You spent almost a decade in the restaurant industry as a sommelier and as a manager. What made you turn to photography?
From a teenager I had always been fascinated by photography, just the process of it was amazing. Taking pictures and then waiting for the processing. The harnessing of memories. Somewhere in my parents' attic are boxes of prints and negatives that one day I will get shipped to the US.
My first love though has always been food and the restaurant business. After I moved to New York in 2005 I attended the Culinary Institute of America and there, now owning what was then a cutting edge digital SLR, I started taking photos of food. There are a lot of scholarship competitions that major food companies run for students that involved submitting a recipe, so I shot a lot of recipes for students I was friends with. This really got me focused on food photography which was so natural a progression now I look back on it. Both of the things I love in the same process.
Then when I was working at Eleven Madison Park, it became apparent to Will Guidara (the GM and now co-owner) that I was a serious photographer so he would ask me to shoot when they needed things for press, or internal publications. It was after one of those shots was used in the Dining section of the New York Times that I thought I could possibly make a career out of this. I met Francesco Tonelli who was working on the Eleven Madison Park book and he encouraged me greatly, such a fantastic man and incredibly talented.
I had been at the restaurant for four years and was looking to take a break so I jumped into setting up my own business and starting out. My time in restaurants has been immeasurably helpful. I know a lot of chefs and restaurant owners, but also I know how to communicate with them. I know where to stand in the kitchen when I am shooting service, how to keep out the way, but also how to anticipate the shot.
You’ve worked with some of the world’s greatest chefs, like Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park and Grant Achatz, Alinea. What draws you to the world of fine-dining?
Working with people who are at the very top of their game in what they do. That kind of environment teaches you how to push yourself and teaches you skills that you can apply in any walk of life. I learned so much working at Eleven Madison Park and I use those lessons all the time.
You have a new book called Charcuteria: The Soul of Spain coming out later this year. What inspired you to make the book and what do you enjoy about it most?
Well, the book is the brainchild of Jeffrey Weiss who is the author and has become a great friend in the time we have spent working on the book so really it is his inspiration rather than mine that got the project started.
If you could work with any award-winning chef and capture their dishes, who would it be?
There are so many! Probably, I would love to work with Michel Roux Snr. He was a huge inspiration to me when I was first getting into restaurants and I was lucky enough to meet him when he visited Eleven Madison Park. He is such an amazing and generous man. Of course he’s not really going to be working food shoots anymore, but that’s the dream right?
Possibly a realistic dream would be to work with Ferran Adrià on something at the elBulli foundation or Sean Brock at Husk.
I am always on the lookout for new up-and-coming chefs though. Matthew Lightner at Atera in NYC, I have worked with a number of times and I cannot wait to work with him again. Fredrik Berselius at Aska is also someone who I want to work with again soon.
My involvement came when Jeff was introduced to me by a mutual friend. After some very engaging conversations about his philosophy and vision for the book and what I thought visually it should be we met up and the deal was done. I will say that for me it was first and foremost about the animals. Charcuterie does not exist unless an animal dies and it was very important to me that we showed that, but also in a respectful way. I didn’t want exploitative shots of slaughter, but I also didn’t want us to gloss over what really happens. Plus I wanted to involve the people. Spain is such an amazing country and the people are what make it so great. Having their character in the book was important to me.
It’s hard to not say the best part was spending a month in Spain shooting food, produce, people, animals and everything else. It was by no means a lazy month, we travelled the entire country and days started at 7 and rarely finished by 7. But what an experience. But also I am enjoying the process of the book, the editing, design and also the recipe shoot which we did in upstate New York where I worked with an exceptional food stylist and art director. That really showed me the power of collaboration on what can sometimes be a very solo work environment.
What was it like being nominated for a James Beard Award for your Visual Storytelling of Plating this year and what inspired the series?
It was just incredible to be nominated. There are so few food photography awards and the James Beard awards are right at the top of the tree. One of my favorite photographers, and not just for food, Landon Nordeman won the award last year so I really felt humbled.
The series was the inspiration of the author who I was introduced to by a mutual friend. He really wanted to get inside the mind of a chef and see what inspires the chefs at the highest level. When we sat down and talked we had an idea of visually how it would look and then it was left to me to execute it. I wanted to show the construction of the dish from the base elements up. Plus when you are dealing with fine dining plating there are usually just some very simple elements involved, so clarity and precision was important.
The chefs were amazingly generous with their time. They basically gave up the best part of an entire day to work with us. For example, Alex Stupak, once we were done, he went straight into the kitchen for a night of service after a 3 hour shoot and 3 hour interview.
What we also found was that initially what seemed to be something that was quite simple, turned into something way more interesting. Each chef had such a different way of seeing dishes and plating. It was remarkable. For someone who is as into food and photography as me, it was fascinating to work on.
When you shoot food, do you get to sample it afterwards? And if so, what’s your most memorable dish?
You know most of the time I don’t really get to sample the food. It’s mainly because the shoots can be pretty fast and furious and I am so focused on what I am doing in getting the shot just right. Plus a lot of times the food isn’t cooked to be edible. Maybe the vegetables are very underdone so they hold up better, the meat is underdone or overdone, the sauces are a little thicker than usual, nothing is seasoned, etc. It’s not like old school fake food styling stuff, but just some techniques and tricks which make shooting the food a little easier.
However once the shoot is over, and sometimes this is weeks or months after, I usually get to eat at the restaurant and they take very good care of me. The most memorable was recently at The NoMad [Daniel Humm and Will Guidara] in NYC. I had an outstanding meal there, probably one of the best I have ever had. They had a very simple carrot and pea soup that I still can’t stop thinking about.
Another time was doing the recipe shoot for the Charcuterie book. I was sequestered away in a farm in upstate NY, along with Jeff and his sous chef and our food stylist and art director. On the Saturday night, the last night, the owners of the farm were there and we cooked huge platters of all kinds of food, drank Spanish wines and finished off with some excellent vintage port. Times like that are what food is about, the people you are with, the moment you are having, and the lasting memory. All of which were enabled by the meal.
You obviously have a passion for food. If you could take a plane ride to anywhere in the world, just for one meal, where would you go and why?
El Celler de Can Roca. Actually this is a tough question. Do I only get to eat and then fly back? If I were to set foot in Spain then there are 20 different things I wouldn’t forgive myself for not doing. A friend worked at Can Roca and he told me that I have to eat there. I trust him implicitly so how can I not want to go?
Now if I could take 5 friends with me, I would fly them all to The Harwood Arms in London and have a massive meal of amazing English food, then we would all relax around the fireplace on couches and drink Scotch. I love that place and try to go there every time I am in London.
It’s like asking me what band I would like to see live. The list is immense.
If you weren’t in photography, would you turn to a career as a Michelin star chef, or do something entirely different?
I would want to do something that I loved. I would do something that it didn’t matter if I was getting paid for it or not. I am way too old to attempt to be a Michelin starred chef now, but go back 20 years and that would definitely be on my radar. I can’t imagine doing something that didn’t involve food and restaurants in some way.
Tell us about the best moment in your career so far…
The James Beard nomination by far, although I did recently get to spend some time with Ferran Adrià which was incredibly inspiring. What he has planned with the elBulli foundation is ground breaking and visionary.
And finally, what can we expect to see from you in the next coming months?
I just finished working on an art installation for a new restaurant in New York called Betony. Nothing food related but part of a street photography exhibit, 16 large format prints in black and white.
I have a number of book projects in the works, talking to authors and publishers right now, though none of them is going to see the light of day for a couple of years. The Art of Plating is currently in negotiations to be turned into a book.
There's a new Spanish restaurant in New York which I shot an assignment for. They are using that for promotional materials right now and through the end of the year.
I am working with some restaurant designers in NYC to shoot the interiors of a number of new restaurants, so expect to see much more of that soon.
Visit Nathan's website