Michael Harlan Turkell is a documentarian when it comes to the restaurant world. His “Back of the House“ photography project narrates the lives of chefs in their restaurant worlds. His radio show, Food Seen (which, weather allowing, The New Potato will be appearing on tomorrow, October 30th) hosts guests that work at the intersection of food and art – a marriage we love here at The New Potato. We decided to turn the tables on Turkell, photographing him at The Brooklyn Farmacy where he is currently working on his latest photography project, and getting his take on the world of food and art…
What is your ideal food day?
I’m not much of a breakfast person. Well, that’s not true. I love leftovers: cold pizza, cold fried chicken, cold noodle dishes from all ethnicities. Dinner for breakfast may trump breakfast for dinner. Though, my Francophile self, thinks a croissant and a café noir “c’est bon” [is good!]. Lunch, hmm. I don’t know if I eat meals like that. I’m a grazer, going from place to place, having a little bit here and there. I’d start with oysters. Raw. Just on the half-shell. I like shucking my own. No condiments, not even a lemon. Just as is – pure, unembellished. Lately, I prefer smaller west coast ones like Kumamotos, Kushis and Shigokus. And bread too – crusty, warm, with room temperature butter on the side. Might begin the day with some bubbles, as well. I love Champagne. I like other sparkling wines, but I truly and deeply love Champagne. From there, I’d most likely try to find water – not to drink, but to look at while continuing to drink. You can do that all at Hog Island in Tomales Bay, California, but here in New York, most good oyster bars feel landlocked. (Grand Central Oyster Bar doesn’t even have daylight!) I like walking and eating, so things that travel well and fit in the palm of my hand work best. A favorite is Christie’s Jamaican Beef Patties on Flatbush. You can have them on coco-bread, but that’s a nap waiting to happen. Due to my pedestrian snacking, I often have a stack of napkins in my pocket. I guess I’m a fish guy. Some crudo, sushi, cured salmon, smoked trout, pickled herring; any/all of it would be a fitting “lunch”. Might walk around a bit more before finding a piece of pizza, and if I’m feeling very hungry, a corner Sicilian slice. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth when it comes to desserts, but I heart candy. Sour gummies, specifically. Might head over to Economy Candy and grab a few treats for my travels.
I’m not sure what time of day I’m at yet, but I’d most likely find a cheese board and salumi, with a nice bottle of Cru Beaujolais. Might think about fish again – fried this time – whitebait, clams, calamari…a full out fritto misto. Maybe a bit of beef tartare, with the traditional accoutrements; cornichons, whole grain mustard, baguette (grilled bread is best!). And then nice crisp salad with a bright, acidic dressing with a round of late-night oysters (again) and a negroni on the rocks as a nightcap. And I’d do it all again the next day!
What made you start your “Back of the House” series?
I was working in kitchens, having been attracted to the idea of working in one since high school. When I took my first documentary photo class, it just made sense. First I took pictures of my prep work and plating in order to assemble a manual for myself on how to cook, but it was the people, the places and the stories behind them that caught my eye more than the beauty shot of a finished dish. I started shooting the BACK OF THE HOUSE over a decade ago and my love for the industry grew with every photo taken. I kept documenting the lives of chefs in kitchens, which eventually led me away from the line, and out in the field, meeting the growers and makers who are the cogs of the industry. I don’t see an end in sight for this project. It’s a constant source of inspiration. I hope to archive what I’ve seen, heard and subsequently learned, in book form someday. If there’s one thing I’ve taken away, it’s the ultimate power that food has to convey a message.
How do you go about shooting your subjects in their element/kitchen?
Observation first. I watch how they work, try to understand their flow, and then figure out how I can fit into that. It’s a collaborative process, as is running a restaurant. You can’t do it alone. You have to take cues from each other, find opposite but complimentary angles. You have to have patience and know the shot is going to come. It’s about respect – for their space, time, and how they want to portray themselves. The honesty in showing what people do means a lot to me.