Behind The Scenes at My Cookbook Photo Shoots

I've been waiting for an excuse to rope Kerri Conan (my longtime friend, colleague, and cookbook guru) into writing for the newsletter, and here she is. We just finished a massive photo shoot for a complete redo of the original How to Cook Everything (out later this year), and Kerri ran the show. Here’s a glimpse behind the scenes.

There are worse places to work than a food shoot studio.

Shout out to Steven Sasson, unsung inventor of the first digital camera. Thanks to him, we in the business of producing photographs of food no longer need to resort to tricks to make it look delicious.

People still ask me all the time, “Do you shellac that stuff?”

As a cookbook and magazine editor of a certain age, I remember when the answer to that was “yes.” Food stylists brushed roast chickens with Kitchen Bouquet mixed with corn syrup. They made ice cream out of Crisco and powdered sugar, blew cigarette smoke around skillets to simulate sizzle, and, to avoid the inevitable sogginess caused by pouring milk into bowls of cereal, used Elmer’s glue.

Shooting food on film was dark magic. To get the best resolution for printing, the cameras were big, heavy, and cumbersome. The image on set appeared upside-down in the viewfinder, so to frame and light the subject properly, the food stylist needed to make a full stand-in. The photographer—stepping under a black curtain and no, I’m not making this up—took a Polaroid, counted to 60, then peeled off the plastic and gently blew on the paper for another couple minutes until the image developed. Everyone in the studio gathered around as if gazing into a crystal ball. Discuss. Adjust. Repeat as necessary.

When the prop and food stylists, author and editor, art director and photographer were satisfied, the dish was often recooked, propped, confirmed with another Polaroid, and committed to an expensive sheet of film. All while the food was dying. We were lucky to get off five shots a day.

Mark rode through this era by dotting his cookbooks with hard-working illustrations and lists explaining the zillions of ways to vary recipes. When he did jump into the food photography fray, naturally he went big.

Luckily by then we were well into the digital age. But nothing is remotely as spontaneous as Instagram or blog posts. The plan for How to Cook Everything: The Basics included 1,000 shots, the vast majority instructional. To keep things real, photographer Romulo Yanes and food stylist Susan Sugarman built a kitchen on set—with stovetop island and counterspace—so that the how-tos could be captured during live prep and cooking. Even the pantry, fridge, equipment, and technique images at the front of the book reflected the real deal.

In the photographed books that followed, Mark and I have insisted on keeping the food 100% honest. Well, almost. I will confess that a couple of times we’ve had to melt cheese to a bubble on set with a blow dryer or use a grill pan to cook and mark steaks when we couldn’t get access to outside. Though long gone are the days of branding meat with a red-hot skewer to make lines; in fact, the food for How to Grill Everything played off of several different types of fuel and outside rigs.

For the last two shoots—Dinner for Everyone, out February 12, and this fall’s anniversary edition of the original How to Cook Everything—Mark and I worked with the lovely Aya Brackett. The first team included Lillian Kang on food and Claire Mack selecting props; the latest with Victoria Granof and Philippa Brathwaite (check out their beautiful handiwork in the Dinner for Everyone recipes below).

Dinner for Everyone takes shape on the wall.

The process starts with extensive planning: We meet with the editor and art director at the publisher to first choose the team and then as a group begin to establish a visual approach that advances the editorial content of the book. From that comes a mood board that captures the lighting, props, and style philosophy. For us that means realistic—not restaurant-style—chopping and lots of in-process or kitchen-counter subjects.

From there we distribute recipes and plan the logistics for the shoot. There are spread sheets, shot lists, and studio reservations and delivery arrangements. The photographer sets up a tech station to file, manipulate, and print dozens of takes—of one dish—on the spot. Then just try to wrap your mind around what shopping for 12 or more shots a day looks like.

Aya and Lillian wrapping the last shot on the set of Dinner for Everyone.

There are challenges just like in your kitchen—but multiplied by the pressures of cooking hundreds of dishes in a small window of time with a big, fragile budget. All it takes is an errant splatter of hot sauce or an underdone meatloaf to cause consternation. But we always manage to work through it.

Lunch on set of the upcoming How to Cook Everything: looks like vegetable chapter day.

I like to think it’s because photo shoots are like summer camp. Every day, no matter how crazy, we break for lunch, gather around a table, and eat as much (of what we photographed) as humanly possible. The menu may be a tad eclectic, but at least now it’s all edible. And what do we talk about? Good cooking and real food.

— Kerri

Aya Brackett

Macaroni and Cheese in a Pot takes advantage of the starchiness of noodles to make a creamy cheese sauce without a roux or béchamel.


Aya Brackett

You want it to be sweet, salty, glossy, and thicker than soy sauce. But you don’t want it to come from a bottle. Skillet Teriyaki proves that searing meat on just one side is perfectly acceptable. This recipe also works for boneless, skinless chicken thighs or pork sirloin steaks, cut into narrow strips.


Aya Brackett

This gooey pan pizza uses a quick (no-yeast) dough that you can whip up on the fly. Start to finish, the whole operation takes less time than ordering delivery. Of course, if you don’t eat meat (or aren’t a pepperoni person), just leave it off.


Talk To Me, Goose!

Questions, comments, brilliant suggestions? Just want to share the recipe for your grandma's potato salad, or your mom's meatloaf, or your uncle Drew's three-day 100-percent rye loaf (yes, please)? Don't hesitate to reach out anytime.