I phone photographer Todd Selby on the morning of his book signing and release party at New York’s Mission Chinese. “Sorry, I’m stressing out a bit,” he says while rushing around his apartment, eating breakfast (an apple with almond butter) and telling me about his book, Edible Selby — a collection of photo essays and interviews with some of the most exciting young chefs in the world.
Unlike Melanie Dunea’s similar, but also very different, My Last Supper series — featuring industry heavies like Batali, Bourdain and Jacques Pepin — Selby, a high-end fashion photographer and producer with Louis Vuitton and Microsoft as clients, captures more of a culinary in crowd, rather than it crowd.
Forged partially through his chef friend Ignacio Mattos (Il Buco, Isa), Selby was able to broker shoots at some wildly interesting spots like Hartwood in Tulum, Mexico and Alex Atala’s D.O.M. in São Paolo. His documentary shooting style is rich with contrast and evocative of a friend stopping by to snap a couple shots during service. Short hand-written interviews with the chefs, and Selby’s back-of-the-placemat scribble drawings, hint at a friend who stayed for dinner. We caught up with Selby before he rushed off to shoot somewhere.
When did you realize that you enjoyed how food looked in photos?
It’s sort of a recent thing. I never really looked at food magazines, but when I moved to New York I started becoming more conscious about chefs and restaurants and what was going on. I travel a lot for work and I was always researching where to eat and it become a frequent topic of conversation. All of this was tied to the traveling. I started talking to people in the know and they told me where to go.
What is your job exactly?
I do commercial photography and directing. In a way that is my job and this is more of my passion project.
How did you hook up with The Times then? That seems a little bit more than a passion project…
That is true. I guess I see the job as more of what pays the bills.
When was the first time you shot in a kitchen?
A couple years ago at Il Buco. Ignacio Mattos is a good buddy of mine, so it was a good way to ease into it. My girlfriend and I would always go and hang out with him and that’s sort of how we got our start. Visiting him every week. Learning his role as a chef. How working the pass works.
Did you have any previous restaurant experience?
I worked in the cafeteria while in high school. That was the worst job. Working the dishwashing machine.
Then how did you get into all of these kitchens?
It kind of started through Ignacio. He worked at Chez Panisse and had these connections in Uruguay, so he started connecting me with all of these people. It’s very much like a network of people, which is very important. Chefs don’t usually look at blogs or don’t read magazines, so it’s really important to have those personal connections.
Chefs are sometimes operating in their own worlds, true.
They are just working all of the time and it’s hard to get them on the phone.
But after showing them your photos it must have gotten easier…
It got easier. The majority of the stuff was shot independently for the book, with only 30% of it for The New York Times. The rest of it was just me hustling.
But this was a pretty good gig, no? Traveling the world. Hanging out with chefs. Eating very well. Or am I wrong?
It was both. It was really, really fun. It’s my fun passion project. But it was a ton of work. There are 40 shoots in there. I probably did 50 or 60 and then got it down to 40 favorite ones. And that was all over the world, so it was a bit of work. But it was awesome. I didn’t really learn how to cook or anything, but I did learn how if you have a lot of passion, have your own angle and work hard, you can make it work. You can create something special. It’s a neat thing.
Did you feel like you were always true to your own vision? Like if a chef wasn’t working out that day, you didn’t force something…
I had so much freedom shooting whoever I wanted for the book and for the Times. I worked with my editor, but they were really cool. Like if I didn’t want to shoot something for the Times, they didn’t make me.
Did you ever turn down your editor?
Well, we had discussions and I told them what I thought was good or not.
So this is a good point. The Edible Selby isn’t an open invite for everybody to participate.
On the reverse, did anybody say no to you?
Yeah. People did say no. And rather than say no, it was more I couldn’t get in touch or I couldn’t make it happen. I literally couldn’t get people on the phone and they didn’t have an email address. For Geranium [in Copenhagen], it took me six months to get in touch with [chef] Rasmus Kofoed. I’m calling the restaurant. Who are you? Check this link. He’s not here right now. He’s busy. Can you email him? In the end, the ones I really wanted, there was a sheer persistence to get those done. For some of them it was like “let’s get this guy over here so he stops bothering us.” I was like, fine.
When you are shooting, what is the process like?
I shoot by myself the vast majority of the time, which is fun for me because I usually have a whole crew. It’s fun for me to roll solo.
Let’s get a little geeky about gear. What is your setup? What cameras do you use?
I shoot with different things — a mixture of Nikon and Canon SLRs. I’ve shot with a Leica SLR system. I kind of don’t have an allegiance. They are all good. With light, I usually use available light. When I roll with myself I work with the light of the day.
And what about shooting in kitchens. Kitchen lights are notoriously bright.
I really worked hard to find places that are special and had beautiful kitchens. Not just stainless steel and overhead florescent lights. So a lot of the work went into picking the right places.
I really like your chapter with Fergus Henderson. It was sort of touching to see images of his wife making lunch for him…
It was very cool because he’s so known for this nose-to-tail thing, but this is all about him and his wife. You get a feeling for their lives, which is really fun.
Was it hard or easy to pick the Hartwood image for your cover?
We just kind of figured it out. It was challenging, but that image really summed up the vibe of the book.
Were you bummed to see that whole thing at Isa blowup and dissolve before the book was released?
I was really happy that I got to shoot Ignacio right at the perfect time. It is kind of like a time capsule. The same goes for M. Wells, which is gone as well. Everything changes so quickly with restaurants. It will be fun to look at the book in 10 years.
Do you have another book like this in you, or have you exhausted the concept?
I don’t know. Maybe we could wait a while. Until it’s different.
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