Notes From a Kitchen, a self-published book by Jeff Scott and Blake Beshore, is a photographic exploration of the creative process of chefs; what Scott refers to as an "emotional cookbook." Using documentary style film photography, hours and hours of recorded interviews, and, perhaps most importantly, photographs of chefs' notebooks, Scott and Beshore explore what happens before a plate is put before you in a restaurant. Think of it this way: if a recipe in a restaurant cookbook is the outcome of a great dish, a way to explain its success to others, Notes From a Kitchen is the precursor to that. What didn't work? Where did the dish come from? How does it exist?
The book is divided into two volumes, and features 16 chefs including Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady's in Charleston, SC, George Mendes of Aldea in New York, and freewheelin' pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, formerly of Jean Georges in New York. Below, photographer Jeff Scott tells Eater about his photographic process, the generous nature of chefs, and how exactly one can put together a cookbook without any recipes.
So what's the process like?
I spent like a year traveling and doing nothing but hanging out with chefs in their homes and in the fields and with their farmers and their purveyors. I just had my tape recorder with me nonstop documenting their lives, and it was basically like putting a documentary film together but in the pages of a book.
Why not include recipes?
There are a ton of recipe books. There wasn't really a point to making one more recipe book, because there are just so many out there. So the idea here was: how do we tell a more engaging story about food? Which for me was spending a ridiculous amount of time with chefs. Maybe this is a book that's more about cooking and the idea of food, the nature of food, getting people to understand food at another creative level. Hopefully this will introduce people to the creativity behind this food beyond what they could get from a recipe or a finished plate when you go into a great restaurant.
So many books are like, here's a beautiful food shot, here's what the chef looks like, and here's a recipe. And it's really antiseptic. I mean, there are books out there that are really, really beautiful — like Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook, I think, is gorgeous. Noma does a really good job of throwing you in and giving you really great context for what they're showing you. Alinea is a really great book. Modernist Cuisine is really brilliant for what it's doing. But there I think there's a more vibrant space. There's a place for recipes, but that's not what I do. I'll let other people have those books, but I wanted to do something that wasn't being done, which was visually telling the story of how dishes are made and produced.
Can you talk a little bit about the technical approach to the photography?
Well I always look at the subject first. What's the story I want to tell? Why am I telling this story? Do I really have a valid reason, do I really care about a subject that much that I'm willing to focus on it 20 hours a day? You need that passion test first. So for this project, I shot 100,000 photographs. Which is a lot of photographs. I shot my still photographs like I was shooting a movie camera. So I would use the motor drive a lot [makes a whirring noise]. I would really get into the idea of movement and catching things. And I didn't want to do a lot of blur or repeat other things that I had seen.
And similarly I tape-recorded the chefs. So we're in a pickup, driving through the words, I'm tape-recording, sucking up the information. Just documenting, documenting, documenting.
What I wanted to do — I had the opportunity to have a physical relationship with these notebooks so I wanted to share that. So what I did is what's called a photopolymer gravure. The idea here was to take photographs of notebooks and make different layers, different plates. And what I did was I made different ink layers on different plates and then print them on paper. And it creates this build-up of ink. So most of the stuff you're seeing in the front of volume one with Sean Brock and with Michael Laiskonis in book two is this kind of thing.
How did you choose the chefs to work with?
Well, I had the luck to be friends with a really really talented chef named Joel Harrington, who has a restaurant in Tucson at the Ritz-Carlton called Core. And through Joel, I met Jason Neroni. A very on the edge chef. Really interesting guy. He's in section two. And then when I wanted to go to New York, I became friends with Emma Hearst, and Emma introduced me to George Mendes, who introduced me to Johnny Iuzzini, who then introduced me to Sean [Brock]. So it was sort of like this very natural progression of friends introducing me to their friends. And everyone kind of trusted me, and then with really beautiful access it was really like: okay, now what can I do with it? What's next?
Would you say that there's anything that ties these chefs together? Apart from being friends with each other.
I think everybody is super passionate. Super willing to fail. Willing to push really, really hard. And everyone's learning from each other. This is a really unique group of chefs, people like Michael Laiskonis and George and Sean and Johnny and Zak Pelaccio. These are all people who share with each other — none of these people are selfish. This group of chefs were really generous with me and I got a lot of really good footage and I got a chance to tell the truth about the culinary world.
Video: Notes From a Kitchen Trailer