If you want to stop oppressing the internet with shitty food photos, ask yourself if you want to eat pizza that looks like gangrene.
Sorry kiddos, this is not a recipe post but hopefully I can share a bit of insight as a former restaurant sous chef, entry - mid level food stylist and food photographer on how to not make your camera phone food photos look like my feet during a 50 mile run. Sometimes we have this personal attachment to our food that we cannot see that some stuff just looks insane when photographed. Oftentimes, I am inboxed on Instagram about my food photos or even Instagram stories on how to nail the 'perfect food picture'. Plenty of people assumed that I took the time to use a professional camera. While it's helpful for a professional set, I haven't dusted off my Canon 60D or borrowed my husband's 5D Mark II in some time. Instead, I'm using a basic bitch camera phone and some knowledge that I learned over the years of working on professional sets with hubby to having the opportunity to pair up with incredible people like Chef Elle Simone Scott while cooking on at Scripps Studios (i.e. Cooking Channel and Food Network). Allow me to take away some of the illusions while giving you some life for your own photos.
Personal Backstory of My Culinary Life
Like most people who love a good cooking show, I dreamt of the day that I'd be able to go to a professional kitchen and someone would call me 'chef'. Personally, I don't share that sentiment anymore. On a personal note, I love being a cook than being a chef most days of the week. Why? I love to cook, enjoy being a leader but chefs do all of the paperwork, number crunching, hiring, terminations and all of the not so glamorous stuff that people don't see when indulging in a cooking show.
Sure, we have people like my pretend ex-husband Gordon Ramsey - a man who turns me on every time he curses out someone on screen... sorry guys - who shows a bit of the intensity of being in a chaotic kitchen. While some people will arguably say that his antics are hyped for the cameras, which I'm not inclined to disagree a slight bit, people tend to do some unbelievable shit in these environments that makes the calmest person turn into Thomas the Tank Engine who drunk a few bottles of Jose Cuervo with his coffee. One act of negligence can cause a harmonious team to fall short by fifteen minutes in service -- something that most NYC kitchens will not tolerate with a smile on their face. And this is not to say that I wasn't the sender or receiver of such shit. I managed to have my share of accidents, days of falling short or moments of crying in a freezing walk in hoping to place my humanity onto of the quart containers.
This industry is sometimes abusive, degrading, not accommodating to a person with a family and at times, exceptionally sexist. I've learned about the instabilities of my coworkers while sitting at a bar to consoling a 6'5 man who broke down in tears after the front of house manager gave him shit for three tickets that never made it to the back of house. I've met families who visit a restaurant just to see their father after only seeing their dad's head while he's sleeping at 2pm to ones who couldn't afford transportation simply because they had to choose between their rent or transportation for the week. The culinary industry will eat people alive in such a way that most careers seem whimsical in comparison. In fact, most of these businesses fail within the first few years and the turnover rate is horrid.
As an employee, there were days where I questioned why I chose this career when I could've easily stayed in social work, administration or followed my mother's advice of being a business lawyer or accountant. When I became a sous chef, I learned how much I craved the insanity. As my former chef instructor Christopher Cruz said to me - which inspired my tattoo - it requires passion, dedication and professionalism to be in this field -- or in any other area. I also want to add patience to that list. If I didn't look at the culinary field as an art, a form of zen or even my way of painting, there's no way I would cook meals for my family the way that I do or photograph items with a level of intimacy, incorporating warm colors while hitting a click on my camera.
You Put What On What: A Culinary Novella
Let's take away the smoke, delusions and mirrors: All of that shit you see on television MIGHT be scripted. Sure, there's a real life person cooking these meals but know that there's possibly a whole team creating that perfect item for a photographer or film crew to give you the illusion of sexy ass porn on a plate.
Have you ever nuked a wet cotton ball before? Made ice cream with dyed mashed potatoes? Dressed a fresh plate with WD-40? Spritzed oil on top of a semi cooked soup? Then maybe you haven't worked on a food set.
We use tweezers, paint brushes, clean eye mascara wands, Q-tips, cotton balls and one of my friends even used a rat-tail comb to make the perfect plate. And if this sounds blasphemous to you, there's much more that goes into this. If you never heard of the term commissary cook, take a moment to look it up. Imagine a team of 16 creating the same dish for Rachel Ray to magically pull out of the oven. Know that the best looking dish from a staff of sixteen will come out of the oven thanks to TV magic. As much as I hate McDonald's, they have a noteworthy team of food artists to make those toxic ass burgers look like the best set of legs that walked into a gym. And then after we do all of this, we market it to people like yourselves who drool over our delusions.
While in culinary school, I had the golden opportunity to work on some of these sets and realized that this was different art than I learned while enduring long hours on my feet hearing my chef instructors tell me to jazz it up faster and stop 'masturbating with my face' and move my ass -- we're fucked up individuals sometimes but it comes from a sadistic place of love. To any of my former employees who I told this expression to, I'm deeply sorry because some days, the stress level was off the Richter scale. Working on food sets taught me that some things are only cooked partially or things like steaks are intentionally cooked 'black and blue' for that wow color effect.
But please don't think EVERYTHING is an optical illusion; major kitchen knowledge goes into a well run kitchen set. After all, you need some of these things for an actual kitchen. This can be as intricate as a five star restaurant, a wedding or even a dinner party for friends. This may mean keeping your oven safe plates in the oven at 170 degrees so items can remain hot when serving, allowing your food to 'rest' before cutting into a good piece of meat or a baked item to some of the tips that I'll share below about the makings of a pretty plate -- even with your dope ass camera phone.
Light, Life, Presentation & Intimacy of Food
Believe it or not, having a bit of photo knowledge and just understanding culinary technique can take you a long way to nailing that perfect photo for an Instagram post or your food blog. Here's some of the stuff that I managed to translate from a professional photo that I took for my portfolio to using on a camera phone like the image below:
Something that You May Not Want to Hear
I'll pull the bandaid off: Sometimes your food looks like shit because it REALLY looks like shit. And this isn't to put you down at all. We all started from somewhere. If I can dig up some of my earlier works before culinary school, I would bury it with my ancestors or even consider taking it 'round back and killing it.
Placing your items on a shitty paper plate MIGHT not be ideal. I had decent photos where I made it work but it was also paired up with using a person as my backdrop or someone holding it in their hands.
If your food looks like it rolled over and played dead, then your audience might think so too. Nothing against anyone's pockets but that boxed macaroni and cheese with the cut up hot dogs is gonna be a hard one to make look good. It's not impossible but it's damn hard.
One thing that grinds my gears are people who overcook vegetables. For fuck sake, when you see your baby turning bright green on the stove, it's probably that time when you can tell that it's alive but when it starts to lose its color, put that shit on life support.
Some things are damn near impossible to photograph like split pea soup that's congealed or at times, using a camera phone that makes your photos look pixelated. Three different light sources can make your photo look like it just had a hard day at the office. Shooting in a dark place is the makings of a Michael Jackson Thriller set.
We all have the potential to make dynamic plates but we have to be patient. Experiment often. Get honest feedback (and not from a demeaning asshole). Ask people who are willing to give CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM -- and this means not asking someone whose only response is 'I could've done better in my sleep.' Above all: Have some fun.
I love the culinary field because I want to invoke happy feelings and thoughts onto a plate. I want to make my viewers and participants to leave with an experience -- hopefully a great one. When we cook or even present a picture, an emotion is stimulated from it. When someone presents a half smile, we question it. But you can absolutely feel a belly laugh captured on a camera if both the subject and photographer are able to capture that moment. Without passion, dedication and professionalism -- plus patience, I wouldn't be the culinarian that I am today nor open to learning how to be better at my craft. I can only wish for you to feel just as inspired when you cook, present and indulge in a meal.
P.S. Use some goddamn seasonings FFS. Pretty pictures are cool but food is beyond looking pretty: It needs to taste GOOD or else, we might be wasting our time. You can still create a healthy dish and not perform a massacre to your taste buds. Be adventurous.
Latoya Shauntay Snell
Thanks to friends and loved ones, I managed to financially foot part of the bill for some fancy classically French training school called Star Career Academy of NY before the school ran off and stole everyone's money. At least the instructors were real deal and I graduated before they closed.
If you want to donate to my one woman operation, please feel free to hit the button below.