The Big Fat Duck Cookbook is the biggest (weighs a whopping 10 pounds), the priciest ($250) and the most over-the-top cookbook we’ve ever seen. It’s the brainchild of mastermind chef Heston Blumenthol, the owner of London’s The Fat Duck (rated the 2nd best restaurant in the world) and a culinary alchemist known for his scientific approach towards food. You’ll spend days examining recipes you’d only dream of making—Sardine on Toast Sorbet or Chocolate Wine to name a few—and periodically get lost in the pages of gorgeous, mesmerizing photography.
The man behind these stunning images is Dominic Davies, a London-based photographer who won the James Beard Foundation Award for cookbook photography. It’s a prestigious award, especially for someone who had never photographed food before. We had the chance to chat with Dominic and learn some secrets and stories behind the infamous cookbook.
What’s your favorite photograph in the cookbook and why?
My favorite photograph is the Radish Ravioli. It was the first image I made on the first day. Some of the chefs didn’t like it as it’s not an accurate picture but I fought and fought for that picture. I think in many ways it’s an icon, an idea, not a food shot. I wanted it at the front of the book, like a statement of intent.
Can you let us in on a food-styling secret used in the book?
There are hardly any plates in the photographs. This allowed us to alter the scale of the food which is related to the Alice in Wonderland thread that runs throughout the project. You’re not sure of the scale because you have nothing to measure it against. For instance, the Apple Pie Caramel with Edible Wrappers image, the sweet is tiny in real life but for the image we made them the size of a brick of butter.
Is there a funny story behind one particular photo?
For the Snail Porridge we had a few bags of roman snails. We had no idea how quick they were, as soon as we opened the bags they were off. For weeks we were finding them all over the place. I was driving back late one night and noticed the silhouette of a snail crawling across my dashboard. He must have hung on to me and made a break for it when I got in the car.
Why did you want to shoot the Big Fat Duck cookbook?
I had never shot food before and that’s what I like, to go into a genre—especially one as rigid as food photography—and see what can be done in a fresh way. And Heston sounded like someone who would be into that. He was not what I had expected, the angry chef cliché. He was really calm, positive and enthusiastic, I liked him straightaway. I showed him a book of images I had made on zoo cages and other studio work, not one food image, and he liked it. We planned to shoot the book in 30 days; it took nine months.
How did the concept for each image come about?
They couldn’t get me a table at The Duck because it’s always booked, so I did my research in the kitchen. Ashley Palmer Watts, the exec chef, talked me through everything during two services. I stood in a corner and watched and got to learn about each of the dishes, the stories behind them, the ingredients and how they were assembled.
Heston’s food is not ordinary so there is no reason to show it in an ordinary way. I think there are very few dishes we didn’t have four or five attempts at, that’s four or five different ideas/concepts. Often a dish would give us such a headache we left it for month.
Out of all the recipes in the cookbook, which one would you choose to try to make yourself?
I made the really simple Caviar and White Chocolate Starter, it’s great. I’ve yet to have a go at one of tricky ones. During my time at Fat Duck, my palette definitely changed. I could taste and appreciate things I never really got before. There is a starter from the now defunct a la carte menu, it’s called Crab Biscuit. My god! I never tasted anything like it. Foie gras, seaweed, rhubarb, I can still taste it.
What are good tips for average people (like us!) who want to photograph their memorable meals?
Nearly all food photography needs a back light to make it look three-dimensional. Shoot your dish by the window, use the window as your backlight. This gives the dish shape and a highlight. Use a piece of white paper and bounce some of the light from the window into the front of the dish.
What are your favorite restaurants in London?
Low-end: There’s a 24-hour bagel place on Brick Lane. Now you don’t go for decor or service, but a good slice of life at all hours. A choice of about three different bagels, they all work .
Top-end: The Fat Duck, when they let me go!