The “photogenic food contest” I participated in the Sunday after Christmas was one of the crazier things I’ve done here in New York, right up there with being maid of honor at a Halloween wedding conducted by 13 witches or the weekend I spent helping Neil Strauss with a pick-up artists’ convention in 2007.
I had no idea what I was getting into. I had just got home tipsy from a fun dinner with a friend. My holiday vacation had just begun. I was laying in bed with my iPhone, scrolling through email when I saw a note from my friend Cathy Erway. She wrote those of us on the NYC Food Bloggers’ mailing list about a fun contest she was co-hosting with a group of amateur photographers called Photojojo and a couple of local supper clubs.
My strength is making food that tastes good, not food that looks good. I’ve taken a workshop on food styling, and I photograph damn near everything I eat (see here), but I have a long way to go before I can make food that looks gorgeous.
This contest would be a fun way to challenge myself to make something beautiful, and give me a chance to get some additional photography and food styling tips before I launch my food writing site next month.
The next night, I found inspiration as I drank nearly an entire bottle of wine (vacation!) while I was watching a PBS show called Made in Spain. They were making a savory dish with quince paste and a Spanish cheese. I came up with an idea to make poundcake squares filled with mascarpone and topped with a spicy blackberry sauce.
Fast forward and it’s already contest day. I woke up late, all mussed up and of course with none of the necessary ingredients to make my dish. I had gone hunting for mascarpone the night before but my local cheese shop had only 7 ounces of it. I needed 12-14 oz., as I needed to make enough to serve 10 portions.
I hopped a train over to Carroll Gardens and went to Stinky Bklyn cheese shop and got the mascarpone. It’s near 1 pm, and the contest starts at 5 pm. I know it’s 1 because I’m missing the last Pats game of the season, which has started at my Sunday football bar directly across from where I’m shopping. I head to the grocer and scoop up Sara Lee poundcakes, 4 pints of blackberries, ginger, a lemon, candied ginger and head home.
At home, near 2:30, I toss the blackberries in a pot with the fixings from this recipe. I’ve thrown the sauce together before, and I know it’s quick. In a pinch, it can make a mean cocktail addition.
While the berries cooked down, I got to work scooping out the poundcake squares. It’s about 3:30 at this point and I’m starting to sweat. I throw the mascarpone into a bowl and get bored with how white and smooth it is. I have leftover shredded coconut from making Christmas cookies, and decide to throw that in to make the texture more visually interesting.
I throw the blackberries into a blender, then pour it all through a strainer I bought at the hardware store. There is blackberry juice staining my counter, it’s 4 pm, and I haven’t even filled the poundcake yet.
Miraculously, I get the cakes filled, the sauce packaged up, and somehow get myself in a cab to the secret location of this event.
The event was hosted at the loft apartment where The Whisk & Ladle Supper Club takes place, so no one can publicize where this apartment is. Supper clubs are a secret, social thing that has significantly increased my happiness since moving to New York. It’s just a group of strangers who get together weekly or monthly for seated meals at people’s homes. My local supper club is the Ted & Amy Supper Club, which happens to be run by my pretty, talented neighbor Kara. Another group participating in the contest that night is the somewhat renegade yet illustrious group called A Razor, A Shiny Knife.
I had no idea I was going to be hanging out in the kitchen with fools like Mark from Whisk & Ladle and Mike from A Razor, A Shiny Knife. These guys are straight up madmen when it comes to doing weird, yet delicious things in the kitchen.
For instance, at one point I turned around and they were demonstrating how to use a meat bonding agent to bond meat proteins to make skirt steak sous vide and bonding different fish to form visually interesting rainbow rolls.
NOTE: All photos below are mine, unless otherwise noted. Please feel free to share, but do link back to this post.
My friend Cathy (the one who invited me), was doing a pie lattice demonstration. She can make pies with even the juiciest of fruits, like grapes and pineapple, but the star of this occasion were her crusts, adorned with cutouts of autumn leaves or basket weaves.
And then there was Kara, who runs the Ted & Amy Supper Club – I’ve been to her apartment more times than I can count, and not just for dinner. Kara was doing a demo on how to make pumpkin ravioli using wonton wrappers. Making ravioli is a little hectic because you have to work fast to seal the edges before the dough dries out. So, while she mixed up the filling, I hopped in and painted the edges of the wontons with water.
Across the room, a chef named Akiko (who also runs with the A Razor, A Shiny Knife crew), was making a multi-layered dessert using agar agar (similar to gelatin), yuzu zest, green tea tapioca pearls and a milk foam. She was quite busy layering her dessert and dissolving things, so I ran a KitchenAid mixer on the floor to whip her milk layer while she carefully composed her masterpieces on the table above. Total chaos.
We also got to eat some succulent, inventive food. We had squid ink pasta with delicate sea bass, sesame and butter sauce. There was the sous vide skirt steak, stuffed with herbs and seduced with a mushroom reduction sauce. There were more little, beautiful dishes than I can even remember now, but I tasted almost all of them…
My two favorite parts, though, were watching an amateur (soon to be professional) bartender show us how to make vermouth and watching the food stylist style my dessert to make it beautiful. When I was done assembling desserts, I gave our bartender my blackberry sauce and he made us a lovely cocktail with gin.
As soon as I walked in, I was accosted by a guy named Pablo. Pablo apparently thought I knew what I was doing, because he started showing me all these tools (weird nozzles and tweezers and things a dentist would use) and asked me how I wanted to style the dessert. I looked at him blankly, handed him my platter of cakes, then we went upstairs with the blackberry sauce so he could have his way with it.
Sounds dirty, but he made that stuff look gorgeous!
The outcome: A photo of my dish won second place, out of hundreds of photos taken by the event goers. Hot stuff. The first-place photo was of a knife, so I’m interpreting this to mean that I actually *did* have the most photogenic FOOD there :) And it was delicious! That coconut really did something special for the mascarpone, and the spice and intensity of the blackberry sauce was exactly the right element to cut through thr richness of the poundcake and creamy filling.
But, more than than, this was an amazing opportunity to hang out with some creative, passionate people who aren’t letting their day jobs get the way of their creativity. For some people, like Cathy (who has a book coming out) and Mayur (the amateur bartender who’s about to open a restaurant), this unchecked passion is leading to great things. I admire them, and totally basked in the opportunity to play with them.
If you’ve read this far, then you’ll enjoy a slideshow from the event. Remember, this was mainly about how to create beautiful photographs of food, so everyone at the event snapped away and then contributed to the slideshow. You can see everyone’s crazy, fun & delicious photos (including mine) in the slideshow below. Enjoy.