Monday, August 9, 2010

If It’s Too Hot, Get Out of the Kitchen!

In our case, we couldn’t wait to get into the kitchen.

This year’s photography sessions for the book, “Long Island Homegrown” about master chefs and the gardens and farms that inspire their culinary art, began June 22 on the North Shore of Long Island.    
In the middle of the east coast’s record-breaking heat wave this summer season, we got lucky and our weather has been splendid for the days of shooting thus far.

I determined we could take the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) from Penn Station to four of the restaurants --two on the North Shore: 18 Bay in Bayville and Bistro M in Glen Head.  And two on the South Shore: The Lake House in Bay Shore and The Grey Horse Tavern in Bayport.

After some dodgy, early-morning “meet you at the clock shop” on 34th Street and 7th Avenue, as advised by agent Hercules from the LIRR (which is in fact now a Swarovski Crystal shop,) the photography team met and was altogether:  Jennifer Calais Smith, the photographer, and Patty White, the food stylist – along with her very talented daughter, Lina.  (Lina possesses and innate eye for art and detail – her Italian side of the family are all artists, Lina draws amazing anime, and contributes when she can to the food compositions, having learned from her mother the pro.) 

So, tickets in hand and with great anticipation for this year’s adventures, we boarded the train to arrive at our first restaurant stop: Bistro M ( to photograph chef and owner, Mitchell SuDoc.  
(“M” is for Mitchell, in case you overlooked the obvious as I did…Hey, I’m thinking big picture ^:^)

His restaurant is not unlike a garden sprite’s toadstool secret abode, complete with undulating, low sloping gingerbread roof.  It just needed a large Elephant Ear or colocasia leaf to hide under.  

This former candy store is poised almost on the train tracks. When giving me “directions” on how to get to the restaurant, Chef Mitchell says he tells his customers, if you take a breath when you get off the train, you’ve gone to far.  
I replied I won’t “hold my breath” getting to him, thinking I was being funny. 
It was only later, after we left Bistro M, that I noted, I was indeed holding my breath, or hyperventilating - which is probably a better way to characterize our departure...

Truth is, I didn’t even look when we got off the train, as for some reason, I thought he was meeting us. 
He called my mobile to connect, thank goodness…

As we walked to the restaurant, I was thinking I might need to solve a riddle to be admitted to this lavender-topped confection, just like in a Grimm’s fairy tale.

Shortly, we were whisked away to the Rottkamp farm down the block – Chef Mitchell’s selection for his inspired garden.
As soon as you turn in the shaded driveway, there is no doubt as to why. 

The farm reveals itself in row after row of well-tended vegetables to the right punctuated by a cluster of “Bridges of Madison County”-looking barns bordered by a bed of happy yellow sunflowers and jewel-toned zinnias in another bed
The farm beyond seems to rise up in front of you like a bit of heaven. 

They were poised and ready for their close up… Or so I thought. 

The two Rottkamp farmers married two French sisters, Marianne and Michelle who help manage the 150-acre farm.
We were extremely honored the Rottkamps allowed us to take some of the book’s photo images thee as they have a VERY strict policy of no commercial photography at the farm. 
It was not lost on us for a minute.   We were doubly committed to honor the farm and its heritage.
Repeatedly they told us it was only because of Chef Mitchell they even considered this first ever photo shoot to take place!
The mutual respect was palpable. 

When we first got there, we walked into the barn where the wooden tables hold and display the stacks of fresh picked vegetables, fruits and flowers that a Hollywood set designer couldn’t do match for a one-two Technicolor punch that assault all the senses. 
I think we were like sleepwalkers, transfixed by the charm and bounty of the farm-fresh food and the artful arrangement. 
We started clicking away – digital camera, iPhone, and the professional camera. 
It was then we heard “no pictures.”  As we say in France – tant pis – or too bad.

So, that means that you my dear reader must take the train to Glen Head, NY and visit Rottkamp Farm first-hand.  Believe me, it’s worth the trip. 
The experience is a guaranteed nostalgic trip to the small family owned farms of France and America.
And it goes without saying the pristine vegetables; fruits and flowers are worth a king’s ransom.

With parasols, hats, and team in tow, we were able to enjoy a beautiful morning walk up the farm dirt road to the eggplant and tomatoes that were ripe and ready to be picked by Chef for Bistro M and our photo shoot.

Proud of their produce, the sisters Rottkamp and their manager stayed with us, telling us how much they admire Chef Mitchell and enjoy it when he brings his daughter to the farm. 

The heirlooms tomatoes were like candy!  And looked like jewelry bedazzling in their basket – surpassed only by their moniker:  Coeur de boeuf: Heart of the meat/beef – or what we might call, Beefsteak tomatoes!

Back to Bistro M Restaurant where Chef Mitchell will “cook up” or prepare – after all this is summer and we can go light on the cooking element -- a sampling of the recipes he will contribute to the book. 

Here he crafted a farm-fresh beet salad, and fried green tomatoes and what he calls the Rottkamp Farm Market Vegetable Salad – using what’s fresh that day. 

This morning, Chef Mitchell selected a dish that was a treat for the eyes and the taste buds.  My friend Celeste who owns Marquette Restaurant on 12th Street often reminds me that there is an old French saying that the “eyes eat first.”
And with the bumble bee yellow and American Flyer wagon red watermelons, purple and gold eggplants, crisp red and white radishes, those Rottkamp heirloom tomatoes, fried green tomatoes and fresh basil – the composition was an artful study that was movie-poster gorgeous and delicious to taste.

Chef also made pecan-crusted rack of lamb tapas with lavender-infused ricotta, and buttermilk lemon dressing for the garnish of fresh tomatoes and herbs.  This was crazy good. 

We photographed the completed plated recipes in the outdoor dining area where Bistro M also offers live music that adds to the sensual pleasure of enjoying a fine dining experience. 
Chef Mitchell and I chatted and reviewed a few elements for the profile I write.  Jennifer and Patty were busy working with the ambient light and the plates to make certain we capture the best angle. 

The images help underscore the narrative about each chef and pay respect to their culinary craft.
The best photographs this morning are a still life of Chef Mitchell’s artistic creation that will inspire the reader to undertake making these recipes…

Jennifer and Patty work so hard in a very time-compressed window.  We usually have daily double appointments. Moreover, we are mindful of the chef’s precious time and work very hard not to monopolize their schedule or their kitchen.

We were soon back inside the air-conditioned restaurant – thank you. Especially as Bistro M was closed for patrons.  All of us, including Lina, enjoyed the dishes Chef Mitchell prepared.  Mmmm. 
The last order of business before we needed to hop on the train to go further east was to take Chef’s portrait.  I try to get the chefs in a natural yet professional profile to showcase their stature as leaders in the farm to table revolution.  We often have them assume an authoritative stance either in front of the restaurant’s logo or sign or some definitive place within the dining room, in order to lend the image an added sense of place.
(I will share a funny aside about taking Nick & Toni’s Chef Joseph Realmuto’s head shot in a future post – ha!)

We elected to photograph Chef Mitchell outdoors where the restaurant’s name and logo are writ large on the side of the restaurant.  It was now nearing noonish and the heat was blistering.  Especially as there are neither trees nor shade from the building next door.  I tried to shade him with my too-small parasol.  He suggested Patty grab the outdoor umbrella from the restaurant’s entrance.  That worked pretty well and Jennifer worked around the sun issue and the position of the sign and Chef.  
I frequently look at the image on the camera, with Jennifer clicking through and tapping into a more focused close up, noting she can clean this up or highlight that or whatever her photographic talent allows her to do once the images are downloaded onto the Mac. 

I was trying politely (naturally) but firmly trying to herd our team of kittens to make the train.  Granted we were a breath away from the station stop, but we needed to pack up the equipment, take some personal shots with Chef Mitchell; finish cleaning up, and a quick trip to the head. 
After numerous admonishments:  “We need to go.”  “We must go.”  “Must go – Now,” Quickening the frequency – “Must go – Now.” became a mantra of sorts. 
I scooped up Jennifer and our bags and we headed out. 
I was sure Patty and Lina were following right behind us.

We no sooner got to the platform than the train came into view – its locomotive front high beam glaring in the noon day light. 
Jennifer and I look to the right and see Patty and Lina nervously exiting Bistro M and looking to us. 
The two of them start walking fast, maybe running, down to the platform – but on the wrong side!  Jennifer and I are waving like two air traffic controllers to come back and over the tracks, mouthing, “NO. This side”
The train stops well short of the crossing near the restaurant and we anxiously tell the conductor and the engineer our plight.  “Our associates are on the other side of the tracks and we need them to get on this train as we have another photo shoot/work appointment a few stops east.” 
They kindly tell us, “No problem. We’ll wait for them.”  They can see Patty and Lina. 
Understandably, they did not want to cross the tracks.  (Train track crossing is almost a phobia of mine and even if there is not a train in sight, I have a problem crossing over – whether on foot or in a car!  So I am most empathetic to their plight.)
So I now run back down the platform and steps so they can hear me over the roar of the engine and to tell them, “The train is waiting for you. Come on.  The engineer and conductor will wait.”  They still hesitate.   I can’t get them to understand the train will not go until they are on board…. I keep running.
At some point, they do indeed cross the track and are now barreling toward the car door. 
Out of breath but now safely ensconced in our seats, the conductor smiles as he comes in to take our tickets. 

It was a high drama moment and a quiet train right to our next destination…