Photography & Styling

13 People to Know in the Food World Right Now

February 11, 2016

Until 2011, photographer Roman Cho's main interest in food was as an eater. But he kept hearing people talking about this whole food world thing. And not just TV chefs, but people interrogating food systems, thinking about eating and growing food holistically, fighting for greater accessibility, trumpeting farmers markets, and expressing genuine and vibrant interest in what and how we eat.

You might recognize these folks. (This is one of Roman's favorite portraits.) Photo by Roman Cho

"I started to notice these issues coming into the fore more and more..." he said. And he realized that it wasn't going to go away, and that he should probably go straight to the source, to the people working within the food industry itself.

In 2011, he started the project Culinaria, photographing figures in food—chefs, yes, but also "producers, people who prepare, people who write about it, people who advocate about it, growers." They may not have careers as glamorous as celebrity chefs suggest, but "these are people who are doing grunt work, people who are changing the way we understand food and interact with food," Roman said.

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"Food people are the people you want to hang around with," he told me. "I want these portraits to enrich the audience's understanding of these people, but also introduce them to these people." Here are 13 people Roman wants you to meet, people who are changing the food landscape for the better:

Will Allen

Will Allen is an urban farmer, MacArthur Fellow, and author (and former basketball player!). Photo by Roman Cho

You may have heard of Will Allen as a basketball player—but it's his efforts as an urban farmer that he's now known for. He founded the Milwaukee urban farming organization Growing Power in 1993. Growing Power includes a farmable land trust, farming education, and community outreach programs—all dedicated to increasing food security and equal access to good food in underserved communities. He's quoted on the organization's website as saying:

If people can grow safe, healthy, affordable food, if they have access to land and clean water, this is transformative on every level in a community. I believe we cannot have healthy communities without a healthy food system.

Harold McGee

Harold McGee is a food scientist and author. When Roman brought him a copy of this portrait, Harold sat him down for a cup of tea. Photo by Roman Cho

Harold McGee is, for many, the original molecular gastronomist. His approach to understanding food on a truly molecular level, and using that understanding to make us better cooks, is playful and curious and very in-depth—as you can see on his website Curious Cook, in his best-selling book On Food and Cooking, and in his science segments in the PBS series Mind of a Chef.

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Top Comment:
“Julia Child for introducing us all to French food and holding our hands as we cook. Pichet Ong is in the background always lately kind of like a culinary dramaturge. He has written recipes for many we regard as culinary heroes and developed recipes for many restaurants particularly Asian and Latin raising the bar for those cuisines. His book, The Sweet Spot is a must have and his kabocha pie that he developed for Spice Market is a classic.”
— Andy

When Roman was envisioning how to photograph him, Harold mentioned that his favorite scientific process is the caramelization of sugar—"the scent, the color changes, the state changes from solid to liquid. He said he had sugar cubes in his basement, and then came back upstairs with four of five different varieties of sugar cubes. I didn't even know there were different kinds of sugar cubes!"

Amy Rowat

Amy Rowat is a biophysicist at UCLA who uses everything from chocolate to cheese to explain complex physics. Photo by Roman Cho

Amy Rowat, like Harold McGee, has a special interest in the science of food—and both researches it and teaches it at UCLA; specifically, she uses the accessibility of food and cooking as a way of teaching wider audiences about complex scientific concepts. "I loved how she was marrying science with food, marrying the two separate interests that she has into a single unified form," Roman said.

She's published essays like The science of pizza: the molecular origins of cheese, bread, and digestion using interactive activities (2010); The Molecules We Eat: Food as a Medium to Communicate Science (2013); and Understanding Fick's law and diffusion theory through food & cooking (2015). She turned The Molecules We Eat into a TED talk, wherein she helps the audience understand an arm of cancer research through samples of chocolate.

Sandor Katz

Sandor Katz is a writer, farmer, fermentation revivalist, and wearer of a spectacular mustache. He's also a queer activist. Photo by Roman Cho

Sandor Katz occasionally goes by the name of Sandorkraut—and that should tell you something about him. A self-titled "fermentation fetishist," he's the author of books that have become near-biblical for DIY food enthusiasts, the numbers of which are ever-increasing: Wild Fermentation, The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, and The Art of Fermentation—the last of which has a foreword by Michael Pollan and won a James Beard Award. He also maintains a blog called Wild Fermentation, where he posts recipes (like cucumber-nasturtium kimchee, for example) and tips for avid and brand-new fermenters alike.

Novella Carpenter

Novella Carpenter is an author and urban farmer. She keeps all kinds of animals (and a baby!) on her farm in Oakland. Photo by Roman Cho

Novella Carpenter wrote what's been called the book on urban farming, The Essential Urban Farmer—but before that, she was a journalist who studied with Michael Pollan at Berkeley and she authored a memoir, Farm City, based on her experiences farming just outside of Oakland, California—on a hard-won farm called Ghost Town. She's written widely about urban farming as well as gardening and raising livestock.

Evan Kleiman

Evan Kleiman is a radio host, teacher, and, as she's long been nicknamed, the "fairy godmother of the L.A. food scene." Photo by Roman Cho

Evan Kleiman had just closed her beloved Los Angeles restaurant Angeli Caffé, which she'd been running since the 80s, when Roman photographed her. "It was a neighborhood restaurant for a lot of people," he said. "People who grew up going there and brought their kids there." But Angeli Caffé wasn't Evan's only venture: She's also been a host of the radio show Good Food on KCRW since 1997, as well as a blogger and teacher—and has been called by many the "fairy godmother of the L.A. food scene." "She was in a transitional period," Roman said of the time when he photographed her, "but she had a really positive energy about the future, about a new project." She's also written a number of cookbooks that reflect her love of Italian cooking.

Tia Harrison and Marisa Guggiana

Tia Harrison and Marisa Guggiana are butchers, authors, restaurateurs, and the founders of the Butcher's Guild. Photo by Roman Cho

"I love them for what they're doing," Roman said of Tia Harrison and Marisa Guggiana, founders of the Butcher's Guild—especially in a field largely dominated by men. ("I think they're giving a younger generation of women to look up to," he said.) In a time where good meat—that is, responsibly farmed and humanely slaughtered meat—is ever more important, they're doing their part to ensure that butchers are knowledgable, skilled, and connected to each other. This includes having butchers who want to join the Guild give an oath:

As a true butcher, I have a good: heart, source, hand voice.
Heart: I maintain integrity in relationships with customers and vendors.
Source: I aim to support local, sustainable farms and practice whole animal butchery.
Hand: I strive to improve my knife skills and knowledge of the trade.
Voice: I am an active community member and encourage a healthy food system.

Caleb Zigas

Caleb Zigas is the executive director of a food entrepreneurship incubator in San Francisco. "I love the passion that he has for the issues that he's fighting for," Roman said. Photo by Roman Cho

La Cocina is a food business incubator that's been providing commercial kitchen space, technical help and education, and more to low-income entrepreneurs in San Francisco since 2005. And Caleb Zigas, the incubator's executive director, has been leading the charge since its founding. La Cocina is particularly focused on providing food-business opportunities to women of color and immigrant communities, helping those folks gain financial independence and security, and enriching the San Francisco food scene along the way.

Roman said that Caleb insisted on being photographed at the Alameda Marketplace, an artisanal food court-style market where some of La Cocina's clients are: Much of Caleb's work is focused on helping small entrepreneurs get their businesses going and eventually transition to brick-and-mortar establishments, so it was fitting, Roman said, that he wanted to be photographed there.

Samin Nosrat

Samin Nosrat is a chef, writer, and teacher. If her kitchen looks cozy, that's because it is: "It shows her warmth—about herself, her food, her friends," said Roman. Photo by Roman Cho

Samin Nosrat started working at Chez Panisse when she was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, and has been in the food world in various ways since then. Roman was touched by how "she found her circle, she found her cause, her friends while working at Chez Panisse," even though she was quite young. She's taught cooking classes and developed recipes and is credited with teaching Michael Pollan to cook. She's currently working on a book called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

Raj Patel

Raj Patel is an activist and writer whose activism considers food and food systems on a global scale. Photo by Roman Cho

For Roman, Raj Patel represents a very political aspect of the food world. Raj is not a chef, nor a farmer—he's an academic and activist who has taught with Michael Pollan and advised the UN—and testified to the U.S. Congress—on issues surrounding the global food crisis. "He's helping us understand the bigger, global scale of food, and how geopolitics are influenced by food," Roman said. He's written a number of books (including one about the global food crisis, Stuffed and Starved) and is currently working on a documentary called Generation Food about the global food system, its wins, and its losses.

Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl & Nell Newman

Alice Waters is a restaurateur, cookbook author, and activist; Ruth Reichl is a cookbook author and the former editor of Gourmet; Nell Newman is an activist and environmentalist. The three of them are old friends. Photo by Roman Cho

This is one of Roman's favorite portraits, and the first time, as far as he knows, that Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, and Nell Newman—long friends—have had their portrait taken together. He's also taken their photographs separately, and it was a dream of his to have them all together.

Though each has pursued wildly different paths within the food world—Alice is the restaurateur behind Chez Panisse, the founder of Edible Schoolyard, and an activist; Ruth has been a writer and editor (notably at the now-defunct but long-beloved Gourmet magazine); and Nell is the activist behind Newman's Own Organics and the Nell Newman Foundation—"they went through the birth of the food movement in Berkeley together," he said.

Who are your food world heroes? A writer? A cook? Your grandma? Tell us about them in the comments.

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On Black & Highly Flavored, co-hosts Derek Kirk and Tamara Celeste shine a light on the need-to-know movers and shakers of our food & beverage industry.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


Matt M. April 17, 2016
I don't know if Lynne Rossetto Kasper is synonymous with the food activism movement, but she's the sexiest food radio personality in my opinion. Who doesn't have a smile on their face when listening to her?
Matt M. April 17, 2016
uh, I mean that respectfully...don't read it the wrong way please
Lorrie B. March 11, 2016
Wonderful article, and to this list I would add Marcella Hazan, Judy Rodgers, and Chuck Williams.
Mickie V. February 18, 2016
I would like to see Deborah Madison added, the former chef, albeit many years ago, of Green's restaurant in San Francisco. She has also bee an instructor, and has written many cookbooks, the newest being The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone as well as many others. She was one of the first, like Alice Waters, who supported farm-to-table, and has been around for eons. She is an amazing chef, and her cookbook is a compendium filled with a zillion fabulous recipes. Please give her some consideration for your project, thank you.
K.Schelling February 13, 2016

foodie cartoon
Jeannie'sgoodhomecooking February 12, 2016
I'd like to add Jamie Oliver to the list. He is so enthusiastic and passionate about cooking good food. At home. From scratch!
tamater S. February 14, 2016
Agree! Jamie Oliver is dedicated, and I think his work with school children is deserving of a story all its own!
Donna D. February 12, 2016
Great article, Caroline....I love it when I read something interesting on here and see your name!!
Andy February 12, 2016
Hi definitely love Ruth Reichl. I love the way she writes about food and tells a great story. Julia Child for introducing us all to French food and holding our hands as we cook. Pichet Ong is in the background always lately kind of like a culinary dramaturge. He has written recipes for many we regard as culinary heroes and developed recipes for many restaurants particularly Asian and Latin raising the bar for those cuisines. His book, The Sweet Spot is a must have and his kabocha pie that he developed for Spice Market is a classic.
dawnicole February 12, 2016
Dan Barber and the 'third plate' is an amazing book and forward thinking approach to the future of food and culinary arts. Highly recommend!
Roman February 12, 2016
Dawnicole, I agree. I just finished reading the book myself and I too found it incredible. Hoping Dan will agree to be photographed for the project one of these days.
maryke February 12, 2016
Roman - great job! You truly captured the essence of these heroes. Loved it!
Roman February 12, 2016
Thanks Maryke. I'm glad you enjoyed the photos! It's been a fun adventure photographing these people.
Anne February 12, 2016
Great article- it's so important to recognize these people! One of my food heroes is Carla Bartolucci, the founder of Jovial Foods. For years I struggled with many food allergies along with gluten sensitivity. I always used her gluten free pasta line, which is my favorite gf pasta, but i was still missing wheat. When I looked up the website I saw a story she had on the website about "Einkorn." After extensive research I found that this wheat, which is an ancient grain can be tolerated by people who have gluten sensitivities, because it's never been hybridized and easier to digest! This grain has changed my life- i've been enjoying all my breads and pastries again (in moderation, of course... :) )This is the website, if anyone is curious:
catherine February 12, 2016
I'm reading "Empire of Food". Incredible book. We've been doing the same bad planting, mono crops, cutting forests for 4, 500 years, since the Sumerians. We are NOT learning.
K.Schelling February 12, 2016
current hero is my husband. Foodie Cartoonist. Check it out, you might just love it. Also, (of course) on FB.
K.Schelling February 13, 2016

Cicily C. February 12, 2016
Miyoko Schinner, vegan chef, restauranteur, founder of Miyoko's Kitchen, author of several books, including "Artisan Vegan Cheese" and "The Vegan Pantry." Approaches cooking like chemistry, and settles for nothing less than gourmet results while eschewing meat, eggs and dairy. I made her "unturkey" with all the trimmings one Thanksgiving, and most of my guests had no idea they were eating a vegan meal.guests
Cheryl B. February 12, 2016
The kitchen of Samin Nosrat has to be one of the loveliest I've ever seen.
Beth E. February 12, 2016
I did not grow up with my Father "Wild Bill Ligon". He was an Army cook after WWII. My Mother was passable in the kitchen. Any cooking skills I have came from him genetically. For that I am grateful. He is my hero.
Christina February 12, 2016
I nominate Sheila Kennedy who launched Top Box Foods, a (Chicagoland) community-based non-profit with a simple purpose: to offer a variety of delicious and healthy boxes of food at affordable prices.
Martin G. February 12, 2016
Without any doubt in the world: Julia Child, Paul Bocuse, Jean Banchet and Michel Guérard.
Michelle S. February 11, 2016
Roy Choi, my late grandmother, Anya Fernald, Suzanne Goin
Helen D. February 11, 2016
Hi Caroline and Regina, I've been gluten-free for 4 years and have found some great resources and work-arounds. As a farm to plate foodie for 25 years, it's not been that difficult to adjust but I must say, it does help to know how to cook. I cook almost all of our family meals and we have a few 'safe' restaurants. The reasons for gluten free are distinct from the lifestyle choices you have to make. The first are medical and scientific, and the later deals with how you rearrange your life. Donna Gates and Dr. Tom O'Bryan are good places to start for the medical reasons. There are some really great lifestyle advocates, bloggers and chefs. I love Aran is a 3rd generation baker from the Basque area of Spain (relocated to Seattle), food stylist and blogger. Exquisite touch. Elaine's Pantry is gluten free baking and cooking by a long time celiac. Gluten free cooking can be high carb or low carb, high in processed foods, or a more primal plate with an emphasis on pastured meats, wild fish, fresh veggies and tubers/squash.
Caroline L. February 12, 2016
Thank you for sharing these resources, Helen!
LeBec F. February 11, 2016
diana kennedy ,rick bayless, dorie greenspan, alice medrich, maida heatter, paula wolfert, jose andres, emeril.