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A restaurant shoot for a newspaper review: Part 1, Planning

Xixa interior
Xixa interior

I was asked to shoot a new restaurant for the local paper, and thought the experience would offer some insight both for photographers new to the restaurant photography scene and photo editors as well. (OK, the first sentence was a bit disingenuous, because my local paper is the NY Times, and the restaurant was the hot new Xixa (pronounced “shicksa”) in south Williamsburg, owned by chef Jason Marcus and Heather Heuser, owners of the equally hot Traif, a few doors up the street. No pressure.)

There are really three things I want to cover, the first two in this post, the other in a later post: The shot list and approaches to it; how to deal with the setting and people; and the part all the photogs want to know, the lighting and gear.

First the shot list and its implications. Most photographers have a shot list in their heads when they get an assignment, and it’s often similar to the editor’s. Here’s what I got for Xixa (edited for organization):

Diners at Xixa
Diners at Xixa
  • General shots of the dining room during dinner service 
  •  bar area 
  •  the space 
  •  tighter shots of a table or two or just some interesting part of the decor 
  •  long communal table 
  • booths 
  • long banquettes
  • chef Jason Marcus in the kitchen 
  • owner Heather Heuser in the kitchen or dining room
  • cocktail made with duck fat-washed mezcal and crispy duck skin
  • three specific plates
  • Exterior shot 

Notice anything about the timing? The shoot, because of the requirement for “general shots of the dining room during dinner service,” was going to take place during dinner service. On a Saturday night. Which is going to complicate things, like working around the staff, like working around the customers, like finding light to shoot by after 7:30 PM.

Lettuce wraps with turkey at Xixa
Lettuce wraps with turkey at Xixa

To organize my time, I figured I’d shoot in the kitchen first, before it gets crazy in there, then move on to the bar and dining room. This turned out to be a good plan: the kitchen is small and cramped, so working in there later when the cooks are in the weeds would not be good for anybody. I could then shoot in the bar and dining room while the dishes on my shot list were being cooked. Towards the end I could shoot the portrait of Heather in the front of the house, and get my exterior shots on my way out.

While restaurants like the publicity that reviews and good photographs bring, generally speaking photographers are a pain in the ass, especially at at service time. We get in the way. We want table space to shoot on. We’re a distraction to the staff and the customers. So I try to keep out of peoples’ ways, try not to leave my toys scattered about, and try to remember that the staff’s first loyalty is to their customers.

Part of my first few minutes in the kitchen is to familiarize myself with the space, the workflow, and the light (or lack thereof). Now I can pick one or two places to position myself where I can get a view of the chef at work, maybe some other kitchen staff as well, get a view of the food being passed off to wait staff. Then I check with the staff to make sure I’ll be OK where I plan to be. If I do move around, or when I’m leaving, I let people know when I’m moving behind them so they don’t back into me. (I worked in food service when I was a teenager, and that experience helped a lot.)

So shoot the kitchen before it gets really crazy in there, do the bar and dining room as the place fills up for the evening, also the plates and cocktail, the portrait, and finally the exterior. A plan.

More photos from my shoot at Xixa in Williamsburg on my archive site.

And the piece as it appeared in the NY Times, including a slideshow for the digital version.

Next post, the gear.