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.
"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.
"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:
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 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.
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, 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 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 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 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.
"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.
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 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.
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.
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.