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Todd Selby on Photographing Kitchens, DIY Restaurants, and His New Book

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[Photos: Hadassa Haack, Paula Forbes / Eater.com]

Photographer Todd Selby's new book Edible Selby (out now, buy on Amazon) takes a look at the creative work spaces, homes, gardens, bakeries, and restaurants of chefs around the world. Selby spent the past two years traveling and photographing the book, which covers big names — Grant Achatz, René Redzepi — and lesser known "hidden gems," as he calls them. In addition to the photography, the book has handwritten questionnaires filled out by the chefs, and also a sheet of illustrated magnets for your fridge-decorating enjoyment. Below, Selby talks about the DIY ethos that's spreading throughout the global food world, where to get the best pizza in Tokyo, and the food space he'd most like to photograph: the White House vegetable garden. (What do you say, Mrs. Obama?)

How did you end up photographing food-related work spaces?
My work has always been really personality driven, character driven. I've never been really into architecture, I was never the design guy. It was always about finding these amazing character and I just started finding that there's so many of them in the food world. So my whole approach to this has been not, oh, best place of pizza in the world, it's not food driven. It's very much about the people and the aesthetics and the concept. More approaching chefs as artists. Exactly the same as how I did the first book, where there were clothing designers and all other kinds of artists.

How did you end up finding the subjects for the book?
It was very word of mouth, it was plugging into this network of people doing progressive things and friends of friends. For the international stuff, for example in Italy I talked to a friend from Venice about his special places he'd go to when he was growing up in the area. No wanting to be a parachute journalist but try to find places that are really hidden little gems. Like the Inn with No Innkeeper in the hills north of Venice, or the paella master in Mallorca, this old man who makes paella over an open fire. It takes an hour and a half to walk there from the road, or you have to take a boat. It's hidden little spots.

Did you have a vision for how the subjects would fit together as a whole? Do they have anything in common apart from food?
You know, I think the thing that ties everybody together is in the philosophy behind the book. It's very DIY, the do-it-yourself movement. Whether it's making their actual space and the furniture, or the food is very hands on and there's a lot of kind of primitive method. But also, there are people who are very individualistic and are doing their own style, so that was the thing that pulls everyone together.

You traveled all over the world for this book. How long did it take to put together?
I worked on it for two years very intensely. The process is a lot of research and talking to people. I just didn't want to like read a bunch of magazines and go shoot the places in the magazine. It was very kind of challenging, just getting out there and talking to people. A lot of it was a natural progression where I would shoot one place and I would talk to the chef — I shot Ignacio Mattos [formerly of New York's Isa and Il Buco] and we were good friends. So he introduced me to Chad from Tartine and Chad from Tartine introduced me to Danny [Bowien] at Mission Chinese, someone else introduced me to Russell [Moore] and Allison [Hopelain] at Camino [in Oakland, California]. It's very word of mouth and step by step.

That said, there are some big names chefs in the book: Grant Achatz, for example, or René Redzepi.
The really famous people who are in the book, I think they're doing some really special things. The way that I shot this, I tried to do different things with them that feature different elements. Like with Noma I also shot the Nordic Food Lab. It's the research non-profit that they started, it's on a houseboat outside of Noma, so I think that's a really interesting thing that people hadn't seen. So it's trying to get people value even if they're hardcore foodies, there will be stuff in there that they don't know about.

Tell me about the recipes.
Everyone in the book gave their recipe and they're kind of fun, they're a different kind of recipe. They're very casual, they're in the chef's own words and own writing, so sometimes they're really specific and sometimes they're just more whimsical and fun. I just wanted you to get a feeling of the personality of the chef which I think you do. Especially from the Q&A's, you could feel like who's the real joker and who's real serious. Really get a sense of who they are, their personalities come through and so I think that's really fun.

What do you look for when photographing these work spaces?
I'm looking for spaces that really say something interesting of the person. I'm really bored by stainless steel boxes and off the shelf everything. I want to see places that really are expressive and food that's expressive. In other words, it's all very interesting visually.

Can you give me an example of a particularly expressive kitchen?
Angelo Garro, who's in the book. He does ironwork — custom ironwork, but his pictures are actually from his house. He has the ultimate kitchen, he's got a fig tree growing through there and he makes his own olive oil and he makes his own wine and hunts boars and makes boar prosciutto. We got some pictures of him foraging for wild fennel and he made fennel cakes. It is so eclectic that you really you really get a sense of his personality.

Is there anywhere you would love to shoot that you haven't gotten a chance to yet?
The White House. I want to shoot Mrs. Obama's garden — the White House garden. I haven't been able to do that yet.

After all this traveling, you really have a front row seat to the international food scene. What do you find exciting in restaurants right now?
There's a spirit, this deep do-it-yourself spirit which my book is very much about. I think it's really happening, there's this whole pop up thing and all the food carts. Like Danny from Mission Chinese, his place in San Francisco. That place is so exciting 'cause he just did that. He literally makes his own Chinese restaurant inside another Chinese restaurant. I think that's so appealing and the way it should be rather than some huge fancy thing with all these investors. If you have an idea just go do it. And I think that's people are getting really excited about that.

What's your favorite city in the world for eating?
Tokyo. I've been there for the past week. Seirinkan, which is in the book, is an incredible pizza place in Tokyo. He's got two kinds of pizza on the menu, but because you're in the know I'm sure he'll give you a third, the secret pizza, the Bianca dough, the white pizza. I've even had another — I had a fourth pizza last time which came with cherry tomatoes on it.

Now that you're back from Tokyo, what's next?
I just got back to the States yesterday, so the book is out and I'm excited to share it with people. I spent two years working on it all the time and I'm really excited for people who make the recipes. I want to see people, what they do if there have been results. I have a thing on the last page of the book asking people to tweet photos of it, so hopefully people do it.

Any recipes in particular worth trying?
One of my things to do now that I'm back, maybe in December when I get some vacation time, is to go through it and do all the recipes, that's going to be fun. I really want to make the cardamom bun. I actually haven't had those since I photographed the place, Rosendals Trädgård Bakery [in Stockholm]. It's a cinnamon roll that uses cardamom, a simple thing that makes a huge difference.

· All Todd Selby Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Book Club Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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