Sixteen Michelin Stars Under One Roof

Chef Wong Wing Keung, Man Wah Restaurant

Hong Kong Master Chefs Find Their Inner Martial Art Spirit

So the conversation with the client for an upcoming portrait shoot went something like this…

Client “Hey, we want to do a series of portraits of our chefs where they are presented doing a number of kung fu style poses.”

Me “Cool. Do the chefs know kung fu, or any martial art.”

Client “Um, probably not. What do you think?”

Me “Sounds like fun. Let’s do it.”

I think I should point out that I, too, know nothing about kung fu, or any other martial art for that matter. I mean I’ve seen my share of kung fu movies and my favorite TV show when I was a kid was Kung Fu, and would LMAO every time Cato would attack Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies but that hardly provides me with any bonafides to direct another human on how to properly move like Bruce Lee. My biggest concerns were two fold. First, how am I going to suggest poses for something I know little about? And second, how will I convince these master chefs to do something they may feel totally uncomfortable doing? Yikes!

Our client was Hong Kong Land who is a major real estate developer in Hong Kong, Macau, Mainland China, and across Asia. For this project they wanted to promote the Michelin starred chefs whose restaurants reside within the Hong Kong Land’s buildings located in Hong Kong’s Central District. The chefs have a combined total of sixteen Michelin Stars.

Then our project coordinator, Elaine Wong, said that she knew a tai chi master and we could invite him to join the project. Just hearing those words put me at ease.

Tai chi master, Wong Lick San

Master Wong’s presence on the set brought a great sense of calm

When I first met our tai chi master, Wong Lick San, I was feeling all the stress that arrives on the first day of shooting. He came into our studio and quietly introduced himself. I was immediately put at ease. He and I began to discuss the direction of the shoot and how I wanted to make sure that each chef looked confident, even a bit heroic, in their poses. The last thing I wanted was to have these images look cheesy or disrespectful to any of the martial arts, or worse, make any of the chefs look silly. Master Wong took his role seriously but also understood that there was a window for artistic interpretation. With each of our subjects Master Wong would sometimes just have them shift their weight a bit and the whole feeling would change. I couldn’t have done this shoot without his presence.

The first shot for any shoot is always the most stressful. I need to figure out my lighting solution/style, work through some poses, then hope the subject is willing to go along with the plan. Once that is achieved then we pray that the client will like the direction.

Game time!

The first of our seven chefs was Richard Ekkebus, whose restaurant, Amber, has earned two Michelin stars plus an additional green star which is awarded when a restaurant combines culinary excellence with industry-leading environmental and ethical standards.

I’ve worked with Chef Ekkebus several times before so this familiarity helped to get our shoot off to a good start. We asked each chef to bring a variety of ingredients and chef tools so that we could introduce these elements to their poses. The props were not mandatory but if they worked to help tell the story then we used them. In some cases props were not necessary as the chef’s pose and expression did all the work.

The first thing I did was to introduce Chef Ekkebus to our tai chi master who would then help to get our chef into the zone by going through a number of poses. As I observed their movements I then examined what our chef brought with him to the shoot. Some white asparagus, a big turnip, some morel mushrooms, and a big beautiful knife. 

Chef Richard Ekkebus, Amber Restaurant

For our first round of images we used both the knife and morels. With Master Wong’s help we worked through a number of poses. For shoots like this there is usually a person representing the client on site but the person in charge of making the final approval is often not on the set. So as we shoot the images are then shared remotely with the big boss. This can be very frustrating and source of considerable anxiety as we await comments. If they don’t like the general direction then we have to do a quick adjustment and start over. Those moments between sending off the image(s) and awaiting a response are full of dread.

In this particular case the news was positive. Client loved the dramatic lighting and background but was concerned that the knife wielding looked a bit aggressive. But the general tone was to move forward and present more options. Comments like these are most welcome as it meant I could proceed with the visual direction and now just needed to get a pose that everyone liked.

Chef Ekkebus was the perfect candidate to have as our first subject. His patience and willingness to try a variety of things really helped to keep the positive energy flowing on the set.

After doing a variety of shots using ingredients as props I decided to do one final image where he held a simple pose while staring into the lens. The combination of the pose and the intensity of his gaze captured everyone. This was the feeling they were looking for.

On to the next victim…I mean subject…

Testing out a few poses for the next subject.

Prior to each portrait session we would work on a number of poses we thought might work with next chef. I figured out early on that it was going to become a challenge to find unique poses for each chef. At some point we were likely to repeat ourselves. Prior to the shoot we did come up with a series of poses that could work for each chef but this often did not pan out for a number of reasons. Nevertheless we soldiered on because all the chefs were patient and willing to go the extra mile. Somehow we managed to make a series of photos with each chef in a unique pose and expression.

Chef Wong Wing Keung, Man Wah Restaurant

For the image of Chef Wong Wing Keung the challenge was getting all the elements just right. He would need to support the steel wok in a level position, bend his knees just right, bring the spatula over his head, all while Jin, our studio master technician, pumped smoke into the wok. With each round something would be off. Spatula in the wrong place, wok not level, eyes closed, smoke not looking right. And with each take Chef Wong just kept persevering without complaint. Then I zoomed in on his face and could see beads of sweat. OMG I thought. I was torturing this poor guy! We took a break and I apologized for making him stress so much. He just smiled and said it was fine. He was a real trooper. 

Chef Yoshiharu Kakinuma, Sushi Shikon

When Chef Yoshiharu Kakinuma entered our studio he was under the impression that he would be doing a sushi demonstration. I had not worked with him before so I wasn’t sure how far I could push him. When the concept for his portrait was first presented to him he appeared skeptical, and even a bit annoyed. Then after sharing with him some of the other portraits we had done of the other chefs his whole demeanor changed and he was onboard. Good thing too, because I made him throw that handful of rice a million times.


Chef Robin Zavouz, Mandarin Grill and Bar

Chef Robin Zavouz is always fun to work with. Every time I’ve had the pleasure to do a shoot with him he is always game to try something different. So when he arrived with a huge tomahawk steak and a big-ass fork I knew I had to make use of them. Working with Master Wong we found just the right pose. Of course no shoot would be complete with Chef Robin complaining about how I’ve tortured him. Some time ago we were doing a shoot when it was observed that his chef coat was wrinkled. It was a small area so I thought I could just do a light steam while he was still wearing it. Big mistake. I burnt the poor fellow and he hasn’t let me forget that moment. On this occasion he began to complain about me making him hold that tomahawk over his head for so long. I guess he’ll add this to his growing list of complaints for the next time we meet.

Chef Umberto Bombana, 81/2 Otto e Mezzo BOMBANA

When it came time to photograph Chef Umberto Bombana I knew that he didn’t want to smile. Not that I was going to ask him to since this series of photos was more about intensity than happy smiley chefs. But I knew before from a previous shoot when he told me, “I don’t want to smile.” You see the thing is Chef Bombana has a wonderful smile but it seems that he’s grown tired of people constantly asking him to smile for a photo. He, too, is looking for photos to be made of himself that show more seriousness and not so jolly. Either that or he’s just pissed off. I don’t know. All I knew was that I wanted to make him feel comfortable and hopefully enjoy the shoot. Having Master Wong there helped a lot. He worked to get Chef Bombana loosened up and even had him punching into his hands like a prize fighter before a big bout. So when it came time to make an image I handed Chef Bombana his melon and had him strike a pose. With a little coaching he brought forth an expression that reminded me of Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, “You looking at me?” Or Charles Bronson in the movie Mr. Magestyk where he simply says, “I just want my melons.”

Chef Masaru Furukawa, Kappo Rin

For Chef Masaru Furukawa we kept it pretty simple. More Zen than kung fu. He brought with him a portable charcoal grilling station and, of course, his knives. Remembering how the knife shot with Chef Ekkebus seemed to aggressive I chose a more passive pose this time around.

Chef Julien Tongourian, L’ATELIER de Joël Robuchon

What better prop could there be to represent French cuisine than a baguette. So when I heard that Chef Julien Tongourian would be joining this shoot I requested he bring some baguettes to the studio. He also brought along the essential tools for making Robuchon’s famous mashed potatoes.

By the end of the shoot we managed to create unique set of chef portraits. Hong Kong Land is now using those images in a variety of ways. Some are large LED screens in their Central, Hong Kong properties, some are being used in online and print media, and some are being used as hoarding around their properties. Hopefully another such opportunity will come along where we can torture these chefs in more fun and creative ways.

Below are examples of how Hong Kong Land is presenting the work.