Since he rarely gets out of the kitchen, a chef recently told me that he wished I took more shots of restaurant interiors. Having traveled the world on a plate through my food photographs, he said he wanted a better sense of setting; to see how other restaurants were configured, outfitted, and finished.
The chef’s inquiry sent me wading into my photo files. I was surprised by what I dredged up.
For a number of reasons – primarily, respect for the other diners in the room – I tend to keep my lens pointed at the table.
But, even with the luxury of an empty dining room, capturing the interior of a restaurant on the fly with any degree of adequacy can be extremely difficult. Low lighting is always a problem. Without abundant natural light or a flash-and-fill set-up, it’s nearly impossible to get a properly exposed photo of any interior space.
Perhaps even more determinative, photographic opportunities depend heavily on where one is seated. Creative framing and cropping are often required.
Despite this, I’ve managed to get quite a few interior shots of restaurants over the years.
If you’re a friend on Facebook, you may have noticed my recent upload frenzy populating an album of restaurant interiors and exteriors. I’ve now created a similar set on Flickr.* Neither album is complete. Some of the photos are decent, many are piss-poor. But in the spirit of sharing these photos with those who are interested, I’ve started gathering them in one place. More photos will be added as I find them.
A good two-thirds (or more) of the food and restaurant photos I have taken have not been made available to the public. Skimming through this unpublished group for restaurant shots, I was reminded of a number of meals that I had forgotten. Among them was a lunch I had at The Lever House, the one Michelin-starred (and painfully expensive) restaurant in the landmark Bunshaft glass skyscraper by the same name in Midtown Manhattan.
In 2005, I attended a charity dinner in Chicago. Among the chefs cooking that night was Bradford Thompson, then-executive chef of Mary Elaine’s in Phoenix (now closed). Impressed by the snippet of his cooking I experienced, I loosely followed his career thereafter.
The following year, Thompson won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest. In March of 2007, he unexpectedly left Mary Elaine’s and went off-radar for a while.
In the spring of 2008, Thompson reappeared at a function I was attending in New York. Surprisingly, he remembered me.
He told me that he had just taken up the top post at The Lever House, by then an ailing operation. I mentioned that I had a lunch date the next day with a chef, a mutual friend, as it turned out. We hadn’t decided where to eat yet, and I had always wanted to see the restaurant’s famous retro beehive interior designed by Australian Marc Newson. Perhaps we’d drop by.
And we did.
Barely a week into his tenure, Thompson was apologetic. He hadn’t had time to retool the restaurant’s menu yet.
There was no pressure, we reassured him. We were just happy to see him land again.
We didn’t order. Food just arrived. The majority of what we had were lame duck dishes leftover from the menu of the outgoing chef, Scott Bryan, who left to opened Apiary (Was Bryan inspired by The Lever House interior?). For this, and other reasons, I never posted the pictures publicly, neither did I write about the meal.
Despite my great hopes for The Lever House under Thompson’s watch, sadly, the restaurant closed a year later in March of 2009. After a few months of repackaging, it reopened as Casa Lever, a Spanish themed restaurant with more of a flamenco coloring.
Flipping through the photos from my lunch at The Lever House, I discovered a few shots that I took of the original interior. For this twenty-second photo of the week, I give you a slice of Newson’s hexagonal obsession. Along with this photo, I publish the photos of the food from that lunch.
After The Lever House closed, Thompson briefly resurfaced as the chef of Bar Artisanal, Terrance Brennan’s Bowery flash-in-the-pan, which closed earlier this year in August (2010). Since then, Thompson and I have corresponded a few times. When I last heard from him earlier this year, he said that he was working on a couple of his own projects. If anyone reading this post knows what Chef Thompson is up to, I’d love to know. I hope the public will get the opportunity to experience his cooking again soon.
* The advantage to viewing them on Flickr is that most of restaurant photos are linked to the set of accompanying food photos.