I owe my new found admiration for photographer Michael Harlan Turkell to an email I received just yesterday. The email announced a gallery exhibit, and only a few clicks later I discovered his amazing work. Can you say hooked?
Michael Harlan Turkell is a photographer living in New York. His recent series involves photographing an area known as the "Back of the House", referring to the kitchens and backrooms of restaurants. He gives us a real life view of a busy working kitchen, something many of us never see, and captures the chaos, the whimsy, the stress, and the finely tuned machine that keeps a great space running. And with so much attention paid these days to celebrity chefs and million dollar buildings, it’s refreshing – and quite noble, if you ask me – to shine the light on the hard workers who craft our dining experiences.
Michael was gracious enough to take a few of my questions about his background, his work, and how and why he does it.
Q You have a BFA in photography, and I read that you worked and cooked in kitchens throughout college. What prompted you to marry the two together?
A Timing, literally. Working in kitchens during college and the only time I had to start my projects was while at the restaurants. First, photographed the prep/plating, as a guide to remember how to do so. In time, started photographing a little before service, then after, and eventually during, hence, the BACK OF THE HOUSE project. It’s been a great amalgamation of two strong passions.
Q You are a culinary photojournalist, creating amazing images that not only make us salivate but ones that give us glimpses into a world not many of us see. What prompted you to create Back Of The House?
A I hope to show a more human side to the culinary industry. I believe there to be an unseen version of the restaurant world, one that shows the sweat and glory of such a servile and assiduous subculture. I am looking to travel with this idea (nationally and overseas) to compare/contrast not only the dining experience, but also food culture as a whole. I am very interested in many aspects of societal customs when it comes to cuisine, as well as the cultivation and care of the products themselves, more of an anthropological sense than aesthetic. I do enjoy food photography as well, don’t get me wrong, but I especially love the back story/history of the dish itself.
Q For those not working in the food and restaurant business, I imagine "Back Of The House" has been an eye-opening experience, letting many see a world they never do. What has been the general response to your work?
A Most of the response has been from people within the business rather than patrons, which was initially unexpected, but very pleasing to see (as the I find them to still be my greatest audience and inspiration). What’s even better are the responses from those that don’t cook, but now have been stimulated to do so, and I don’t just mean for friends or family in their own home, but actually beginning a career in restaurants. My favorite though, has been when because of my work, I’ve been invited into new locations and ventures and begin to explore again.
Q You’ve done a series for Eater.com called "The Gatekeepers", photographs of NYC hosts and hostesses of popular restaurants, the very folks that eater calls "the ones that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables." Like many images you create, you’ve managed to personalize and humanize the unsung citizens of our collective dining experiences. What was that like to shoot? Were the subjects receptive, and can you now get better tables when you dine?
A Funny, I was always concentrating on the BACK OF THE HOUSE until Eater.com came to me with this series. It’s been insightful to say the least. Everyone was great to work with, and as distinct as the restaurant they worked. I’d love to someday do similar profiles on all positions within the industry, from owners to dishwashers, purveyors to farmers. I find the community more important than anyone person in the business. On that note, I still have to wait for my tables with the best of them, but do receive particular service.
Q Your photo essay for Chow called "Behind the Swinging Doors" puts us right in the middle of so much action. How do you capture such energy and action in a real working kitchen? Are you ever in the way?
And I imagine your time spent working in a kitchen has helped you capture it in a manner someone else might not be able to. Has it?
A I didn’t have to work too hard to capture the frenetic nature of the restaurant. That was taken at Public in New York and a hot and haute night. I spent a double shift in the kitchen, rarely passing through the “swinging doors”. Being in a small space for that long, you have to know two things, firstly your surroundings, and secondly, how other people and objects pass through such fields. It’s all about anticipation in both the photographic and footwork (“not getting in the way”) aspects. Like going into any new place, it takes some time to assimilate. I feel that I’ve been in the culinary world long enough that it’s easier for me that most photographers, and having a rapport and more than conversational knowledge of the subject helps. I can ask about intricacies and comment on idiosyncrasies that are
otherwise overlooked. It’s also great, because I get all my OTJ (On The Job) education without having to get my hands dirty.
Q What do you enjoy shooting more? People or food?
A Both, at the same time, and I mean “with” rather than “and”.
Q Do you still cook at home? Have a favorite dish?
A I would have responded to your questions faster, but was actually baking today. Made a few different loaves of peasant bread (sesame, cinnamon, black caraway seed AKA nigella), Meyer lemon sable dough, baby wild arugula salad with shaved celery and split green beans (drizzle of olive oil and Meyer lemon juice) with crumbled Three Corner Field Farm Brebis Blanche. Had coffee and toast as well. Actually, I might cook more now than I did while working as a chef. No favorite dish, actually, I would rather try my hand at a new recipe and ingredient everyday, working & eating what’s
freshest and most seasonal. I also try to "go local" as much as possible, which I hope encourages travel and exploration. Man, I’m hungry just talking about it.
And looking at your work again, I can say the same thing.
Make sure to check out Michael’s photo blog as well as his own website:
And if you are in the Minneapolis area, stop by and see Altered Esthetics: The Art Of Service, featuring selections from Back Of The House. The show opens today. For more information, visit alteredesthetics.com.