dorie talked about the power we have as writers today. We don't have to wait months or years for the validation of a small pool of publishers and editors, we can hit "publish" and immediately reach our readers (after spell check and lots of self editing). They in turn can respond right back. She talked about how there never used to be any money in food or writing and now both are sexy and can be a "real" job. With blogging we also have a way to reach and show traditional publishers our work in a way we never could before.

3) "Say Yes." One yes leads to another and when we are open to possibility, when we are in the realm of Yes, doors open. I know that is how I landed She-Smoke. I was in that sweet spot of Yes at the time, and a door presented itself. That door has led to so many others. I've been on NPR Seattle, I blog for Char-broil, and it's helped put Smokin' Pete's BBQ on a national map, or at least on a larger map than just Seattle. I could agree more. Of course you shouldn't undersell yourself, of course you shouldn't be a shill, but if it feels right, the details fall in line.
The next nuggets are more observations from the two sessions that followed, the live blogging event and the Taste of Seattle dinner reception.

4) Product sales start with story. Not exactly news, right? It's rule number one in marketing, but I got to experience the rule first hand in the Amazon live blogging event. We listened to 16 or so different vendors give a 2.5 minute presentation of their product. The idea was that we were supposed to taste, photograph and "live blog" about each product. You may read my tweets to see what I liked or wasn't overly wowed by, but no matter whether a product was my cup of tea, if I connected with their story, I went out of my way to want to like them. If they were just telling me why I should like them because of how great their product was, I lost my luster.

Take Sahale Snacks.

I've seen these many times in stores, and even tried and like them. Price and the fact that they are more of an adult rather than kid snack has been why I've passed on purchasing them since. But hearing about the hiking trip with nothing but freeze dried food and sawdust energy bars that started the idea of the company made me give these guys a second look. Knowing that they were local, hearing first hand from one of the founders instantly made me want to support them. I do happen to like sweet and salty nut snacks in general, so it's not a huge stretch for me, but learning that one of the founders also obsesses about cinnamon? I'm in.

Remind me to read #4 when I'm launching my future food product line, OK?

5) Lastly, I was blown away that the actual chefs came to Taste of Seattle Friday night reception. Well-known Seattle chefs and restaurant owners served us little plate after little plate of delicious dishes.

I own a restaurant and have a family, and I know how many of these events you can do in a year, and how much work they are. I know how you wish you were home instead, because you are always pulled in so many directions and never enough in the direction of home. Seeing Ethan Stowell, who is opening yet another restaurant in five days, Eric Bahn of Monsoon, and other restaurateurs and chefs dishing up these fabulous creations, and not just sending in the staff to plate up 300 sea scallops or spicy tuna rolls, amazed me.
Alder smoked scallops by Boka Restaurant

I have been on the other side, handing out the little plates and let me tell you, we don't really care. I mean of course we care, the people are our customers or potential customers without whom we wouldn't be in business, but the reality is that after awhile, the faces, the people eating, they all become the same group chomping, slurping, snorting and talking with mouths half full. I hope that other attendees appreciate how special it was to have the real owners and chefs come on a Friday night, while their restaurants went on without them, to give up their family time or TV time or payroll time or hang time at someone else's bar. It was a gift. Pure gold.

I for one felt a little guilty from the day one pirate-y haul. But mostly I felt happy and full.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

IFBC here I come!

I can't believe it's almost here - the International Food Bloggers Conference! When I heard that it would be in Seattle, it was of course a no-brainer to sign up, but that seemed ages ago. A summer season of catering ago. Now it's less that one week away and I can't wait.

A few highlights that I'm looking forward to, or curious about:

Live Food Blogging with Amazon Grocery. We'll be tasting foods and blogging "speed dating-style." With only 2.5 minutes to taste and 2.5 minutes to blog, it should be a good exercise for someone like me who holds on to posts for months without publishing.

A session on Food Photography with New York Times photographer Andrew Scrivani. He's also doing a session on post-production photo editing that I will have to miss as I'm catering a wedding that night. Se la vie!  As you may know, I've vowed to step up my photography this year. I think I've made progress, but have a long way to go.

A number of technical sessions that I need on building traffic and whether or not to switch to Wordpress. I know not having a designated URL and staying in the .blogspot group greatly lessens my exposure in the blogsphere. I haven't had, or haven't made the swaths of time that is required for me to do big technological changes. (Right now I have to get my laptop to recognize wi-fi, and fix my darn camera. I've been hamstrung all summer by technical difficulties). So these sessions will be good for me and kick my butt into making all this technology work together.

And though I'll miss a number of sessions on Saturday evening because of our catering, it's probably for the best: I usually get overwhelmed by the amount of information at a conference. A little break will do this girl some good.

I'll be doing some "live blogging" or nearly live during the conference to give my thoughts on various sessions. What I'm really excited is to see my good friends Barry Martin, of Our Community Table and Welcome to the Cookout! and Jane Bonacci of The Heritage Cook. Both are way beyond me in food blogging and wonderful people. I met them via the Char-Broil All-Stars.

If you are one of the 320 attendees, say howdy!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Live on Barn Goddess BBQ Radio tonight!

I'll be talking live with Lori Frazee, the host of the blog radio show Barn Goddess BBQ & More. Lori interviews barbecue personalities all over the US. She is also a pitmaster and barbecue caterer so I'm sure we'll have lots to gab about.

The show goes live at 5 pm PST, so have a listen, and call in with questions if you can!

My husband will be on a catering tonight so my original plan of sneaking off to do the interview while he minded the home front has been foiled. I'll be picking up a video for the kids today as a result so they can stay occupied during the interview. Wish me luck they don't join us!