In my continuing search to find a paying career within the food industry (operative word being paying – lots of people are prepared to “employ” me for nothing…), my friend’s father was kind enough to let me intern behind the scenes at his latest food commercial shoot. When he called to let me know the details of the shoot, it might have been a little disconcerting had I not known better. I was told to show up to the basement of a building in Soho at 8:00 AM… What kind of filming was this again? I feel like that’s how those raunchy American Apparel ads start out.
What is Food Porn? It’s pictures and video of food taken so close that your gut screams that you’re beholding something indecent. Yet it’s so mesmerizing, so tantalizing, that you can’t look away. I just can’t stop watching how the perfectly nappant sauce slowly, teasingly, rolls down the side of the chicken breast. You’re so close that every curve and dimple on the food is magnified for your viewing pleasure.
I’m a novice (super novice) at Food Porn. Santi Suarez, Food Porn Director, sits in his Director’s chair (complete with his name on it) at the wayyyy other end of that spectrum. Who is he? What has he done? Well, if you, like me, broke thousands of plastic straws trying to jam them into an orange like Tropicana did, you have Santi to thank for that. Oh, and I personally hold him responsible for the few adolescent years where I was obsessed with pepperoni, which means he’s also accountable for the fat and acne that came along with that obsession. And here’s an interesting little factoid: it’s because of Santi’s wife, Bonnie, and Santi’s son, Nick (of Beer Experiment fame), that I decided to try my hand at the culinary world and go to FCI in the first place! Thanks, guys, it’s worked at real well for me… Working with him on this particular shoot was Marilinda Hodgdon, an incredibly impressive Food Stylist (cook, jewelry maker, sculptor, construction worker – you name it, she can do it and she has). Santi said that if I was interested in food styling at all, she was who I needed to meet and see in action.
For some reason, I only have 2 speeds: hyper-buoyant or disdainful-sarcasm… guess which of these two I am most of the time. Whenever I get excited to try something new, I go straight into hyper-buoyant, which is how I showed up at the ******* studios for the ****** commercial shoot. Oh, why are those names starred out? Well, I think that I broke even my own record for how quickly you can step in it on your first day. I got there at 8AM, but nobody was ready for my help. There were several confused stares as to who-in-the-hell I was. I asked if it would be alright to take some pictures as I waited. Sure, no problem. So off I went, taking pictures of props here, backdrops there… I even took some pictures of the product being advertised. And then… I TWEETED about it. Oh yeah… I felt like a happy little twitter monkey, finally using this damn technology that all the kids are talking about and that Teach forced me to do under threat of obscurity. GREAT idea, right? I’m sure you all already know that it wasn’t, but I’ll just go ahead and spell it out: BAD idea. VERY BAD idea.
Don’t try and look for the tweet, I figured out how to delete it… today… days after the fact… Apparently you just click the little trash can that comes up next to the tweet. Yeah. WHAT??? So I used technology without knowing fully what it did or how it worked! Ok, I made a mistake! It’s not like I freakin’ used a taser without knowing where the stop button was or anything. When Santi introduced me as a blogger to the Clients and their Agency for the shoot, I innocently told them that I had just tweeted about their product and… well, I might as well have shot that poor producer with a whole lot of taser juice. He seemed so nervous and upset by my tweet that I *think* I saw him cry a tear of blood. I was quickly informed that I was not allowed to mention the product or the client name, nor was I allowed to show any pictures of the product OR any food at all, even if the product was nowhere near it. Yowzas. This guy reminded me of an extremely jittery VP I knew from my Goldman days who didn’t seem to particularly enjoy anything outside of money and legal compliance, which meant that now was not the time to make the joke that was about to roll off my tongue. All this over a ****** of ****** being used to ****** a ****** of ******.
Luckily, Marilinda had some work for me to do back in the kitchen. I quickly started putting ****** on ******. I don’t know for sure that I’m not allowed to write about that, but again, Mr. Jitters has me nervous and the last thing I want to do is piss that guy off any further. I got to see Marilinda in action, though, using skewers to gently move something into position, a pair of tweezers to remove another food item. Man, this must be thrilling for you to read, huh? Move something here, take something away there. Sheesh. Let’s just say that Marilinda studied sculpting and was the head cook at a restaurant in NJ by the time she was 16 — she gets food, understands aesthetics, and has the precision of a surgeon. Respect.
As I put ****** on ******, I struck up a conversation with one of Marilinda’s assistants for the day, Neli, who it turned out I had met on her last day/my first internship day at Gramercy Tavern! We had bonded over the sous-vide station and then poof, she was out of my life forever until almost a year later when we both happened to be on the set of a ****** commercial! Small world! Well, we got to talking and catching up when my first verbal smackdown came from Marilinda’s Chief of Staff. Her exact words were, “It may not seem like it, but we’re in the weeds. You can talk, but I don’t want to hear it.” Awesome. Even better was the way she moved slowly over to me to calmly say it without any emotion whatsoever. Just a matter of fact, “I don’t want to hear your voice.” Hour 4 and I already pissed two people off. What can you do? I just nodded, “that’s cool” and went about the random jobs that were assigned to me. The next day I was on set, I was talking to Marilinda and helped her set up her own, personal blog: www.foodfloozie.com. She had mentioned the term as something she had coined for herself and her team because, “we’ll do it [food style] for anybody for money.” I loved it and we got to setting it up right away since no one seemed to need my help beyond opening ****** of ****** once every hour or so. Well, in talking with Marilinda, I pissed off her Chief of Staff again who asked if I would kindly stop distracting Marilinda. Ice, ice, baby. Between Mr. Jitters and Miss Not-so-Snoopy-snow-cone, I felt like I should put on a sweater and get the hell out of the food commercial business ASAP. I’m just not for everybody…
Thankfully, Santi flashed his super-warm “dad-smile” and let me check out the ins & outs of how he filmed the product. The insanity, time, and workforce that go into taking 10 seconds of food porn film is staggering. Take after take has to be reviewed, approved, discussed, etc. before it’s usually nixed and redone…. which means that the food has to be redone… utensils have to be cleaned and reused, etc. At one point, I’m pretty sure there were 30 people in the studio to film something the size of my left hand (it’s the smaller one) – 10 of which were cramped around a small table with the product on it. You can throw as many people at this as you want, but the most impressive thing of all was watching Santi & Marilinda work. Everyone was impressive in how completely in sync they worked: adjusting the light here, the hand model placing something in exactly the right spot every time, reflectors and gels being angled and replaced properly, producers/art directors/script supervisors, etc. analyzing the playbacks and making adjustments & suggestions. But it was Santi and Marilinda who were able to touch the food, adjust the food, angle the food in such a way to make it look effortlessly organic, even though its setup was anything but.
There were a number of eye-opening moments that forced me to look down at my poor little 6.0 Canon Powershot, cradled in my sweaty palm, and whisper, “don’t worry little guy – you’re still pretty awesome in my book.” My favorite of those moments was watching Santi move the camera to trace the path of the ***** as it moved quickly over the *****. Oh MAN is that such a great description, right??? Yeah… Anyhoo, as it moved, he anticipated where it would land and it reminded me of the way a lacrosse player moves his or her stick to anticipate the trajectory of the ball that they are trying to catch and then the way they pull that stick back in towards them to cushion the impact. It was fluid and graceful and had a way of triggering you into instant hunger.
Yesterday yielded another great 6 degrees of Gramercy moment. Ok, until now, I have kept my Gramercy-loving under wraps. More than anything, I’m embarrassed that I’m not working the line there right now. Let me tell you something: if there is ANY line in the world that I would want to work, it would Gramercy’s line under the leadership of Michael Anthony. Basically, he’s superhuman. Not only is he a ridiculous chef producing food and plating that make me regret not saving more during my Goldman days so that I could eat at Gramercy on a weekly basis, but he’s also the most humble and earnest chef that I have ever met. Did I mention that he and his team at Gramercy also do volunteer work at a local school? I’m going to start a list of people that I don’t want to stand next to because it makes me realize what a bad person I am – Michael Anthony’s going to be at the top of that list. So when yesterday, I met the woman handling post-production of the ****** commercial and she said her name was Mindy, I was already thrilled! I met another Mindy! How awesome is that? Do you know how rare it is for me to find anyone else named Mindy besides the girl who played Natalie on The Facts of Life??? This Mindy is pretty rocking, too, and definitely wins in a Mindy-off. Besides being an artist, she basically pulls together all the elements of commercials that involve some sort of CGI and special effects! Luckily, I refrained from asking her about the graphics in Lord of the Rings, with which I’m mildly obsessed. I’M A GEEK – WHAT? And then when she told me that her husband was Michael Anthony, I just couldn’t refrain and I literally blurted out, “SHUT UP!” Yup. That’s actually what I said. I promise, once upon I time, I could converse like a normal civilized person. I don’t know what happened… Well, I obviously couldn’t hold back and let spill how incredible I think her husband is and she, too, thinks he’s superhuman. Wow. A Mindy AND another Gramercy connection. I should have bought a lottery ticket, but I spent all my money on peking duck and noodles.
Last night, after the shoot, I went to take a picture of my peking duck and wonton noodle soup takeout and had a moment of sadness at the way it looked. The wonton just weren’t glisteny enough – Marilinda would know how to combat that deep-yellow drying that came from the wonton being steamed then packed separately from the liquid so they wouldn’t get too mushy. Where was the steam? At Santi’s shoot, there would definitely be steam wafting from the top of my takeout, coiling seductively over the bowl the way it only does in a Food Porn Flick. As the sun started to set and the light from my northern window started to wane, I did think of one makeshift, DIY thing that I could try! I quickly covered a small, plastic cutting board in aluminum foil and angled it to naturally light my bowl o’ noodles. Not bad, not bad. Besides, I’m not movie-scale Food Porn, I’m that free, internet Food Porn that you don’t need to pay anything to see. I know, I know – you’re just checking my site out for the articles, anyway.