Monday 9 July 2012

How I styled my cookbook

My cookbook arrived in South African bookshops on Friday (a friend on Twitter tweeted a snap of a pile of books) and I'm quivering with excitement. This afternoon, I'm going to go to my local Exclusive Books so I can lurk - whistling nonchalantly, with hands in pockets - next to the display. I'm hoping to see a shopper pick up my book and browse through it, because I want to see how he or she reacts to to the photographs.

My Nougat & Ice Cream Cake with Hot Raspberry Sauce.
Image by Michael Le Grange © Random House Struik 2012

A great deal of thought went into producing simple, beautiful, mouth-watering images for the book, and in this blogpost I'll tell you how we tried to achieve this. (And you'll find more behind-the-scenes snaps from the shoot here.)

 Michael Le Grange's photograph of my Lemony Green Beans
with Aïoli. Click on the image to see a full-size version.
Image © Random HouseStruik 2012. Bowl by David Walters.
I've written before about why I opted for a professional photographer to tackle the images for the book. I knew the instant I saw Michael Le Grange's portfolio that his photographs of my food would be beautiful, but the prospect of creating a cohesive theme, mood and 'look' for my cookbook gave me some sleepless nights.

 I don't have much professional experience as a food stylist, but I was determined to do the job myself because it was the only way, I figured, that I could have complete creative control over the way my food was displayed on the page. 

What was crucial to me was that the dishes looked like my home-cooked food: in other words, what I'd put on the table in front of you if you came over to my house for lunch or dinner, or what you'd see if you were hanging over my shoulder as I cooked.

Something else that was important to me was absolute simplicity: in each photograph, the food itself had to be the hero. A clean, simple, pared-down look was essential if the food was to 'pop' from the page, fresh and colourful and glistening.

I wanted the food to 'pop' from the page.
Current trends in food photography favour what I call a 'sophisticated rustic' look - weathered wooden boards, worn cloths and cutlery, old or vintage props and much visual emphasis on the ingredients used to prepare the dish.

While this type of 'under-styling' is beautiful and inspiring when carefully done, I knew it wasn't right for my book.

I wouldn't bring a cracked dish or peeling board to my table, or scatter peppercorns or rocket leaves on the tablecloth, and I have a horror of serving dishes encrusted with baked-on dribbles.  (This caused much hilarity during the shoot. "But it looks real, Jane-Anne," cried the book's designer Bev, every time I got my knickers in a knot about a fleck of brown on the edge of a casserole dish, or a wrinkle in a napkin. "Don't make it look too perfect, or people won't want to try the recipe!")

Choosing props - and deciding what to leave out.
Napkin by Emma Wyngaard
My preference was to use the plainest plates and white linen throughout the book, but in the end Bev and Michael convinced me that a few rustic 'prep' shots featuring actual (dented and blackened) baking trays would not be the end of the world.

We also used several wooden surfaces for the photographs, which I reluctantly agreed to on the condition that they looked clean and scrubbed, with no peeling paint or encrusted cracks.

For plates and serving dishes, I turned immediately to my uncle David Walters, who is among South Africa's preeminent master potters.  In his studio in Franschhoek, Dave produces wheel-thrown porcelain, specialising in smoke-fired ceramics and fine dinnerware. In recent years, he's specialised in producing bespoke dinner services for local restaurants, which he designs in consultation with chefs. Dave cheerfully allowed me to raid his studio and gallery, and also offered to custom-make any ceramic item I needed for the shoot.  His exquisite porcelain plates, bowls and platters, with their fine detailing and delicate glazes, added a special elegance to the photographs, and I'm so honoured to have collaborated with him on this project.

For cutlery, I looted the silver canteens of my relatives and some friends. Much of the silverware in the book comes from Norway, because my Norwegian granny made it her habit to give her grandchildren one or two knives, forks or spoons for every birthday as they grew up.  Other pieces come from my great-grandmother, and the silver goblet in the soup chapter is a trophy my grandfather won in a hurdles race in the 1920s. It's been fun seeing my mum and sisters paging through the book and saying, 'Oh, I remember that spoon!' and 'There's granny's silver jug!

Christmas and Christmas Flowers
The Norwegian silver pattern I chose as a small girl.
All the linen and damask in the book comes from my collection, and my mother's, and some of the cloths were embroidered by my granny. For the occasional coloured napkin, cloth or place mat, I turned to my friend Margie, who has inherited a selection of fine Provençal linen from her mother-in-law.

Finally, some styling notes about the food itself.  I'm not a fan at all of 'doctoring' food for photographs. If food is photographed fresh, and uses top-quality ingredients, there really is no need to glycerine it, or stuff it with tissues, or resort to similar such subterfuge. (And it must be said that tales you hear about food being polished, varnished and coated with engine oil are largely wild exaggerations. I'm not saying this doesn't happen - food photographed for packaging shots and adverts often demands intensive care -  but most stylists like food to look fresh and natural, and will use tricks of the food-styling trade only when strictly necessary.

  In one photograph, I deployed a hat pin to attach a stubborn herb leaf, and in another I used super-glue to reattach a flower-head that had fallen off. Other than that, the only other tweaks were a light spritzing of water to some of the salads, and painting on more pan juices when the gloss had evaporated from meat dishes. The ice creams, shot in mid December, were a challenge, but split-second timing and buckets of ice prevented any camera disasters.

My grandfather's hurdling cup, and his son's bowls, with my 

All the fresh herb garnishes came from my herb pots (I sowed handfuls of seeds six weeks before the shoot started, and once a week after that).  Tiny herbs wilt quickly in the heat, and look limp taken from supermarket packets, so it was a real bonus being able to pick them straight from the pot.

All in all, styling my own cookbook was an enormous  challenge, but one I thoroughly enjoyed. And if I'm dissatisfied with any one picture (there are a few I'd tweak if had to do it all again) I have no one but myself to blame.

Preparing a table shot for the photograph opening the Salads chapter.
Scrumptious: Food for Family and Friends is published by Random House Struik and is available at Exclusive Books.

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Nina said...

Jane, you did such a fine job and must I say leaves me somewhat panicky!!!

Jane-Anne said...

Don't be silly Nina. xx

Steve said...

Lovely. Elegant, unaffected images that are all about the food. Big thanks for staying away from the fe-fi-faux-farmhouse look!

africanaussie said...

absolutely beautiful - I would say you achieved your aim.

Kitchenboy said...

As I said before - Stunning, beautiful and classy! (I might not have used those exact words, but that is what I thought.)

I can't wait to get to South Africa in Jan/Feb 2013 to get my hands on one of these (and have it autographed, of course!)

Homemade Heaven said...

There is a big note on my hubby's night stand : "Things to buy Rosemary for her birthday", and your book is listed number 1!

Jane-Anne said...

Thank you so much for your warm support, my friends.

Ann said...

Your styling principles and use of family & friend history are spot-on.

I always wonder if anyone actually gets to eat the food after shoots. Do the stylist, chef, photographer and assistants shoot, eat and leave? Or merely shoot and leave?

Chelsea said...

These photos are beautiful and I'm sure your cookbook is wonderfully styled! Congratulations, it looks perfect.

Jane-Anne said...

Hi Ann!

Thanks for your comment. Ha ha for the eats, shoots and leaves reference!

Normally the crew will sit down at lunch time and demolish whatever was photographed in the morning.

Afternoon food is put in the fridge for dinner, or taken home in blikkies by whoever wants a take-away!

Jane-Anne said...

@Chelsea - thank you very much!

Unknown said...

What a fantastic cookbook! Such a Best Recipe Cookbook So unique.

Zoe said...

Yay!! This is great - can't wait to find it!! Will it be advertised in 'Food and Home' too?

Sue Green said...

Great to read some background, I really believe I was meant to have your book! :)

Jeanne said...

What an interesting post - thanks v much for sharing what went on behind the scenes :) Can't wait till the day I actually see your book in the flesh, so to speak.