En La Cocina

Image above from @LaCocinaSF's Instagram account. Behind the scenes shot.


The Beginning Part: Background

Other than photographing the food that I make at home, I don’t have much experience in food photography. On the suggestion of a friend, I reached out to La Cocina, an innovative nonprofit incubator for small food businesses located in the Mission. I asked about volunteering as a photographer for their participating entrepreneurs. I received a prompt response saying they had two women who needed photos immediately to promote some upcoming events. A week later I was doing my first official food shoot at La Cocina!

The Fun Part: Food Photos!

Mama Lamees (linked to her catering page on Facebook)

 The lovely Mama Lamees (Lah-mee)

The lovely Mama Lamees (Lah-mee)

Lamees Dahbour makes some amazing Middle Eastern cuisine. We did our photo shoot inside La Cocina’s commercial kitchen space, using ambient light. She plated her food on traditional ceramics and brought some beautiful props.

  Fattoush  salad - Fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, mint, sumac, and olive oil; served with crispy pita

Fattoush salad - Fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, mint, sumac, and olive oil; served with crispy pita

 Bottom:  Hummus  (left) and  Mutabal  - similar to Baba Ghanouge, roasted eggplant, tahini, labaneh, garlic, lemon juice

Bottom: Hummus (left) and Mutabal - similar to Baba Ghanouge, roasted eggplant, tahini, labaneh, garlic, lemon juice

 Seasoned Rice - garnished with toasted almonds and parsley. I think the meat was lamb. I only tried the rice but my housemates, who also benefited from this photo shoot (!), raved about this dish.

Seasoned Rice - garnished with toasted almonds and parsley. I think the meat was lamb. I only tried the rice but my housemates, who also benefited from this photo shoot (!), raved about this dish.

  Musakhan  - baked pita, caramelized onions, roasted almonds and sumac

Musakhan - baked pita, caramelized onions, roasted almonds and sumac

  Ejja -  vegetable fritters made from cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, onion, and garlic - soooo goood!

Ejja - vegetable fritters made from cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, onion, and garlic - soooo goood!

  Knafeh Biljibneh  - layers of semi-sweet cheese baked and topped with cane syrup, and pistachios

Knafeh Biljibneh - layers of semi-sweet cheese baked and topped with cane syrup, and pistachios

Mi Morena

 I was so pleased to get her to smile, "con dientes," as I told her, which made her laugh.

I was so pleased to get her to smile, "con dientes," as I told her, which made her laugh.

Guadalupe Moreno makes delicious Mexican food. She arrived while I was photographing the last couple of dishes for Mama Lamees, around 2:30 pm. By that time there was much less light available in the kitchen so we moved outside to La Cocina’s patio, which has a nice collection of plants and succulents that I used to our advantage.

 Tomato and  nopal  (cactus) salad

Tomato and nopal (cactus) salad

 Cauliflower and peppers

Cauliflower and peppers

 Corn and zucchini filling for the vegetarian tacos

Corn and zucchini filling for the vegetarian tacos

 Potato salad

Potato salad

  Bistec  - steak filling

Bistec - steak filling

 Building the tacos

Building the tacos

 The spread

The spread

The Wordy Part: Learnings and Reflections

Working with Mama Lamees and Guadalupe was a great first taste of photographing food on-site with clients. Some flavors from this photo shoot were:

Photographing on other people's time and schedule. When photographing my own food, I tend to do so at a very leisurely pace. It usually involves only one dish and is typically hurried only by my growling stomach. In contrast, at La Cocina, the schedule was dictated by when Mama and Guadalupe were available, and as you can see from the photos, they each prepared and plated several dishes. I had a mere two hours with each woman and I attempted to squeeze in as many shots as I could. While I captured great close ups of her individual dishes and dishes in small groups, the shot I did not get for Mama was a nice photo of her entire spread in sharp focus. This is something I'll not forget next time.

Working with and managing clients. Working with Mama and Guadalupe was lovely. They were both very sweet and happy to have my photography services. It was fun to collaborate with them on styling the food and seeing their reactions to the photos as they displayed on my Macbook screen. I shoot tethered to my laptop when possible for better image evaluation, which also allows clients to see their photos rather immediately and in a better and larger view than on the back of my DSLR.

Even though Mama and Guadalupe were very easy going, I definitely felt the pressure to do my best and keep them engaged and happy. I tried to communicate as much as I could about what I was doing and why. At one point, Mama Lamees apologized for making me retake photos but I told her I also wanted to get good images for her as much as for me! We ran over time with her photo session so I made sure to take a quick break to introduce myself to Guadalupe, who was waiting with her plated food. I apologized for the delay and let her know that we were finishing up and that I would start working with her soon. Her English seemed a bit more limited than Mama Lamees, so I also had the opportunity to practice my rusty Spanish, which was both a challenge and bonus for me.

Shooting on location. I had never been to La Cocina before. My contact, Jessica, shared some photos with me beforehand to give me an idea of the space, but it is never the same as actually being there. I arrived early so I could do a quick walk through and get a better sense of lighting and possibilities for scenes. A major part of being a photographer is thinking on one's feet, being flexible, and working with what you've got.

La Cocina's commercial kitchen is huge but crowded with people and equipment. I brought a dynalite kit (strobe lights) with me but decided to photograph Mama Lamees's food using only available light. I did not want to further crowd the floor space with light stands and potentially create safety hazards or damage the borrowed lighting equipment if it fell. I used a tripod and remote control for my camera to shoot at slower shutter speeds as needed. The great thing about (most) food is that it doesn't move! 

For Guadalupe, I decided to shoot outdoors, even though she had already set up inside. My reasons: the area where we would photograph inside was still being cleaned up by Mama Lamees; the kitchen was getting crowded again with the later shift of entrepreneurs coming in to prep meals for that night; the amount of natural light inside had diminished substantially but was still ample outside; and finally, the patio created a nice environment for Mi Morena's food photo story. I was feeling the patio much more than the kitchen, and I'm pleased with how the photos turned out. Outside, I was able to actually hand hold the camera and use faster shutter speeds for the photos.

Enjoying myself immensely. I expected to have fun, but this was something else altogether. Besides the wonderful experience of learning and the deliciousness of the food (yes, a tasty perk of photographing real food!), it was gratifying to:

  • be of service with my photography;
  • assist women who, like me, are also starting their own businesses;
  • support a nonprofit that clearly does good work, and whose clients are majority low-income, women of color and immigrant backgrounds - a population that I relate to as a woman of color who grew up working poor with an immigrant mother; and
  • connect my present path with my former life as a nonprofit professional, in which I worked with various organizations to provide resources to under served communities and help them achieve greater self-sufficiency and well-being. Specifically, through my work at ONABEN, an organization that provides training and technical assistance to Indianpreneurs™ (Native American entrepreneurs), I have a solid understanding of the work that La Cocina does for its clients. It felt...almost "full circle-ish".

I'm looking forward to volunteering more with La Cocina. In addition to improving on things I learned from this shoot, I want to try strobes and different lighting with the food, and see what other challenges and opportunities pop up!

The Final Part: Plugs!!

Both women have already started to use my photos for their upcoming EatWith.com events!

I would love to go to these dinners but have class Thursday evenings for the spring semester. If you love good food and supporting local, small, women-owned businesses, please check their dinners out!

La Cocina also relies on the support of volunteers and donors, so check them out as well!