My Last Supper’s Melanie Dunea on Photographing Chefs and What Their Food Choices Say About Them
Melanie Dunea and I met for coffee a few weeks ago at La Colombe in Tribeca to do an interview for Toqueland. We hadn’t seen each other in quite a while, so the coffee ended up being just a coffee. Then, we decided to pop in on our mutual friend Paul Liebrandt over at Corton, just around the corner.
We went through the staff entrance on White Street and found the kitchen brigade, just about a half hour before service, hushed and intensely focused on their work.
My usual MO at a time like that would be to tiptoe around the team and up to Paul. As I began to do just that, Melanie piped up, shattering the silence:
“This is some serious kitchen!”
A few cooks smiled. A few chuckled. Paul looked up, deadly serious for a moment, then realizing it was Melanie, let down his guard and smiled. His entire being seemed to relax. He waved us over and we stepped into the dining room for a visit.
That moment right there, I believe, is about as good an illustration of the difference between a photographer and a writer as you are apt to encounter. As a writer, I see it as my place to observe, to disappear into the woodwork, to allow people to simply behave as they would were I not there.
But it’s different for photographers, especially those who do the kind of work that Melanie does. She specializes, though by no means exclusively, in portrait photography, and not just of chefs. It’s a unique kind of collaboration, one that requires time and trust. To get somebody to put themselves, their image (literally) in your hands, calls for a real and often, by necessity, immediate bond, and Melanie is expert in establishing it.
I first met Melanie about five years ago, when I was drafted by a publisher we had in common to moderate a discussion among her and three chefs she’d photographed: Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Eric Ripert. The publisher sent over the book for which the photographs were taken: My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals.
The concept was simple and irresistible: portraits of the chefs alongside their answers to six questions about what their last meal would be (the food, who would cook it, whether or not there would be music, and so on). I wasn’t alone in my admiration: My Last Supper has become an industry unto itself for Melanie, who has published a sequel (The Next Course: 50 More Great Chefs and Their Final Meals) and launched a website where, every Tuesday at noon, a new interview (sometimes captured in video) goes up. (Tomorrow, March 6, you can see part two of her epic sit down with another mutual friend, Josh Ozersky, whose last supper is one for the ages. Part 1 here.)
Even in our brief, initial interaction around that panel discussion, Melanie struck me as a force of nature. Fearlessly social and self-assured, it’s no wonder so many chefs are so drawn to her, and that so many of her subjects have become friends, and vice versa.
Our interview would have made a terrific video for her website: having exhausted our time at La Colombe and Corton, we found ourselves, literally, out on the street, walking aimlessly around Tribeca at dusk, with her holding my digital recorder to ensure I could hear her answers, if not my own questions.
I asked her (I think) to share a little about how she ended up so immersed in the chef world. Turns out, as is often the case with these things, it happened almost by accident, about 10 years ago, when she was asked to shoot five chefs for Gourmet magazine.
“Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Marcus Samuelsson, Rocco DiSpirito, and Nobu, I think,” she recalled. “And I absolutely became entranced with photographing chefs. That was the first time, really, I had been introduced to chefs as a group. And they were so willing and able and lovely and divine.”
The kernel of My Last Supper grew out of Melanie’s observation that the chefs themselves didn’t necessarily eat what they served to their customers: “I thought to myself, ‘What if I posed an ultimate question?: Let’s say I was holding a gun to your head. What would you eat? Like what do you really care about? If you’re not promoting your restaurant or your brand, what would you want to eat?’”
She created what would become the template questions in My Last Supper and last year’s follow up, My Last Supper: The Next Course.
“How you chose to answer them was how you would reveal yourself,” she said.
The modesty in that statement is that Melanie’s portraits often reveal more about the chefs than their questionnaires. I know more than a few of the chefs she’s interviewed and photographed for the books, and her knack for getting right to their essence, often in a first-time encounter, is pretty astounding: depicting Michelle Bernstein laughing with her mother, who also happens to be her soul mate and culinary inspiration, or perpetually on the move Michael White zipping along in a cigarette boat, were both inspired decisions.
When she first had the idea for My Last Supper, she flew it by Tony Bourdain (in Godfather style, at her wedding), and he liked it so much that he offered to write the introduction on the spot.
I was interested in Melanie’s feelings about the chef world because, like her, I exist within it, but am not truly of it.
“There’s a major camaraderie, which we do not have in photography,” she said. “I mean, I’m the exception; I’m married to a photographer. [Ed note: Her hubby is the great photographer Nigel Parry] But photographers don’t mix. But the chefs are generous. I mean, they’re generous with each other. Even though there is rivalry, ultimately there is a camaraderie, and I really like that.”
Melanie also finds a lot of similarity between what she does and what chefs do: “It’s a very manual job. I always say that I’m a glorified mover because I’m taking all these bags and all these people to one location, so that’s not glamorous. I may be going to Dubai, but I’m sitting on the airplane, I’m getting in a rental car, I’m lifting a hundred bags. I am like a chef: a kitchen is hot, it’s sweaty. You know, I shot On the Line with Eric Ripert. It was hot and sweaty and not glamorous.”
I asked her if another similarity wasn’t that that the end result is something that should taste good (in the case of food), or look good (in the case of her photographs), but what you don’t see is the toil that goes into it.
“Ever,” she agreed.
Before we got off the street and on our respective ways, I asked Melanie to share a few of her images and the story behind them:
DUNEA: Marco Pierre White was definitely a difficult get for me because he refused me the first time.. . I called him and ended up talking on the phone with him for about three hours which apparently is very Marco. That’s what he does to everybody. And I went to photograph him, and my photo shoots are like a military operation: It might seem casual, like I’m chatting, but I was there four hours early. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with Marco Pierre White and I wanted him to look like a crazy maniac because that’s what everybody says he is. [Editor's note: We're a little fascinated by Marco Pierre White, as well. Our favorite You Tube video of all time features him.]
I had gotten a studio that had an outside garden, just by chance. Well, Marco, if he doesn’t have a cigarette in his hand, something’s wrong with the world. So before we started to shoot, we went outside and had a cigarette. And, I don’t know, I just wasn’t seeing this crazy maniac. So we went to start the shoot and as I was taking the pictures, I just didn’t, you know, I was like, “Look at me. Look at me like I fucked up something in the kitchen.” I mean, I could see that side but that didn’t seem like the whole story.
So I had turned around to look where the garden was and there was some beautiful light coming in. And I was, like, “You know what? I need to change something.” And I said, “Can you put your coat back on?” And he has this head scarf that he’s mad about. I was like, “Put your head scarf on, come over here.” And we took this shot and he sort of looks like an emperor. And that’s how I see him.
DUNEA: There’s something about him in this project. He understands it. He really is the essence of it. Like Tony [Bourdain] in writing the introduction [to the first book]. I said, “I have to ask Marco to write the introduction.” It’s just the perfect fit. He’s the perfect person. So I called him and I was, like, “Marco, can I come back to England next week? On my way to Italy. Can I stop by for the day? And I want to take your picture.” So, we did the cover. He’s like, “Melanie, nobody in the fucking world could ever get me to hold a piece of bread in front of my face except you.” He just seemed to me the essence, as a genius and as a groundbreaking person in the same way Tony Bourdain is. It was the perfect fit.
DUNEA: The photo is more about Paul’s attitude than the actual meat locker. It was very stressful because it was in a Kosher meat slaughterhouse that I was given secret access to, but I could not show where I was or tell anyone, anywhere, that I went. And it was really one of the most violent disgusting things I’ve ever seen. I mean, just to see the cattle charging by, throats being slit. But when you’re working, you’re just working. You put all that stuff aside.
DUNEA: So I went to Barbuto when he just had the new restaurant. And there’s this fancy oven, and I was really struggling. I was like, “Oh, my God, this does not make sense.” But then, you know, Jonathan’s had such an interesting metamorphosis. He was really the first rock star celebrity chef. And he’s sort of the Godfather of everybody. So I thought it would be interesting– just on the spur of the moment –I just thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to almost have the separation so it’s almost like he’s separated, but he’s not. He’s there, but he’s not. He’s always been there, but he’s not?”
DUNEA: It’s hard to have a big black box and all these people around and lights. So, when I was photographing Tom Colicchio in this incredible barn that’s on his property Upstate . .. he’s incredibly good looking. He has a great face, that guy. It’s a great face for photography. But I kept thinking, “You know, now he’s so–I don’t know, with that big shiny head, TV. He’s so in your face.” And I thought, “You know, that’s not really what he’s like. He’s very thoughtful, a little shy. And he so loves nature.” So I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to just show him not being so . ..” The barn just made sense. And then I was looking at the barn and I was, like, “Go sit in that window.” And he said okay. We had to clear out some cobwebs and things.
PS If you worked in a major American restaurant in the 1970s or 1980s (kitchen or front of house), I'd love to hear from you and possibly interview you for my forthcoming oral history of that era. Please reach me at email@example.com.