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Evan Sung Wants to Get to Know You First

Meet the influential food photographer who all the coolest chefs are clamoring to work with

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Evan Sung didn’t think he’d be a photographer — let alone one of the most sought-after food photographers in the country. Armed with an undergrad degree in psychology and an insatiable curiosity about people and the world, Sung set out to tell the most honest visual stories he could, and so far it's worked out pretty well: His camera has been responsible for the images in dozens of cookbooks (shooting with the likes of chefs Paul Liebrandt and Marc Forgione) as well as the New York Times, Vogue, and plenty of other high-flying publications. Sung visited the Eater Upsell studios to talk about LA’s incredible light, his favorite shots of all time, and that unsung hero of the food photography world: the prop stylist.

As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.

Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 2, Episode 15: Evan Sung, edited to just the interview, below. For Helen and Greg's thoughts about a secret, rich-people-only restaurant that has no name and no menu (no joke!), you'll have to listen to the episode in full.

Greg: Today in the Eater Upsell studios, we are joined by Evan Sung, a photographer who, if you have been browsing the cookbook aisle at your favorite bookstore in the last ten years, you've probably seen his work.

Helen: You've definitely seen his work, because he's shot over 35 cookbooks.

Greg: And in New York, if you've read the New York Times — the Food section, specifically the reviews — you've probably seen some of his photography there.

Helen: He's all over!

Greg: Evan's everywhere!

Helen: You're everywhere!

Greg: Your photos are everywhere.

Helen: And now you're in the Eater Upsell studios!

Greg: Yeah.

Evan: It's very nice to be here. Thank you guys for having me.

Helen: We're super excited to have you here. A food photographer! Greg and I, among our friends and family, get a lot of, "Ah! You guys have the coolest job!" Because we do.

Greg: Yeah.

Helen: But then we meet someone like you, and we're like, "Oh no. You have the coolest job!"

Evan: It is a great job. All of us are really lucky to be able to work in this area, to be exposed to the things we are exposed to, to meet the people that we get to meet. My job is rarely painful. I love working, I love doing what I do, and I never take it for granted.

Helen: Tell us what being a food photographer means.

Evan: Just to start, I didn't exactly anticipate becoming a food photographer, let alone a photographer. Once I had made it into the photography world and started working various jobs — eventually getting a restaurant review to shoot, enjoying that and running with that — that snowballed into getting hired by the Times as a freelancer. Obviously that's a huge platform to both discover a lot about food and restaurants as well as get my name out there. From there it all built itself. I mean, I built it, but I didn't seek it out so much as it found me.

Greg: As you were getting into photography, were you naturally gravitating toward shooting food, or did you have some other interest?

Evan: Again, it was not very conscious. I had started a Ph.D. program in comparative literature. I actually got my degree in psychology, and then I turned towards literature. Photography was something I discovered later on, after college, actually. A friend put a camera in my hand, showed me how it worked, and I was fascinated by it. It was just a nice thing that we — my friend and his girlfriend, now wife, and I — would do together: Take photos, print in the dark room, and encourage that as a great creative hobby. After a little while, I decided I wasn't gonna follow that academic track, moved back to New York, and started shooting wherever I could.

"It’s fun to shoot people who don’t like being photographed. You get a peek or a flash of who they are when they’re not thinking too much about who they are."

Helen: What kind of comparative literature? What literatures were you comparing?

Evan: I was fascinated by postmodernist theory, Jacques Derrida, all these things that now seem worlds away, but at the time I loved. That pop culture deconstruction, and —

Helen: Postmodernism has a lot to say about photography, though.

Evan: Yeah. Definitely.

Helen: The whole idea of the infinitely reproducible image, and —

Evan: Yup.

Helen: The flattening of reality.

Evan: Yeah. Even my psychology background is very useful in doing what I do. It's all these little pieces that add up to what you end up becoming. So when I left that program, I came back to New York and started to shoot wherever I could shoot, to assist other photographers. I was really fascinated by portraits, actually. That's probably the psychology underpinning, to understand how people work, what motivates them, what drives them. My "project" when I started was photographing artists in their studios, which is not an original project, but it is a endlessly interesting and nourishing thing to do. I was meeting all these people that I'd find through Craigslist that had varying degrees of success doing what they do. Maybe they had a side job, or maybe they were doing it full-time. But for me, as someone who was pursuing photography and trying to figure out how to make a living doing it, it was great to talk to these people and say, "Okay, that's one way to do it. Here's another way. Here's another way. Here's someone who's really lucky to have made the transition into doing it full-time." So that was my passion at the time: Portraits, environmental portraits.

Helen: What makes a good portrait?

Evan: There are many different things. Chris Buck is an amazing portrait photographer. I love those people who can create an unusual scenario that reflects the personality of the person. I'm not exactly that kind of portrait photographer, so I just try to create what feels to me like an honest, direct representation of who the person is.In a way it's fun to shoot people who don't like being photographed. It's also extremely painful sometimes, but it is fun, that process of disarming them a little bit, finding when their defenses drop a little bit. You get a peek or a flash of who they are when they're not thinking too much about who they are.

Greg: How do you get to that point where —

Evan: I just sit and stare at them for a long time.

Greg: Yeah! I'm sure your process has a million tiny details to it that only you know, but do you have to spend a certain amount of time with somebody before you can get to that level?

Evan: Yeah, ideally. Sometimes you get lucky. Photography is an interesting mix of luck and paying attention. And setting things up so that you get lucky in the situation. Sometimes I walk into a place where I have to photograph someone, and without really doing anything, the picture's right there, I don't have to try very hard. Ideally you get a chance to chitchat with them, figure out what motivates them and what they're interested in. People like to talk about the things that they're interested in, usually, so once that starts to happen, their defenses break down a little bit and they're engaged. But I always feel the most comfortable photographing someone who I've had some time to spend with — fifteen minutes, thirty minutes. It's funny, the more you get to know people, at least for me, I kind of don't know how to take their picture anymore, because I know them too well.

Helen: There's a valley.

Evan: Kind of. Yeah. I haven't really thought about it too much, but yeah.

Helen: Or a peak, I guess, right? If you don't know them enough, or if you know them too much, it's hard.

Evan: Yeah.

Helen: There's a sweet spot.

Evan Sung, OX Photos by Evan Sung for "Around the Fire" by Greg and Gabi Denton with Stacy Adimando (Ten Speed Press, 2016)

Evan: It's kind of like a date. Where your interest is at its peak, and then the familiarity takes over. Which is always a great thing, but there is something in that discovery of who a person is that's fun.

Greg: What was the first restaurant review [that you shot]?

Evan: The one that I remember the most, and it was definitely among the first, was the original Momofuku Noodle Bar. Shooting some crawfish at Noodle Bar and meeting David Chang for the first time. This was 2004, 2005, and —

Greg: Was this for the Times?

Evan: This was for the New York Sun at the time.

Helen: Oh! I remember that paper! Oh, man!

Evan: Yeah. Politically they were not my cup of tea, but the arts pages and the restaurant reviews, I thought, were great, uniformly. It was a well-designed paper, and it was definitely a training ground for a lot of people who ended up at the Times and at the Journal and elsewhere. But I did one restaurant in Park Slope, and then this story about these crawfish at Noodle Bar, and then it took off from there. It was an interesting time to come up. When I started shooting for myself in 2004, 2005, that's when the whole food scene changed. The food-media scene changed, too, with Eater and Grub Street and all these things. I was transitioning out of assisting at that point, and it just happened that I fell into this world at a time where it was really becoming a huge thing. It's grown, I've grown with it, and it's grown around me.

Helen: Shooting food is very different than shooting portraits. I feel like we could draw some philosophical parallels, but in the sense that it's still life, it's different. If you go into Momofuku and you're shooting a crawfish dish, it's a very different process than shooting a chef's portrait, for example.

Evan: Right.

Helen: Did you have thoughts about what a food photograph should be?

Evan: I was lucky enough, after I spent a few years assisting, to go to Paris for a year and a half to work with a great photographer named Giacomo Bretzel. He did what I ended up doing for a long time, which was a mix of everything. Shooting for the Times, you get thrown assignments that range. I was doing the backstage fashion week stuff. I was doing portraits for Real Estate or for the Styles section. With Giacomo, one day it might be a beauty story. Another day, it might be a portrait of a designer. Another day, it would be a food story. And we traveled a lot, went to Italy, just ate and drank amazing things. He loved the finer things in life, so we had lots of adventures, and I think through that — I wasn't looking at him thinking, "Oh, I want to shoot food." I think I just appreciated the travel and the chance to do a variety of things. But then when I came back to the city and got assigned to shoot some restaurant reviews, I realized that all those seeds had already been planted in my head, and I had an instinct for what looked right. For me, the big challenge is lighting. I like things that look natural — although I definitely shoot other things that aren't "natural looking" and that's fun, too. But I think the main challenge for me is to make it feel natural and inviting and delicious.

Greg: It's not always easy, especially in Manhattan restaurants. Those dark little boxes —

Evan: Right! Yeah. I remember back then dreading the winter months, because the light would get so dim. I'd walk into a restaurant, they'd want to shoot before service, and I just kept hoping, "Can I get in earlier? Can I get in earlier?" That was and continues to be a challenge. It's funny, when you go out or see the work of LA photographers, even —

Helen: Oh, the light there!

Evan: Yeah. Yeah.

Helen: It's like, shut up.

Evan: It's incredible.

Helen: You have it so well!

Evan: Exactly!

Helen: So easy to be a photographer.

Evan: Exactly. Like any photographer, I love good light. It feels good when there's nice light filtering in. It's not that rare, but you can't rely on finding great natural light in any given restaurant, and certainly not at any given time of day. So that is one of the challenges, for sure. And food lit poorly looks pretty awful, so you have to be sensitive to that. But I've been lucky enough to do a lot of books that have involved traveling, or meeting someone that I wouldn't necessarily meet. For me, food photography is not the end in itself, but the byproduct of getting to do this job, which is learning what motivates this chef, or what this foreign culture is about. To me, that's the most compelling thing. I'm always looking around for another chance to document some different culture, or some different personality, and really explore that for a while. That's why I like cookbooks, ‘cause they take a little longer, as opposed to a restaurant review: I come in, I stick around for a couple of hours, and that's fun, but you don't get to dive deeper into what's going on in that place.

Greg: What was the first cookbook?

Evan: The first cookbook was — it's funny, 'cause I just ran into this person last night — Lauren Deen, who's a producer. She was doing a Lifetime television show, three women cooking recipes. It was called Cook Yourself Thin. That was my first cookbook. It was very exciting to do, and it turned out to be a really big bestseller on Amazon. It was number one for a long time.

Helen: That's a very alluring title.

Evan: Yeah. It was a start, and it was a great start. She was amazing, and I owe a lot to her that she trusted me to do this kind of project that I hadn't done before. All things considered, I don't look back at that book too often. I have it on my shelf, I haven't flipped it open in a while, but it was a defining experience. I learned a lot.

Helen: So the process of shooting a cookbook is, I imagine, vastly different from shooting food in a restaurant as it's being made by the kitchen and being sent out through the pass. With a cookbook, you have your set of recipes, probably more than a hundred of them.

"Photography is an interesting mix of luck and paying attention. And setting things up so that you get lucky in the situation."

Evan: Yeah.

Helen: So what's your process for a cookbook? In a perfect scenario, are you doing this in a studio? Are you doing it in someone's home? Are you on the road?

Evan: There are a couple different ways to do it, and in my mind, I categorize them a little differently. One is these travelogue projects, which have the travel aspect — documenting things photojournalistically — but then also shooting recipes, whether it be in a studio or at the chef's restaurant. Then I have the cheffy books, the very chef-driven books, and I find myself shooting those in restaurants, which isn't the easiest thing to do because you have to respect the schedule and the timing of restaurants. But I understand why, because the chefs have their whole team, their whole mise en place there, so they can push through a lot of food, get recipes done and presented. It's comfortable for them, they have everything they need, so I can make it work. I'm lucky to work with people who understand that it's a necessary challenge sometimes, a necessary evil, so we do it, and it's fine. And then there are other books that are maybe more along the lines of Cook Yourself Thin — authors who have a hundred recipes, and then I have my food stylists, prop stylist, assistants, and we go into a studio and spend X number of days preparing dishes and creating little scenes.

Greg: You got a whole crew there.

Evan: Yep. Yep.

Greg: Same crew every time?

Evan: About the same. It's like anything, you have the people that you love to work with. Sometimes they're available, sometimes they're not, so there's a little bit of a Mission Impossible aspect to it. But I wouldn't be what I am without their help on the set, and I think they're really crucial elements. Suzanne Lenzer is one food stylist that I love to work with a lot, she has her own books, and Kira Corbin is a prop stylist that I love who recently moved out to Portland, but we still manage to work together. We just worked together in San Diego on Richard Blais's cookbook. It's great. She's very flexible, so we get to work together as often as possible.

Helen: The dynamic between the photographer and the various stylists is always really interesting to me. I've noticed in the last couple of years, the New York Times has started including prop and food stylist credits on their photos. They didn't always, and it's still, I think, very rare that that's the case.

North, Evan Sung Photo by Evan Sung for “North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland” by Gunnar Gislason and Jody Eddy (Ten Speed Press, 2015)

Evan: To acknowledge those contributors, yeah.

Helen: And they bring so much to the table.

Evan: Yeah. Yeah.

Helen: If you look at most food magazines, it'll just say the photographer.

Evan: The big magazines definitely tuck those credits, if not on the title page, then certainly in the — what would that be? The sort of index in the back.

Helen: In the masthead, or the contributor list, or some credits.

Evan: But yeah, they're really invaluable. Sometimes I don't rely on a food stylist as much, because if I'm working on a chef book, then I don't particularly feel it's necessary. If they want one, I can certainly conjure one up for them, but usually I trust them. It's the food that they make all the time, they have a pretty set idea of what it's supposed to look like, so I am interested in that, more than the altered, perfected version of what it is that they're trying to make. It's perfect in its own way, because it comes directly from them, their instinct. Food stylists are negotiable. I think they're great, and when I have them, I love to have them, and they work super hard, because it's not easy to cook 12, 13 dishes a day. There's a lot of prep work that goes into it.

But prop stylists are really amazing. It's happened so often that I've done books with chefs, and I've floated the idea of a prop stylist, and they're like, "Eh, what do we need a prop stylist for? We have tons of plates." Certainly I haven't got into fights with them, but they definitely resist it, some of them. And then we get on set — the prop stylist is there, they bring plates, surfaces, linens — and within two hours, the chef is like, "This is amazing! I'm so glad that you're here. All this stuff looks so cool. My food looks great on this plate, on that plate." They get really excited about it, and that's gratifying. It does change the character of the shoot, for sure.

Helen: It feels like the style that has been dominating food imagery for the last five or six years has been this extremely naturalistic, vaguely deconstructed, things that are dripping and things that are splattered, the browning on the pan —

Evan: Yeah.

Helen: And that shit does not happen naturally! I mean, it does, but it doesn't happen naturally beautifully.

Evan: Right.

Helen: Unless a lot of people are very meticulously making sure —

Evan: Right. Yeah, it's a tough balance sometimes. I definitely struggle with how to make something look natural. Sometimes it has to happen naturally, or you can try to poke it around and make it look the way you imagine it should look, but in poking it around, it starts to feel a little airless. I keep thinking of this word, airless. It's a quality that I really avoid, and if I see a shot that I've done and something in my head makes me think, "Oh, that feels a little airless" — almost like it's shot in a studio, or there's no atmosphere to it — then I get really annoyed. I'm trying to minimize that. But I think the airless quality could also come from just over-styling something.

Greg: In terms of cookbooks, did you have any direct influences? Did you look back on certain books — if not necessarily for their specific photographic style, but just the visual impact that they had?

Evan: Coming at this world from a different angle and finding myself in it, I wasn't that well-versed in the history of cookbooks or editorial food magazines. It wasn't something that I was paying a lot of attention to, so I started doing my work just doing what felt right and natural to me. Then one day, I picked up the Alinea cookbook, and that blew my mind. I suddenly felt like this was what I needed to be doing, this kind of stuff. So I started asking around — the chefs that I had met at that point, that I knew — and that's how I started working with Paul Liebrandt. We became friends through that, and that led to a book, his book, To The Bone.

Greg: With Andrew Friedman, right?

Evan: With Andrew Friedman. The great Andrew Friedman, yeah. I always think of that book, the Alinea book, as really something that knocked me onto a different path, a different way of thinking about food photography.

Greg: What was it about it that rejiggered something?

Evan: I was just saying that I like things to look natural and real, but —

Helen: 'Cause that book is the opposite.

Evan: Yeah, it is. It totally is, but there was something just so majestic and impressive about the presentation of the dishes, certainly responding to Grant's genius. It's a giant-format book. The pictures are beautiful. The food looks imposing and architectural. You look at Food & Wine or Gourmet at the time, you see a lot of natural food by the window, lit by window light. So it just felt like something new and different to me. And then people showed me the Michel Bras book — on white, perfect floating food — which also really appealed to me. So I don't know. I guess it's just a strange contradiction, but I definitely like both styles. It's fun to work with chefs who really can present their vision in such a clear and architectural way. It's fun to photograph that.

"For me food photography is not the end in itself, but the byproduct of getting to do this job."

Greg: So, Evan, Helen and I have had this conversation — not on the Eater Upsell, but something that we talk about in the Eater offices fairly frequently — is the popularity of these dishes, specifically in New York, where the point of them seems to be that you take the photo of them and not eat them.

Evan: Yeah.

Greg: The big one I'm thinking of is this place called Black Tap has these milkshakes where the innovation is that they just put frosting on the side of the milkshake so they could stick shit on it.

Evan: Right.

Greg: And the story I heard was that this was actually created between the chef and their PR person, and it just blew up Instagram. People line up for it. And then also at this fair, Smorgasburg, they have a raindrop cake, which is a clear cake. You don't even know what it tastes like, but everybody sees it —

Helen: The point is just documenting it.

Greg: Just documenting it!

Evan: Right. Right. Are you asking me to explain Instagram?

Helen: Tell us about Instagram!

Greg: But as someone who's been a food photographer throughout the entire rise of this kind of social media, I'm curious to hear if you have any thoughts on how it's trending. Do you think that people are making food now for the point of photographing it more than they were?

Evan: Yeah. I have to think that that's a consideration for any restaurant or chef these days, for sure. But on some level wasn't that always a consideration? To entice the diner with the eyes first? But yeah, of course, it's such a valuable tool for any restaurant. Like the cornhusk meringue at Cosme, which is a great dessert and super beautiful. I've shot it, and added it to the countless Instagram photos of the meringue out there. I feel like Instagram has taught people so much about photography. It's funny, is it being shaped by people? Or is it shaping people? People learn how to take pictures because it's like a video game. You get likes or you don't get likes, and you're like, "Oh, I did that wrong," or, "I should do it like this."

Helen: I remember probably a decade ago reading some interview with a professional headshot photographer, and he was saying that the rise of the selfie was destroying him, because now everyone knows the tricks.

Evan: Yeah.

Helen: If you hold the phone slightly above your face — or the camera, I guess, in that case — you'll look thinner. You'll have a more defined jawline. And he, in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way, was like, "My whole job was that I knew these little tricks, and now everybody knows them, and they realized they could cut out the middleman."

Evan: Right.

Helen: "They don't need me." And watching this happen with food photography through Instagram over the last couple years has been fascinating, as people start to understand the difference between a 45-degree angle shot and a direct-overhead shot.

Evan: Yep.

Helen: How you create tension and flow on the page —

Evan: Yep. Yeah. I think people have become so visually sophisticated, so in turn, chefs and PR people are very attuned to what's going to attract people's eyes and make them pull their phones out. Pete Wells has written about it in certain reviews, whether the food is just motivated by its appearance and not necessarily by its technique or flavor. I think you can't escape it. You can't escape Instagram. It must be fed.

Helen: This is my whole hypothesis about the rise of toast! Toast is just prettier sandwiches, and the reason toast has become cool is because it is so much more gratifying to post an Instagram of a sandwich without the top piece of bread.

Evan: Right.

Greg: You're not hiding the pretty part.

Helen: Right! Literally, one hundred percent, the rise of toast. Maybe a little bit of it is that it's slightly lower carb than a two-piece-of-bread sandwich, but the vast majority of toast, as far as I'm concerned, is pure-Instagram psychology.

Evan: That's interesting.

Helen: Also, watermelon radishes.

Evan: Yes!

Greg: Those are the ones that usually are thin and bullseye-like, kind of?

Helen: Right. The beautiful magenta tie-dye.

Greg: Right.

Helen: Or also Chioggia beets.

Evan: Yeah.

Helen: Pure Instagram-bait. Because in the case of the radishes and the beets, magenta is not a color you normally see in a food —

Evan: Right.

Helen: So if you can add that, or an orchid — you know, the edible orchids that are suddenly everywhere, like hibiscus. I'm very cynical about this stuff. I think everything is calculated.

Evan: Maybe that's a thesis that needs to be explored in further depth.

Greg: If you're looking back through your catalog of cookbooks and reviews and anything else you've worked on, what are your top three favorite photos? Do you have them?

Evan: I do have favorites, of course. Images that stick out in my head as being ones that I love. One is the lock screen on my phone. But they're just the images that stick in my head for some reason. They're probably not my best, or —

Helen: Let's see your phone!

Evan: It's actually not exactly food, but —

Helen: I have a picture that I took as my lock screen on my phone. I feel like this is —

Evan: It's something that I like to look at.

Helen: Yeah. It's just what makes you happy. Oh, it's beautiful!

Marc Forgione burner, Evan Sung Photo by Evan Sung for “Marc Forgione” by Marc Forgione and Olga Massov (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)

Evan: Yeah, it was from the Marc Forgione cookbook shoot. We were just looking around the kitchen, and he has this gorgeous flattop, so we actually disassembled it and brought it out into the dining room and laid it on the floor so that we could shoot some stuff on it, and I ended up photographing it by itself. It's kind of like Rothko-esque.

Helen: It's very textural.

Evan: Yeah.

Greg: Is that something that a pan or pot would go on? Like a burner?

Evan: Yep. Yep.

Greg: It's very cool.

Helen: That's beautiful.

Evan: I was really hoping that that would be the cover of the book. I thought it would make a great book cover.

Greg: Yeah.

Helen: It would be very badass.

Evan: Yeah.

Greg: It looks like a door to something.

Evan: Yeah. It's funny, because it's the one piece of equipment he said that he's had since the restaurant opened, and it's taken a beating, and it shows it, but it still works. It's the durability. It's the blank canvas.

"Instagram’s a consideration for any restaurant or chef these days. But wasn’t that always a consideration? To entice the diner with the eyes first?"

Greg: Kind of like the chef.

Evan: Yeah, yeah.

Greg: That's cool.

Evan: That's one of them, for sure. What's another one? There's an image from the Senegal book of a bunch of hands. People sitting on the floor reaching into a plate of ceebu jën, the national dish, seafood and grains. That is a favorite image because it was something that I was photographing in the back of one of these kitchens, and it was time for family meal, so this big plate of fish and rice came out, and they placed it on the floor, sat down, and gestured to me to come and sit and have family meal with them. Of course I had to photograph it first, but then I sat down. That moment was always so meaningful to me. It was really fun, so that image always sticks in my head as a favorite. That whole experience was just incredible, a really amazing place. I had dinner with chef Pierre Thiam yesterday, and —

Helen: The author of the book.

Evan: The author of Senegal.

Helen: Yeah.

Evan: He's great. He is the best ambassador for that country, Senegal. It's really —

Helen: The cookbook is remarkable on a lot of levels. I wrote a little review of it for Eater last year when it came out, and it is — Senegal as a country and Senegalese food as a cuisine are so directly in dialogue with the food of the American South.

Evan: Yeah.

Senegal family meal, Evan Sung Photo by Evan Sung for “Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl” by Pierre Thiam and Jenn Sit (Lake Isle Press, 2015)

Helen: Sean Brock talked about that a little bit in Heritage, his cookbook, and he talks about it in a lot of his cooking. There is this trope in the world of cookbooks, I think, where these travelogue-y cookbooks — whether it's Senegal or Thailand or Russia, or whatever it might be — they often skew towards a very exoticizing visual. To say to the American reader, "Look at how festive and vibrant native life is in this country!" And one of the things that I loved about the Senegal book was that it didn't go down that path. It felt like, "These are human people cooking food in their homes, and you should cook it in your home, because it's just really frickin' great food!"

Evan: Yeah. Yeah.

Helen: It accomplished a very delicate balancing act.

Evan: Well, good. I'm glad to hear that. It can be tricky to not fall into that trap, to over-romanticize or over-exoticize the thing that you're seeing, even though it was all so new to me and so exciting. But chef Thiam told me that one of his cousins in Senegal had seen the book and said that it really felt like home to them. And that was a great compliment. I wanted to reflect what I was seeing, and I felt very at home there in a weird way, and very comfortable — surely because I was traveling with Pierre, but also because they were very warm people, and the country is just beautiful. So I felt in place. I didn't feel totally outside of it, so hopefully that's what's being communicated in those photos.

Helen: What kind of research and prep goes into a shoot like that?

Evan: You know what? That was very much me following Pierre. Pierre knows that country so well, he was born there, grew up there, and returns often. So it was really just trusting him, and trusting what we were trying to say about the recipes of Senegal and about the country. So I can't say that there was a ton of planning, per se. It was really just dropping in there and then running around like crazy and shooting anything that moved. It was fun, it was very instinctive. We had so many cool experiences. I remember we were shooting these fishermen in this little fishing village. They go out early, they get back early, and they have all day to just hang out on the beach, chat, and drink tea. We were there with them, and people started wrestling. They train physically by wrestling on the beach with each other, and wrestling is a huge national sport in Senegal, and it was these really hulking, muscular guys just throwing each other on the beach and doing drills. And just as a lark, I was like, "Oh, I wanna wrestle these guys," and was promptly slammed into the sand. Very kindly, but still.

Evan Sung, Senegal

Greg: You really go for it when you're on one of these assignments.

Evan: But that's the kind of stuff that I just love. The food's great, but it's all part of it. You have to eat two or three times a day so you're bound to run into it, but for me, it's those experiences of meeting the people who are catching that fish that you're gonna eat later. What do they do with their day? How do they spend their time? That, to me, was really fun. And to participate in that way was cool.

Helen: It all connects back to that undergrad psychology degree.

Evan: Exactly.

Greg: I wanna hear one more. What's one more photo?

Evan: Oh, one more photo.

Greg: And then we got the three.

Helen: Have you ever shot a chef with a dead pig around on their shoulders?

Evan: I have not yet done that. That's on the bucket list.

Greg: Really? I thought you had to do that to —

Evan: To get my credentials.

Greg: To get the film for your camera or whatever.

Evan: Not yet. I haven't done a dead animal on a chef's shoulders yet.

Greg: The first time I saw it, I thought it was so cool.

Helen: Oh, it was so cool! And then the fifth time I saw it, I was like, "All right. I get it. You're holding a pig."

Evan: Yeah. Yeah.

Greg: Well, if not another photo, then what's another project that stands out in your mind as something that you really —

Evan: Yeah, I was gonna say, it's really so hard to pick, but the Paul Liebrandt book, for me, was also another big landmark. It was a project that was born out of this friendship and this collaboration that we started precisely because I wanted to do more work like the work I had seen in the Alinea book. It was something we were doing as creative exchange. It wasn't intended to promote the restaurant or anything like that. It was just the stuff that he wanted to create, and then I would go in and light it the way I wanted to light it. We started doing that once every couple months or something like that. And then he sold a book, and some of that stuff went into the book, and then we really started in earnest shooting all the other recipes. So I can't even pick a photo out of that book. I feel like that whole experience is one of my proudest accomplishments, and led to a great friendship with Paul and with Andrew Friedman, the coauthor. So I think two photos and a book. How's that?

Paul Liebrandt book, Evan Sung
Paul Liebrandt book, Evan Sung

Photos by Evan Sung for "To The Bone" by Paul Liebrandt and Andrew Friedman (Clarkson Potter, 2014)

Helen: Yeah, that's great.

Greg: That's great. Next time you see Paul Liebrandt, you gotta tell him to open another restaurant.

Evan: I will do that.

Helen: Seriously.

Greg: I loved that restaurant, The Elm, and I was crushed when it closed.

Helen: You have a look of such ecstasy on your face right now.

Greg: It was just so cool, because it was close to my apartment, and I couldn't believe it had opened there.

Evan: Yeah.

Helen: That a restaurant that good was so close to your house?

Greg: Yeah, that good. Not to get off on a tangent here, but that good, and the kind of place where you could have a really extravagant meal, but you could also go in at 9:30 and get a burger.

Helen: A place like that just opened up by my house, which is also by your house — I aggressively stalk your Instagram, so I know you've been there lately: Olmsted.

Evan: Yes.

Helen: In Prospect Heights.

Evan: I was going to say, in response to your Elm, I was gonna raise you an Olmsted. Yeah.

Helen: Yeah.

Greg: Oh, man. I gotta go there.

Helen: It's really good. And it's so nice to have a place that's not too fancy, but just special.

Evan: Yeah.

Greg: Sometimes you want to have a celebratory meal in your neighborhood at the drop of a hat, 'cause what if somebody in your life gets a job promotion or something? Something like that.

Helen: Yeah, and you don't wanna go more than four blocks from home.

Evan: That's important.

Greg: Yeah.

Helen: You've gotta have something.

Evan: Yeah, I was devastated by — I feel like my neighborhood is a little bit bereft of great food options. On my side of Flatbush Avenue, there's not a ton. Franny's, of course, is always great.

Helen: It's always getting better. Our neighborhood's coming up.

Evan: Oh, but your side, I think, there's a lot more going on.

Helen: My side's great. You should move over by me.

"Every chef wants to find someone who understands their food and them and reflects it in the way that they wanna see it."

Evan: But I was devastated by the loss of Bar Chuko. That was —

Helen: Oh my god!

Greg: Helen was devastated by that loss!

Helen: I was devastated! Utterly destroyed.

Evan: Oh, man. They are lovely people, and we had such good times there, and it was close and reliable. Always reliably delicious, and really creative, I think. So it's too bad. It's a tough business, obviously.

Helen: RIP. That's actually a very good segue into our lightning round —

Evan: Uh-oh.

Helen: Which we close every episode of the Upsell with, and on which one of the questions frequently is if you could resuscitate any restaurant from the dead for one last meal, what would it be?

Evan: Oh, gosh.

Helen: It doesn't have to be Bar Chuko, but if it's Bar Chuko, you can say that.

Evan: Yeah, no, it would be Corton.

Helen: Ah.

Evan: That's where I met Paul. I never had the pleasure of eating at his earlier restaurants, but Corton was a very meaningful place. I spent a lot of time in the front of the house, in the back of the house. I've been to Bâtard since, and it's a funny experience to be in there. That's a great restaurant, too, but very different.

Greg: Very different restaurant, yeah.

Evan: Very different.

Helen: Our next lightning round question — these are not actually quick, easy lightning answers. What advice would you give to someone who wants to break into the world of being a professional food photographer?

Evan: Yeah, that is not a lightning answer.

Helen: It's very slow-moving lightning.

Greg: Slow lightning!

Evan: Thunder clouds rolling in very slowly. In a way, I wouldn't even know what to do now. It's so ubiquitous that you just have to be out there, making connections. Every chef wants to find someone who understands their food and them and reflects it in the way that they wanna see it. That's actually always one of the questions that I ask when I work on these chef books, at the end: "Does this book feel like you?" You want to get a sense that it reflects what they think of their own story on the inside. So make connections, build up those relationships. I think you used to have to assist and go through that whole experience, and you still have to do it in some ways, if you wanna get into commercial photography, but there are a lot of people out there who got their start blogging or just shooting casually, and then it snowballed. So I think it's a matter of being present and persistent. That idea of, "Oh, I met you five years ago and you're still here doing it," is a big thing. There are so many people who transiently come into it and then get out of it that the sense of still thriving and doing it, just being persistent about it, is a big thing.

Helen: And be good at it!

Evan: And be good at it.

Greg: Just be a great photographer! And be in the right place at the right time!

Helen: I feel like I read in your pause, "And don't suck at it."

Greg: Have some skill! Have some talent.

Evan: Right. Well, I was gonna say don't be a jerk, I guess.

Greg: Oh, yeah.

Helen: That's slightly different.

Evan: I hear from a lot of people, "Oh, Evan, you're so easy to work with." I'm like, "What are other people doing that makes it so hard?" It's a pretty fun job. It's not easy, but it's pretty pleasurable.

Greg: So lightning round question number three. You're at an airport and you have an hour to kill. What do you do?

Evan: Oh, the super nerdy answer is that I go to the Delta Lounge and hang out there and have a beer.

Helen: That's not nerdy!

Evan Sung, Michael White Photo by Evan Sung for "Classico e Moderno: Essential Italian Cooking" by Michael White and Andrew Friedman (Ballantine Books, 2013)

Evan: Except I think a lot about Delta Lounges. I'm locked into Delta —

Greg: Do you look forward to them when you know you have to —

Evan: Kind of. There's a lounge at JFK that has a little skydeck, and you're breathing in jet fumes but it's still kinda nice to be outside.

Greg: You can be outside and drinking a beer at the Delta Lounge?

Evan: Yeah.

Helen: I remember when it opened, they were advertising like, "This is the only outdoor space in an airplane lounge ever."

Evan: Yeah. Yeah.

Helen: And now — why do I even know these facts? Now the JetBlue terminal at JFK also has outdoor space, and they have a sign outside of it that says, "The only outdoor space." And I'm like, "No, man! The Delta terminal has had this!"

Evan: Right.

Helen: I actually asked someone at JetBlue about this. I was like, "You are factually incorrect about the primacy of your outdoor space." And they clarified to me that the Delta one is not available to everyone —

Evan: Ah!

Helen: So the JetBlue one —

Greg: Oh.

Helen: Is the first public —

Evan: I see.

Greg: That's such a bit of JetBlue corporate culture. I can't explain why. It just is.

Helen: Splitting hairs, guys.

Evan: But yeah, an hour to kill. I try not to have too much time to kill at the airport. That, or what else would you do there? Go to Shake Shack and grab a burger?

Helen: That's pretty good.

Greg: Another lightning round question. You have a car trip. It's a five-hour car trip. You're gunning down the highway, and you're by yourself, and you're singing along to something on the radio or the iPod. What is it?

Evan: My wife knows that it would probably be a Rihanna song of some sort.

Helen: Really?

Evan: Yeah.

Helen: Wow! You don't seem like the Rihanna type!

Evan: I know. I know.

Helen: I totally thought you were gonna go for some obscure-yet-very-cool, late-90s indie band.

Evan: Yeah, I'm not cool enough for that kind of obscure —

Helen: You seem very cool.

Evan: Well, thank you. But, yeah. I dunno. There's something about it, windows down, music's blaring —

Greg: Rihanna banger. Blasting.

Helen: She's freaking great. She's Rihanna.

Evan: Yup.

Greg: I just learned that Rihanna is one of the top-selling artists of all time now.

Helen: That makes me very happy.

Greg: It's like Pink Floyd, Elvis, and Rihanna. Seriously.

Helen: I love it. She's classic. In 20 years, she will be considered classic rock.

"I hear from a lot of people, ‘Oh, Evan, you’re so easy to work with.’ I’m like, ‘What are other people doing that makes it so hard?’"

Greg: The classic —

Helen: "Aw, man, Dad, why are you listening to Rihanna again? This is old person music."

Greg: "You don't understand, Junior!"

Evan: I have a weird weakness for disposable pop. I'm not that encyclopedic in my knowledge of it, but pop songs work for a reason. They just burrow into your head.

Greg: Rihanna's songs are very — there's always a lot going on in them, melodically and conceptually, I find. I like a lot of them.

Evan: Yeah.

Helen: Maybe the reason they do well! They are awesome! Well, Evan, it has been such a pleasure having you on.

Evan: Oh, it's over already!

Helen: We can just sit here and chill.

Greg: Yeah.

Helen: But before we sign off, tell our listeners where they can check out your beautiful photography.

Evan: They can go to my website, which is, and my Instagram — which is really the only social media that I enjoy — is @EvanSungNYC.

Helen: Evan Sung: Coolest food photographer ever? Probably. Yes.

Greg: Yeah!

Helen: All right.

Greg: Yeah.

Evan: You guys are too kind. Thank you.

Helen: Thanks for coming by!

Evan: It's been fun!

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The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer: Kendra Vaculin
Top image credit: Alex Ulreich

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