At the end of April this year, I was commissioned to work on a book about female chefs – 30 to be precise. This was an exciting prospect, one of my most favourite things to do with my work is to shine a light on people, particularly women. There was, however, a more daunting side to this project – I had less than two months to get all the shoots done, and these months spanned all of the restaurants reopening.
I don’t know if it comes from a place of self-deprecation, or it’s simply just a more female way of being (although, I think we can largely agree that self-deprecation and female identity are frequently found as bedfellows), but I find myself wanting to remove myself from the work that I create. That is to say, I like to feel that my presence in the final portrait is close to invisible. I don’t like to manipulate people’s environments to suit any sort of vision, or light them in a way that makes the image about technicality rather than the person sitting in front of the camera. I prefer to think of myself as a visual storyteller rather than an image maker. What I try to do is bring a sense of ease to a shoot. That might be helping a subject feel relaxed, which can sometimes mean taking time to chat and get used to each other’s company before I even take the camera out of my bag. Or it can be a case of just getting on with the task at hand; something for which Angela gratefully squeezed me on the shoulder when I took this portrait during a busy lunch service at Murano.
Sometimes it’s hard to put a precise finger on why something feels wonderful, so it’s useful when an external source smacks you in the face with it. A quote in the final episode of the most recent season of Sex Education resonated with me: “It’s hard to explain why I like talking to people. It’s a rush, a rush of connection.” That’s what I truly love about my job. It’s not about creating an image, it’s being able to wander into someone’s life and establish a meaningful connection, even if it only lasts for the time it takes to photograph them.
Some of my favourite shoots have been ones where this connection remained for a little while longer, as I sat down to eat with the chefs at their kitchen tables at home. In the case of Anna, we were joined by her husband to enjoy one of her famous dahls while we chatted about holidays to Anglesey while the weather raged outside. Or with Olia, we sat down with her husband Joe (a wonderful food photographer) and son to eat her chosen meal, cooked from her own dog-eared copy of Mamushka – I felt for a moment like an extended part of the family. With Thomasina, it was just the two of us, enjoying stuffed courgette flowers and tacos while the sun shone on her newly cultivated herb and veg garden, and we admired the craftsmanship in her staircase made by her father.
I hadn’t heard of Nokx before I arrived at her front door. We’d had a brief text exchange leading up to the day; she was keen to showcase her own South African food, so shooting at Holborn Dining Rooms, where she heads up The Pie Room, didn’t feel right. That being said, she was nervous about me coming to her house. She opened the door wearing the most wonderful green-and-yellow patterned wrap dress (which has since become a firm favourite outfit in the book, alongside Gizzi’s leather trousers), which when I complimented her on she laughed, “This is what all women in South Africa wear in the kitchen!” After photographing her masala fish curry, we sat down to eat and talked and talked. I found myself wondering out loud how masala had found itself in a traditional Durban dish, only to be told that the British brought slaves over from India to work the sugarcane plantations and that now Durban has one of the largest populations of Indians outside India. As Nokx told her story about arriving in the UK in 2004 and working as a pot washer having been the only female studying in her catering class in South Africa, I had to bite my lip a little to stop it quivering as I imagined the state of what her working conditions must have been as a Black women working in the industry at that time. What resilience to go from that place to making the decision to pursue the job properly, and then to step into one of London’s top restaurants and ask to help head chef Calum make a pie, then asking for more, and to be made head of the new pie room in 2018. And, in the same breath, how wonderful to find yourself under the wing of a male chef who has rejected the machismo of the kitchen and holds the people in his care aloft to shine.
The lion’s share of the above story is communicated beautifully by Clare in the book, but there’s something different hearing it in the flesh. What you don’t find in the book is how Nokx talks to herself, comfortingly referring to herself as Nokxy in anecdotes. You also don’t get to hear Pam Brunton’s laugh, which is the first thing anyone who has spent any amount of time with her will mention, nor her endless singing which follows her around the kitchen and through the restaurant. Or Sam and Shauna giggling their way through their portraits before sending me home with two takeaway boxes of shrimp gumbo for my Mum and Dad to eat for their tea. Even smaller still, the messages I took from chef to chef, who are largely all connected in one way or another. Sometimes you can capture these moments on camera, and sometimes they’re chosen, but not always.
One of my favourite portraits in the book is of Rav, sitting head in hand, gently smiling with a giant silk scrunchie around her wrist. At home, comfortable and brimming with empathy, support and energy. She founded Countertalk in 2018, a platform to share job opportunities in the hospitality business in places which support and promote healthy working environments. A bit like a better version of LinkedIn for the best places to work in hospitality. And really, if there’s one person from The Female Chef who epitomises what the book represents it could be Rav: a former St John pastry chef by trade, who now dedicates her time to letting other folk in the industry stand on her shoulders to see over the crowd.
The Female Chef, Hoxton Mini Press