On a foggy morning in November 2005, I drove to The Stinking Rose for the first day of the photo shoot. Caren Alpert was going to be photographing the food for the cookbook, and she was there with cameras and lenses and film, along with food stylist Jeneffer Jones Rosen and prop stylist Robyn Valarik. Jeneffer had brought bags and bags of props – stacks of plates and bowls and gorgeous platters; piles of linens in all colors and textures; a myriad of glasses and carafes and utensils.
A couple of us were fighting off colds that morning; the air in the upstairs room was chilly, and we huddled inside of our sweaters to keep warm. The plan was to shoot outside on the tiny balcony to take advantage of the natural light, but there was a heavy cloud cover that morning, and it was threatening to rain. Andrea had other commitments that day and couldn’t join us, so we couldn’t count on his jokes to lift the mood. I sat there, glumly wishing that I could be at home with a cup of tea.
The first shot took forever. The kitchen staff wasn’t sure what to do with us, and we weren’t sure what to do with them, and the air was palpably tense.
As I sat there, I began to think through the process, and think about why I wasn’t having any fun, and it occurred to me that I wasn’t enjoying it because I had unconsciously decided not to. I realized, there and then, that I could either put aside my “this is beneath me” attitude and enjoy the project… or not.
The Stinking Rose is pure North Beach kitsch; the walls are covered with black and white pictures of Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio and other celebrities. One wall is filled with a huge painting of a voluptuous woman with the words “We Have Big Bulbs” plastered across the side. Chandeliers of all shapes and sizes dangle from another room, beneath moons and stars that are painted on the ceilings. It’s silly. It’s zany. It’s over the top.
And I decided to like it.
I got up out of my chair and got involved. I ran up and down the stairs, ferrying bits of this and that, and talking with the kitchen staff to ensure that they felt like they were a part of the process. In a matter of moments, my day completely changed.
I’m not saying that I turned the morning around for everyone, or even that they ever felt the same sense of melancholy that I did, only that when I changed my perspective, the day changed for me. The next few days of the photo shoot became more and more fun; as I got to know the kitchen staff, and all of us on the project got to know each other better, it became less of a chore and more of an adventure. I stopped wishing I was at home. I started feeling excited about the cookbook.
It was fascinating to watch Caren set up the shots; I gained a whole new respect for food photography as I observed the concentration and focus that go into snapping that one perfect frame. Robyn and Jeneffer were amazing; they exercised incredible care and thought over each of the prop selections and all of the little tweaks that made a dish “ready” to shoot.
Have I mentioned the food? Every day, in between shots, we sat down and worked our way through the menu. We devoured steaming bowls of cioppino, leaving piles of mussel shells and crab legs in our wake; we ate stacks of garlic-encrusted baby back ribs, and piles of Caesar salad. We sampled thin, oblong pizzas piled with arugula and cherry tomatoes and smoked mozzarella, and polished off a few martini glasses full of chocolate-brownie mousse. Caren kept sneaking spoonfuls of the sticky-sweet mole sauce that tops the garlic ice cream; she said that it tasted just like her favorite See’s candy.
The cookbook hit the shelves a few weeks ago. Thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of Judy Hu at Ten Speed, it has gotten some lovely reviews; it was selected by Time Magazine as one of the 6 restaurant cookbooks that will “keep you dining in.” I love the art both inside and out, which reminds me of an old fruit crate label, with a little Wild West thrown in.
A couple of weeks ago, Andrea and I were invited to be on Dining Around with Gene Burns. I arrived at the studio a few minutes early, and got to have a little chat with the executive producer Joel Riddell. He is wonderfully fun, and full of dish about the restaurant scene in the city. I immediately wanted to put him on my speed dial.
Gene has a low, gravelly voice that seemed tailor-made for radio. He asks smart questions, he makes interesting observations, and he does it all with a warm, feisty humor. That same morning, his other guests included Melissa Perello and Emily Wines from the Fifth Floor on to talk about their wine & culinary classes, Linda Carucci to talk about the Julia Child celebration at Copia, and Shazi Vizram to talk about her marvelous new company, Happy Baby Food.
For a few seconds, I wished that I was involved in one of their projects. Then I caught myself. And had a delightful morning.