Great British Chefs and #SMWFoodPhoto: Food photography, David Griffen & Marcus Wareing

Although I’ve never defined exactly what kind of blogger I am – parenting? Disney? Cat? – one of the things that has always been a big part of my writing is food. As a result I’ve been privileged to get to know some of the Great British Chefs team and community, and even blogged for them once or twice.

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During Social Media Week, the only thing that could rival the excitement of having been asked to speak in a panel myself was attending GBC’s free food photography workshop.

Not only would I get a chance to hear photography secrets and tips from the brilliant David Griffen – who is responsible for more than 50% of the imagery on the gorgeous GBC site – but I’d also get to go fangirl and be in the same room as a food hero, Marcus Wareing. The menu for the evening was to be provided by the team from his St. Pancras-based restaurant, The Gilbert Scott. As icing on the showstopping cake, it would be at Google’s London HQ, allowing me to tick off another square of my Social Media Bingo card (I need Twitter for the big-name hat trick).

photo 1So, what did I learn? Other than the fact that rabbit and prawn pie is not just a thing, but a very, very delicious thing and that gin and lavender cocktails are insanely gorgeous?

Well, how to take slightly better photos than that wobbly cocktail and popcorn one, for a start.

What I particularly loved about David’s presentation was that he focussed almost exclusively on photography with an iPhone or similarly app-happy smartphone. Since for the vast majority of those of us likely to whip out photographic equipment before eating this is going to be the most commonly used device, it was considerably more useful than fancy DSLR settings. It also focussed much more of the classic elements of photography, such as composition and lighting – because to be a better photographer you need an understanding of those much more than you need expensive kit.

David’s Top Tips

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Take photos where there is already good natural light. Unfortunately, for many of us this isn’t something we can control; David – quite justifiably – suggested doing your shooting at lunchtime, and simply enjoying your food at dinner time, but how often do you get to go to some great place more than once in order to do that? For many of us, we’re grabbing the opportunity to snap away for a one time only deal; but do try at least to remember the importance of the best lighting you can get.

Try some different apps. David recommend the (free) ProCamera, and it really is quite outstandingly awesome. My two favourite features are the ability to separate exposure and focus (so you can work with the best available light without compromising the composition you’ve chosen) and the rapid fire mode for action shots. The latter I’ve not yet applied to food – just to my daughter, dancing! – but I can see it working very well for cooking shots.

Try several layers of filters before you hit Instagram. I’ve recently become quite enamoured of VSCO Cam, and was pleased to see David rated it too. But his most valuable recommendation for me was Snapseed, a Google app I’d somehow missed entirely and which is absolutely brilliant for correcting brightness and white balance. His suggestion to use the Drama filter is one worth taking.

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There were many more points raised, but those were the ones that sank in, and that I’ve been trying to apply ever since. Not always successfully, I might add, but that is entirely my own fault.

Once David had imparted his hard-earned knowledge and Marcus had his say (more on this in a moment), we headed off into the canteen (left) to sample more delights and try out his tips, while the man himself darted around offering assistance generously.

The first subject to catch my eye for practice photography was this member of the TGS team, assembling the moreish oxtail sliders that were probably the most praised of the evening’s treats. On the right is one of the original photos (sadly I accidentally deleted the same one, but as it was taken within a few seconds, conditions were extremely similar). On the left, it’s been taken through Snapseed’s Drama filter, had the saturation tweaked and then been run through one of VSCO Cam’s more cinematic filters.

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Next I set my sights on the elegant rabbit and prawn pie; the softness of the rabbit, firm bite of the prawns and flaky gorgeousness of the pastry were all nearly enough to make me put down the damned phone and eat, but I managed to get a few shots in… of which this, again tarted up with Snapseed, was probably my best.

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As we all plunged into a shared bowl together, I was quite taken by the look of the plundered dish afterwards, and this time managed to save the original shot, the one after a VSCO Cam filter was applied and then the final one after it had been put through Snapseed (yes, Drama again).

A beautiful Dorset crab, spiced pear and cobnut salad followed, but sadly I wasn’t happy with a single shot I took of that. I focussed my efforts then – photographic and gastronomic – on the Snow Egg dessert.

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Having wanted to try this floating island-esque confection since reading about it when the restaurant opened, I was not remotely disappointed by it’s light yet substantial deliciousness. Though I still don’t feel I did it justice, lighting-wise.

And what of Mr. Wareing? Well, he’d admitted with frankness that in anyone less renowned for speaking his mind, would have seemed disarming, that the initial rise of food blogging had taken him by surprise and had scared him. At one point, cameras had been banned in the dining rooms, a move that he now concedes was completely wrong but at the time was meant to try and preserve the atmosphere of fine dining that to him is such an essential part of the experience.

He is not, he confesses, at all interested in street food trends or fun little side projects; he is in the business, first and foremost, of flavour, but also in providing the very best experience he can and constantly overseeing his profitable restaurants. For example, he found the canteen environment quite odd for serving the food his team were providing, because to him the restaurant setting and its menu are so inextricably linked. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try to draw a Disney parallel in there somewhere, but honestly I think it’s apt; if Walt’s devil was in the detail, so is Marcus’s.

marcusWhat was really interesting was how much he was willing to answer and be completely honest about – and he asked questions too, so that at one point I found myself explaining about professional bloggers and blogger outreach (I’m amused to find this made it into GBC’s own account of the evening!).

I left on an absolute high, calling my husband from the street and babbling at him so inanely I’m sure he thought I hadn’t had just one cocktail. But this was the very essence of what such an event should be: fun, educational, memorable and interesting. Hats off and many thanks, as ever, to the fantastic Mecca and the GBC team.

2012: The Year of Eating Beautifully

I’m not big into New Year’s resolutions. I used to make them (nickle-dime stuff like not biting my nails or largely uncontrollable stuff like getting people to love me), but not really believe I was going to stick to them because a) no-one does and b) if I cared that much about doing those things I’d just Do Them and not Resolve To Do Them.

So really what I’ve found is that rather than starting the year with a resolution, I might happen to finish a year with a move forward into something new and interesting that has just developed through being alive, and busy and interested. Last year it was running, and that was great until it stopped happening (I don’t want to talk about it). These past few months, I’ve developed a new obsession: food.

Now, obviously, I’ve always eaten plenty. I’ve even appreciated the difference between good and bad food, though clearly not enough to stop eating the bad food. And when I say ‘bad’ food, I don’t mean ‘bad for you’ (I don’t give food a moral status if I can avoid it; as Crowded House remind us, everything is good for you, if it doesn’t kill you), I mean actually bad: bad-tasting, badly-cooked, bad-looking and just plain bad.

I reckon I’ve had enough of eating bad food. A combination of reading Health at Every Size (and everyone should), cyber-stalking Great British Chefs, obsessing about MasterChef and a bit of hypnotherapy has had me, for the first time, actually paying attention to what I eat. I still eat hunched over a book, or in front of the television, or quickly before Ramona wakes up and tries to run off with my plate, but I simply don’t eat anything I don’t enjoy, or that I’ve already had enough of – when I’m concentrating enough to realise that.

Weirdly, I’m finding I’m enjoying things I thought I hated. After years of waxing furious about my hatred of meat and fruit eaten together, I found myself heaping chicken with cranberry sauce, until Ash asked who I was and where his wife had gone. I braised red cabbage (not very well, actually, but that’s cos I was impatient and tired). I created salads with chicory and freaking-delicious-made-up-as-I-went-along blue cheese dressing. I started saying things like “we’ve had enough rich food this week, let’s have something else”. Tonight I turned down one of my favourite fast foods, pizza, because I didn’t feel like it, and made strapatsada instead. You probably have to had had a similarly disordered and dysfunctional relationship with food to understand why that’s remarkable.

In the last month of 2011, I also had three of the best meals I’ve ever had. And now, a bit in the manner of my Dad who likes to itemise everything he’s ever eaten, I’m going to tell you about them. Come back another time if you’re looking for recipes. There are no photos of the restaurant meals because there are times when whipping out an iPhone and snapping away just isn’t right.

Best Meal Ever: Private Dining at Marcus Wareing @ The Berkeley

I have to admit, this one was purely jammy (pardon the food pun). Ash and I stood in for another person  who couldn’t attend, and enjoyed Dinner Menu D. Enjoyed it until we felt like exploding with the sheer delight of it. The wine-matching over the three hour meal was also lovely, as was the Aussie sommelier, who patiently responded to Ash’s questions about MasterChef and described her former boss, Matt Moran, as extremely good to her and strict only in the way that he had to be. Which was nice.

I won’t describe each course because I’ll end up sounding like a pretentious tool, but also because the three most charming things we had aren’t specified on the listed menu. The first was an amuse bouche of almost piping hot Jerusalem artichoke soup topped with a gorgeous cold sunflower cream and sunflower seeds. The second was a pre-dessert of the most beautiful, light white chocolate sorbet with frozen redcurrants. The last was an extremely clever non-dairy chocolate ganache slab.

And that doesn’t even touch on the deliciousness of milk ice cream, devoid of any sickly aftertaste and with a clean, pure, nostalgia-inducing taste.

Oh, okay, I sound like a pretentious tool anyway. But one that’s had a seriously good, bucket-list type meal.

Best Meal I’ve Cooked: Christmas Roast Beef

Here’s where I crow a little, but seriously. I cooked Christmas lunch for the first time in 2010, stepping into the breach to rescue a flu-ridden Mum from the stovetop. It was good, but I didn’t feel like I’d really got the roast beef just right.

This year I planned to take the helm, and I got the roast beef 98% Just. Sodding. Right. (I dock 2% from myself for not browning it better before roasting, cos it was still a little tiny bit browner around the edges than I’d like and for not cutting it thinly enough). But it’s still really good.  Don’t take my word for it; look at it.

(The photo at the top includes my mother’s outstanding chicken liver, mince, chestnut and pine nut stuffing, which I admit looks like cat food but tastes like heaven. There are also goose fat roast potatoes. And there weren’t just peas, it’s just that at that point people stopped taking damn photographs and ate.)

Best Romantic Meal Since Ramona Was Born: The Cinnamon Club

Okay, that’s a dodgy title. But it’s not the best romantic meal ever (our first anniversary at Asia de Cuba nabs that). Still, it was a really lovely meal, and what was wonderful was actively craving a mainly veggie meal and knowing that I was in good hands – if you can’t get a good vegetarian meal from an Indian restaurant something’s gone badly wrong.

Mainly veggie except for the astoundingly kick-ass masala chicken livers which I just had to finish all on my own because Ash doesn’t do liver. The gorgeous crusty mushrooms, the fulsome cauliflower parcel, the amazing Jerusalem artichoke and red onion side, and – also not veggie – the perfectly cooked sea bass bites I cadged from Ash… well, they were all delightful. Also, you’ve got to love eating in a converted library.

And yes, since you’re not asking, I paid.

So there it is; not my New Year’s resolution, but my New Year’s adventure. To cook food. To enjoy food. To obsess about it, for the first time in my life, the right way.