For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been one to do things the hard way, the hands on way, so it should be no surprise that I got sucked into cooking and eating as a consuming passion. I love to know how things work so it makes sense that I’d want to know about the food I’m putting into my body. I’ve found the best way to learn that is to make it myself.
Passion for me has always started out with a sliver of curiosity. My interest in photography grew out of a curiosity about my dad’s old 70s Nikkormat camera when I was in elementary school and my first interest in making my own food started with an curiosity about my mom’s espresso machine when I was in high school. The photography took off in a big way and now it’s how I make my living but my passion for food took a little longer to take root. Now that I’ve turned one hobby into an occupation, I’m perfectly happy to have food as a hobby that’s not my job. And It doesn’t hurt that this hobby also keeps me well fed.
Growing up I was an incredibly picky eater. My diet consisted of about five things which I don’t care to list them here. After an eye opening experience at an Indian restaurant in Edinburgh, I realized that new experiences in food were something to be embraced rather than feared. Although my eating horizons broadened considerably, my skill in the kitchen was still pretty much limited to french toast, spaghetti with jarred tomato sauce, and the occasional foray into a boxed Pad Thai or heat and eat Indian meal. Somewhere along the line I developed a reputation for being good at cooking rice. But it wasn’t until after college when I entered the real world that I started thinking about food in any sort of serious way.
My current bout of food obsession was unintentionally kick-started when I moved from Washington DC to New York in 2009 to be with my girlfriend at the time who was a vegan. I’ve pretty much always been a vegetarian but having to take into consideration the dietary needs of a vegan forced me to think more about what goes into food. Although veganized American food like veggie dogs and fake cheese products are off-putting, there is no shortage of vegan-friendly food from around the world based on grains, legumes and vegetables that doesn’t need to be dressed up anything else. There’s even a long tradition of veganism among Hindus and Buddhists with fully developed cuisines free of milk, eggs, meat or seafood. My curiosity was piqued and I set about to figure out how to make vegan food at home that wasn’t pretending to be anything besides good food. My interests cycled from Indian to Thai to Chinese to rough interpretations of what I thought was Mexican or Italian food. I got pretty good at turning tofu into a rough approximation of eggs and cheese in certain contexts. The direction of my cooking took a major turn about the time that the relationship with the vegan girl found its end and I bought my first proper cookbook; Rick Bayless’ Mexican Kitchen.
I first saw Rick Bayless on Top Chef Masters and I was instantly intrigued by the different sorts unfamiliar Mexican food he was preparing on the show. Unmoored by my past relationship, I was now only cooking to fill my own stomach and to fulfil my own interests. Instead of bouncing around between different cuisines, I devoted my heart and my belly to a sort of Mexican cooking that isn’t as familiar on this side of the border. What really attracted me to Mexican was how honest it was – using very simple ingredients to make a wide range of deliciously flavored sauces ranging from the most simple raw tomato salsa to the most complicated moles and pipianes. Grocery shopping became not just an obligation to keep myself fed, but an excuse to visit new neighborhoods in New York in search of harder to find chiles or herbs called for in my cookbooks. Going shopping in Manhattan can be a miserable experience but out in the boroughs there are immigrants who cook and eat at home on a regular basis and stores that cater to their needs. There’s a real satisfaction in making food from scratch and knowing all that went into it.
Lately I’ve been making up for my childhood as a picky eater by taking in all the exotic foods that the far flung parts of New York City’s outer boroughs have to offer. These quests have taken me to Flushing, Queens for South Indian rice and lentil pancakes called Dosas in the basement of a Hindu temple and to the Bronx Little Italy, where I slurped raw clams and oysters on the street outside a fish monger on Arthur Ave. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn I learned that Malaysian cuisine is a revelation laden with ingredients like pungent dried fish and shrimp, which taste so much better than they smell. At a Mexican street cart in Jackson Heights, Queens I’ve sampled the huitlachoche quesadilla; an oversized hand made corn tortilla filled with melted stringy cheese and an unsightly corn fungus that tastes much better than it looks. One of these days I’ll make it to Staten Island for Sri Lankan food.
As a photographer, the logical next step was to make the transition from making and eating food to photographing it. It’s a whole different experience photographing a dish with some knowledge of what goes into making it. To start out I offered my services to my wedding clients Ben Sandler and Jennifer Lim who had just opened a cafe and restaurant in Astoria, Queens called the Queens Kickshaw. Along with some amazing coffee and grilled cheese, I got a set of images that I was able to use to leverage my way onto the pages of publications like Edible Brooklyn and Time Out New York. One of my favorite things about being a photographer is getting to experience things that I would otherwise never think of doing and food photography has given me the opportunity to visit so many new places. The culture of food in New York City is so rich and diverse that I’ll take any excuse to explore it.
This year my interest has shifted to Italian food. After flipping through the gigantic Silver Spoon book in a cookbook-only store in Seattle, I was inspired again to delve into a new cuisine. Something about the comforting simplicity of regional Italian cooking got my attention. These days my tortilla press is sitting idle but the pasta machine is being put to good use. Although I’ve always eaten things with eggs in them, it’s only recently that I’ve taken to eating them whole. Now every morning is an opportunity to make a better omelette or poached egg than I made the day before. And for the first time I’m cooking my own seafood. All of a sudden I’m tossing seafood in my risotto and finding delight in baby octopus legs crawling out from the rice. For Valentines Day I even went so far as buying and shucking my own oysters. It could have ended with a trip to the emergency room but I managed to make it through the evening without stabbing myself or getting food poisoning. Some of the greatest joys are the simplest like a perfectly ripe mango or avocado or a loaf of homemade bread made with only flour, water, yeast and salt.
It’s interesting to think where this hobby has left me today. The idea of eating real unprocessed food now comes so naturally to me that I sometimes forget that not everyone else eats the way I do. Ketchup makes me uncomfortable and I no longer crave the heat and eat Indian pouches or Chipotle burritos that I once subsisted on. Far from being a daily obligation, every meal is another opportunity to try something exceptional and learn something new.