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Robin Zavou, Executive Chef, Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong

Coming up with new ways to photograph a chef can sometimes be challenging. Photographers are often burying their subjects in a variety of products or substances as it can be a graphic and playful way to illustrate a story. This image of Chef Robin Zavou was from a shoot I did for Tasting Kitchen (TK) magazine and Krug Champagne. The assignment was to make a set of photographs of six of Hong Kong’s premier chefs who serve as ambassadors for the House of Krug. Each year the House of Krug will present a challenge to their ambassadors to create a dish that pairs well with one of their champagnes using a key ingredient. This year’s ingredient was peppers.

My assistant, Jin, tries on the wok for size.

The first thing I had to do was to get a hole cut in the bottom of a large wok. I actually already had the wok so I gave it our magazine’s managing editor, Joey Cheang, and she set out on a mission to find the right guy with the right tools to make a perfect hole.

The next thing I needed to do was to figure out how to make it look like the wok was sitting on a table. I thought about getting a large piece of plywood and simply cutting a hole in the middle of it but the logistics of moving a big piece of plywood around Hong Kong just seemed too troublesome. We were working in a rented studio so any props we needed had to be brought in for the shoot.

I decided to use a bunch of wood slats I had purchased from an angry old man at a lumber store in Macau. By staggering their placement I could fit them around the subjects neck thus making it possible to dump a bunch of peppers into the wok with few falling through.

The setup was actually quite simple. We positioned two tables side by side with a gap in between and then laid the wood slats over the gap. For this shot we used three Paul Buff Einstein strobes. Two of the lights were fitted with extra-small Chimera softboxes and 40 degree grids. A third light, not seen in the photo above, is on a floor stand and fitted with a honeycomb grid to provide a spotlight on the background.

A quick test shot before locking our chef into position.

I new that for this particular shot I would need a chef that was not only patient and could endure an uncomfortable position but also capable of providing lots of different facial expressions. I had worked with Robin before and thought he’d be perfect for this approach so when I presented the idea to him he was game to give it a try. Little did he know the torture he was soon going to have to endure.

In between shots I couldn’t help myself and shot a few frames with the iPhone.

Alien spotting along the Extraterrestrial Highway in Nevada.

Ever since I was a kid I loved road trips through the desert. I also love anything involving little green men from outer space. Combine those two elements and you have the makings of a wonderful drive.

Roadside stop where you can buy Alien Jerky.

The dessert, and more specifically, the skies around Area 51, which is part of the United States Air Force’s Nevada Test and Training Range, are rumored to be full of Extraterrestrial activity. Area 51 is believed by many to be a top secret base where Extraterrestrial technology and captured outer space visitors are being held in captivity. The US government only acknowledged the existence of the base a few years ago.

Nevada Route 375 also known as the Extraterrestrial Highway.

I wasn’t sure what I would find along the ET Highway but my hope was, of course, to spot a UFO or some little men with oversized heads or at the very least some interesting and quirky roadside stops. As I was about to enter the ET Highway I thought it would be wise to give my wife a call to let her know where I was and where I was going. Just in case she didn’t hear back from me she would know that I had been abducted and wouldn’t be back until the Aliens finished with all their experiments and hopefully without any probing.

Actual life along the Extraterrestrial Highway.

I suppose it won’t surprise anyone to hear that I not only was not abducted but didn’t see anything resembling at extraterrestrial beings. I did, however, find several roadside curiosities with each containing a plethora of souvenirs ranging from mugs to t-shirts to alien jerky. I bought some alien jerky.

An alien megastore located along the ET Highway.

The ET Highway skirts along the edge of the large military base which contains Area 51. The Air Force uses the base to test advanced “human” made aircraft but many believe it’s actually used to reverse engineer alien aircraft they have captured cruising over the desert. It’s probably true.

Further up the road I arrive at Rachel, Nevada. Rachel has fewer than 100 residents and is home to the A’le’Inn, a little restaurant that features a variety of alien inspired dishes. I was hungry so thought I’d get a burger. But I couldn’t decide between the Saucer Burger and Alien Burger. The Saucer Burner came with fries but the Alien Burger included Alien Sauce. When I inquired about the Alien Sauce the waitress said, without any embellishment, “It’s thousand island dressing”. I chose the Saucer Burger.

In front of the A’Le’Inn is a tow truck parked and holding a captured flying saucer. Proof that aliens do exist.

A captured flying saucer on display at the A’Le’Inn, Rachel, Nevada.
Proof that aliens exist.

After devouring my Saucer Burger I hit the road and continued my search for alien life. No luck this time but I’ll return again.

A fresh batch of soba noodles at Teuchi-Soba Ichimura resaurant in Niseko, Japan

I love seeing and photographing the process of how things are made. I also love eating soba noodles. So when the opportunity presented itself to photograph a little restaurant in Niseko, Japan where they make their own soba noodles from scratch I was enthusiastically in favor of doing the story.

We were in Niseko, a region of Hokkaido better known for its snow and winter activities, to do a special issue of Tasting Kitchen magazine showing that Niseko was also a great place to visit during the summer. This was my first visit to Niseko so can’t compare the summer to the winter but what I can say is that it was a wonderful place to be in the middle of the summer. The air is clean and cool and the people are relaxed and easy going.

A field of buckwheat with Mount Yotei in the background.

From almost any point in Niseko you can always find your bearings thanks to the beautifully shaped cinder cone of Mount Yotei. The fertile soils around the volcano allow for a plethora of things to be grown. In the photo above is a field of buckwheat which is the principle ingredient in the making of soba noodles.

Rolling out freshly made buckwheat dough.

We arrived at Teuchi-Soba Ichimura early one morning to capture the entire process of how they make their fresh noodles. They start by grinding the buckwheat seeds into flour and then proceed to turn it into a big sheet of rolled dough before cutting it into hundreds of perfectly shaped noodles.

Precision hand-cut soba noodles.

The noodles are then dusted with flour to keep them from sticking together and measured out into individual serving sizes and carefully placed onto a tray in preparation for the boiling pot.

Time to cook.

The restaurant is a well known and respected establishment in Niseko. Tables fill up fast at lunchtime and the kitchen kicks into overdrive filling customers orders.

Preparing orders for hungry guests.
Five types of dried fish go into the making of the sauce for the soba noodles.

In addition to a perfectly made buckwheat noodle it also takes a delicious sauce complete the soba experience. At Teuchi-Soba Ichimura they create a broth using five different kinds of dried fish, a special dashi and kombu seaweed.

The final product is a plate of beautiful hand cut buckwheat noodles and small bowl of dipping sauce. It looks so simple one would never know all the effort that went into this delicious concoction. I could eat this every day.

Chef Shinobu Namae puts the finishing touches to one of his signature dishes in his restaurant L’Effervescense located in Tokyo, Japan.

Not long ago I was contacted by Desmond Chang, owner of Ruyi, a ceramics company that specializes in fine dining tableware, asking if I could help him do some portraits of Chef Shinobu Namae in Tokyo. He wanted to create a series of images of Chef Namae holding and working with some of the plates he has created for his Infini Collection. He explained to me that he wanted to create a different feeling for this marketing campaign in which the artistry of these beautiful dishes was matched by the artistry of those he wants to collaborate with. At first I was thinking he simply wanted photos of a famous chef holding/working with his plate. Then Desmond said “…and I want you photograph Namae san with his shirt off.” This was something I was not expecting and it immediately got my attention and peaked my interest. Desmond went on to explain that the shape of the plate resembled that of a human clavicle and would like to see this connection in a photo. I loved the idea and so the shoot was planned.

Chef Namae’s signature dish created from a whole turnip called A Fixed Point.

My assistant Jin and I arrived in Tokyo the day before the shoot and went straight to the restaurant to discuss the logistics of the shoot with the L’Effervescense restaurant manager Aoshima Sosuke san. Since the Michellin Two-Star restaurant has both a lunch and dinner service it meant that anything we wanted to do in the main part of the restaurant would have to be done either before or in between service times. Those two windows of time happens to be quite short. It also meant that I had to be as non disruptive to their service preparation as possible. Together we formulated a plan to photograph the plated food in the morning, followed by images of Chef Namae plating one of his dishes and then do the portraits during the break between the lunch and dinner services. I still had not met Chef Namae and it was uncertain as to whether or not he would agree to taking off his shirt for the camera

Chef Namae’s monk fish in a bowl from Rui’s Infini Collection.

The first shot we did was of Chef Namae’s monk fish dish. Since service in the restaurant had not yet begun I chose a location in the little garden which can be viewed from the dining room. The large rock in the garden made a perfect tabletop and with the use of an extra-small Chimera softbox fitted with a 40 degree grid I was able to create a nice mood for the Infini Collection bowl and the delicate ingredients it contained.

Test shots

With our morning dedicated to plated food shots I was getting nervous about our planned afternoon shoot with Chef Namae. If he didn’t like what I had done with his food the shoot would be in jeopardy. As I was completing my final shot Chef Namae appeared and politely introduced himself. I shared with him the results from our morning shoot and then we began to discuss the portrait shoot. Desmond had presented the shirtless idea to him in advance but he was reluctant. I could tell Chef Namae was not a boastful type of person and his soft spoken reserve made him a bit nervous about the concept. I assured him that if he didn’t like the direction of the photos we would go to Plan B. There wasn’t really a Plan B since I was pretty confident he would like the photos. I decided to light him with fairly dramatic, yet soft soft lighting so Jin and I set to work creating the lighting solution. For this shoot I actually carried a large painted muslin to Japan but when I got to the restaurant I found a wall that had a really nice texture so opted to use that instead. I’m always happiest when I can use backgrounds at the location as it connects the subject to their surroundings.

Chef Namae holding a plate from the Infini Collection by Ruyi.

After discussing a number of poses with Chef Namae we began shooting. When I saw him cradle the plate in his arms I knew this would be the shot. The lighting caught both the plate and his collar bone and the connection between the two appeared just as Desmond had described.

I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable Chef Namae appeared to be in front of the camera. He was incredibly patient and was very helpful in suggesting various poses. We shot for just over an hour and when it looked like we had what we needed we began packing up the gear and putting their lounge area back in order. We managed to leave the premises just as the evening guests were arriving.

If you would like to learn more about the Ruyi Infini Collection you can check them out on Instagram @ruyi_global and on Facebook @ruyi.global

Also follow Chef Namae on Instagram @namaesan and visit his restaurant’s website here: http://www.leffervescence.jp/en/

That’s a wrap!

Agave fields in the state of Jalisco, Mexico.

I have to be honest and admit that my knowledge about tequila prior to this trip to Mexico was limited waking up with raging hangovers after doing too many shots of the spirit the night before back when I was a much younger man.

Agave harvest, Jalisco, Mexico

This assignment to photograph tequila making in Mexico’s state of Jalisco for Tasting Kitchen (TK) magazine not only enriched my knowledge of how tequila is made but my entire perception about the spirit.

Agave harvest, Jalisco, Mexico

I was joined on this trip by Mark Hammons, publisher of TK, and Jay Kahn, a Hong Kong bar owner and student of agave spirits. Jay’s knowledge of tequila, as well as other spirits derived from the agave plant, is impressive. His enthusiasm for the drink is infectious as his method for educating both Mark and myself was equal to the joy I felt listening to my favorite professor’s lectures back in college.

Agave harvest, Jalisco, Mexico

We all met up in Guadalajara and from there we began our exploration of the agave spirit world. Jay introduced us to a friend of his, Esteban Morales, a local agave spirit exporter, who offered to guide us to some interesting distillers in the area. The next day we set out together and drove into the Jalisco open space. Along the way we stopped in at a roadside shop selling pulque which is a fermented beverage made from an agave plant. Its light effervescent flavor is a perfect road trip refresher.

Esteban Morales enjoying a glass of pulque at a road side stop outside of Gaudalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. Pulque is a fermented drink made from Agave.

From here we took a slight detour to visit a couple of small distillers who make another agave based spirit called raicilla. Traditionally this spirit was considered a kind of moonshine and mainly enjoyed by farmers and villagers. Now, however, it’s becoming more and more popular beyond the Mexican borders. Producers tend to be small independent distillers using simple copper pot stills and cooking the agave in earthen ovens.

Gerardo Peña sits in front of his raicilla producing still at his home outside of Guadalajar, Jalisco, Mexico. Raicilla is a spirit distilled from agave which is generally made by small producers and incorporates other varieties of agave other than just the blue agave.

Our first stop was to visit Gerardo Peña who makes raicilla right on his front patio. Gerardo was just finishing a batch and as we watched the condensed clear liquid drip from the cooling coil he handed me a glass and asked if I would like to try it. He had just checked the alcohol content and it was hovering around sixty-five percent. I’m thinking that’s pretty high and am reluctant to sample something so high in alcohol content. I take a whiff of the clear substance and the fumes fill my nose with strong alcohol vapors. I then take a sip and am surprised by the smoothness of the product. It was definitely strong and it did heat up my core as I felt it rolling down my throat and onto the stomach but it wasn’t unpleasant. I expected to taste something much alcoholic and even medicinal but in reality it had nice agave flavor. It was at this moment that my education began and I was falling under Jay’s spell and becoming an appreciative student of agave spirits.

The origin of raicilla dates back to long before the Spanish conquest of Mexico. However during the Spanish colonial period a heavy tax was applied to agave based spirits. The producers, in an effort to avoid being taxed went underground and only produced for local consumption. Another way they avoided being taxed, according to one story I was told, would be to claim that raicilla was a kind of medicine or tonic so therefore did not fall under the same tax as tequila or mezcal. There’s just no way to defeat a clever moonshiner.

Raicilla producer, Jalisco, Mexico
Raicilla producer, Jalisco, Mexico

One of the first things I learned about tequila was the amount of time it takes to grow an agave. From seedling to maturity it can take from six to eight years before the heart of the agave, known as the peña, is big enough and ripe enough to harvest. That’s a lot of years to tend a crop. If you consider that most field crops in the world have to survive only one growing season, and all the things that can go wrong during that one season, imagine what it must be like for an agave farmer to have to nurture and protect his crop for eight years. If a field is lost that’s eight years down the drain.

Agave fields in the state of Jalisco, Mexico.

The next day we headed off in the direction of the small city of Tequila where many of the worlds top tequila producers are based. Our first stop was the Herradura distillery. Herradura is a big commercial operation exporting their many varieties of tequila all over the world. It was clear we were no longer in the world of mom and pop stills. These folks were brewing mass quantities of their beverage. An interesting aspect to the Herradura fermentation process, and by no means exclusive to their distillery, is allowing the fermentation to occur naturally. The large open-air vats of agave juice ferment at their own pace. Herradura has trees and other plants growing all around their property to aid this process by producing yeast that feeds on the sugar rich agave juice. The process requires constant monitoring and when the time is right the product is sent off for distillation.

Tequila production at the Herradura distillery, Jalisco, Mexico

It was now time to head into Tequila. Upon arrival I was pleasantly surprised to see that the town has maintained its Mexican small town charm. The place does have it’s touristy elements but still feels like genuine working town.

The Catholic church in the heart of Tequila.
Scene in the heart of tequila country, Taquilla, Jalisco, Mexico.
Scene in the heart of tequila country, Taquilla, Jalisco, Mexico.
The modern world has not completely transformed this part of the world.
Newlyweds head out to begin their new lives together.
Musicians perform at a wedding in downtown Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico.
With the wedding party moving on this young guy could finally sit down and have something to eat.

On our list of distilleries to visit was Los Abuelos where they make their export brand of Tequila called Fortaleza. The distillery is owned and operated by Guillermo Erickson Sauza who’s family has lived in Tequila since the 1850s. It was his great grandfather who began distilling tequila in 1873. Then in 1950 his grandfather bought the land where Los Abuelos now sits and opened his own distillery. It remained open until 1968 but had to shut it down mainly due to inefficiency according to Guillermo. The distillery remained dormant until 2000 when Guillermo decided to open it up and begin distilling once again. He launched his Fortaleza brand which is now enjoyed all over the world. They don’t produce huge quantities of tequila mainly due to their traditional process of stone crushing the agave which can be slow. They also remove all the agave fibers prior to fermentation which reduces the amount of methanol produced according to Guillermo.

Guillermo Erickson Sauza, owner of Los Abuelos distillery where they produce Fortaleza tequila.
Mashing agave at the Los Abuelos Distillery, Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico
Tequila maker and brand ambassador, Stefano Francavilla with his dog, Guera, at the Los Abuelos Distillery, Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico

After Los Abuelos we headed over to the Arette distillery and it was here I got to watch cooking process from the the preparation of the agave as it is loaded into the large cooker and then when it is removed after several hours of being hit with pressurized steam.

Workers load the agave into the giant steamer.
A worker at the Arete distillery in Tequila chops up agave prior to loading it in the giant steamer.
After several hours of cooking the oven doors are unlocked and swung open. The freshly steamed agave peñas are now soft enough to be squeezed and all their sweet juice extracted.
Freshly cooked agave at the Arete distillery in Tequila Town, Jalisco, Mexico.
Cooked agave to carried from the steamer to the masher at the Arete distillery.

Across town we wandered into the Asombroso distillery where they allowed us in to have a little look around.


A worker at the Asombroso distillery examines the inside of a large agave oven known as an autoclave.
Water tanks and other support systems at the Asombroso distillery in Tequila Town.
Barrel room at the Asombroso distillery.

Another tequila producing region on our itinerary is known as the Jalisco Highlands which are located a couple hours drive east of Tequila. For our visit to this region we based ourselves in the city of Arandas. The city is home of the region’s municipal government so has more hustle and bustle than Tequila. We actually didn’t spent much time within the city itself as the distilleries we were visiting were all located outside of town.

Downtown Arandas, Mexico

Our first stop was to visit El Pandillo distillery. Our guide for the morning is Felipe Camarena, owner of El Pandillo. He picked us up just after sunrise and we headed out to his world.

On the road through the Jalisco Highlands heading towards the El Pandillo distillery with Felipe Camarena.
Young agave plants in a well manicured field at the El Pandillo distillery.
Felipe Camarena stands proudly in the doorway of one of his brick agave ovens at El Pandillo distillery.
At El Pandillo distillery they have created this big steel wheeled agave masher they lovingly call Frankenstein.

One of the interesting things about tequila making is that each distillery will incorporate their own methods for cooking and mashing the agave. Some use traditional stones while others use big steel rollers. Same goes for the cooking method. Brick ovens, earthen ovens, steel autoclaves all affect on taste and quality. For some it’s merely a matter of economics while for others it’s about the craft and claims that one method yields better results than the other. Like any industry where drinks are made by distilling, brewing, fermenting and aging the better tasting products are always from the makers who take their time with the product. It doesn’t mean that a mass produced tequila is crap but just not up to the level of one made by a expert distiller who has the time, expertise and financial backing to take the time needed to produce the product that he or she is looking for.

After departing El Pandillo we headed over to visit La Alteña where they make Tequila Tapatio. We arrived just in time to observe agave being loaded into their stone oven.

Agave being loaded into the oven at La Alteña distillery.
Agave is carried into the brick oven one wheelbarrow load at a time then stacked from floor to ceiling and from one end to the other.
A worker at La Alteã takes a break between loads of agave.
Tequila straight from the still.

The one thing that was often spoken of by all these distillers is that tequila is not about doing shots. They are all working to change this concept and that their product is for sipping and enjoying. And I have to admit that after sampling these beverages at each distillery we visited I would agree. Tequila is a much more complex drink than I had given it credit for prior to my journey to Mexico.

La Alteña Distillery
Master distiller at La Alteña where Tequila Tapatio is made.

As I mentioned earlier it takes a lot of time and effort to nurture an agave plant to full maturity. One early morning Jay and I ventured out to meet up with group of harvesters which are known as Jimadors. We didn’t manage to connect with our contact but we did find a group of workers who were just starting their day tending to a large field. They weren’t harvesting but doing general maintenance to the crop. The work was hard but the men were in good spirits and seemed to enjoy that these gringos were showing such a keen interest in their work and the agaves. They even tolerated being asked to pause their work to allow Jay to ask a few questions about their job.

Workers prepare to start their day tending to a field of agave.
Tending to an agave field near Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico.
An agave field worker taking a lunch break.
Agave fields in the state of Jalisco, Mexico.
Agave fields in the state of Jalisco, Mexico.

After so many visits to distilleries and agave plantations we then headed over to visit a small bottle making factory where tequila bottles are created by glass blowing craftsmen. We happened to show up when they were making a batch of bottles for Fortaleza. Though glass blowing is a somewhat slow process to do on an industrial level it was impressive to see these guys create one bottle after another.

Bottle making factory outside of Guadalajara, Mexico.
Bottle making factory outside of Guadalajara, Mexico.
Bottle making factory outside of Guadalajara, Mexico.
Bottle making factory outside of Guadalajara, Mexico.

We did manage to find one afternoon with time to relax so we headed over to the oldest bar in Tequila called La Capilla. The friendly place welcomes all thirsty travelers and is most famous for the tequila based cocktail called the Batanga which was created by the now 90-year-old owner of the bar Don Javier Delgado Corona. Unfortunately we didn’t get to meet Señor Corona but we did speak with his grandson who now runs the bar. The Batanga is a cocktail that combines tequila, Coca-Cola, lime and a salted glass. Jay, who runs his own bar in Hong Kong called Coa, was anxious to learn exactly how Señor Corona made this drink and to hold the the famous knife that Señor Corona claims is what gives his Batanga that special flavor. The grandson was happy to oblige and welcomed Jay behind the bar.

Hong Kong barman, Jay Kahn, mixes up a Batanga cocktail in the La Capilla, the birthplace of the refreshing tequila based drink.

After Jay had enough playing with the famous knife we all sat down for a drink. It was now mid-afternoon and bar was filling up with thirsty patrons. The atmosphere of the bar is light and happy with doors of the establishment left wide open so the warm afternoon air could flow in. A roving band of musicians came wandering in and began filling the house with song. They would continue to play as long as someone was feeding the meter. They operated almost like a jukebox in that when someone gave them some pesos they would sing any song requested. We didn’t know any Mexican songs but enjoyed their presence so made several contributions.

Musician in the La Capilla bar, Taquila, Jalisco, Mexico.
A friendly señorita in the La Capilla bar in Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico.
La Capilla bar, Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico
A couple relax while sitting at the bar in La Capilla.
Musicians in the La Capilla bar in Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico.

This trip to Mexico was one of the best working trips I’ve ever had. The hospitality expressed by the folks we met in Jalisco along with my traveling companions and all the great food and drink made it a perfect combination of work and enjoyment. I’m looking forward to my next trip to this wonderful land.

The three amigos – from left are Mark Hammons, publisher of TK magazine, Jay Kahn, owner/operator of Coa in Hong Kong and writer for the story which appeared in TK magazine and me, David Hartung.

If you would like to read the published article in TK magazine please follow this link to view the entire issue online: www.tasting-kitchen.com

www.tasting-kitchen.com

All Photographs © David Hartung

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