From photographing Mario Batali with a necklace of sausages to Marcus Samuelsson wearing a turban of smoked salmon, Melanie Dunea has an unusual approach to capturing chefs on film. Dunea is the author of My Last Supper and My Last Supper: The Next Course.

Melissa Clark: What made you start photographing chefs?

Melanie Dunea
Melanie Dunea

Melanie Dunea: I got this call in 2000 from Ruth Reichl who was over at Gourmet magazine. I don't know if you're familiar with these baseball cards that we do in magazines. Do you remember those?

MC: I don't, no.

MD: They were like recipe cards with famous chefs on them. She said, "I'd like you to photograph nine chefs." She rattled off these names like Mario Batali and Eric Ripert. I hadn't heard of any of them.

She said, "Will you go photograph them?" I said, "OK. What do you want me to do?" She said, "I don't care." How about that for a dream assignment?

MC: How did you prepare yourself to do these shots?

MD: I didn't. It was kind of amazing. I just walked into Babbo and was like, "Hi, Mario Batali."

I did a little research. I knew that he cooks a lot of sausages. So I went down to Ottomanelli's, bought a huge necklace of sausages and wrapped them around his neck.

I started as a celebrity photographer, a portrait photographer. That comes with hair and makeup and publicists. This was in 2000, so it was me and Mario and a bunch of sausages.

MC: Is that one of the ways that it's very different from photographing celebrities? Are there other ways that it's different?

MD: It has changed a lot. In 2000 it was a lot less of big business.

I went into Aquavit, where Marcus Samuelsson was -- he was one of the subjects. I said, "I've done a little bit of research on you. I know your story." Which is that he was born in Africa and adopted by some Swedish people. I was just mulling that over and thinking and thinking. I thought, "He has to have a turban of smoked salmon. That says it all."

MC: A turban of smoked salmon? Did you make him put on ...?

MD: We did it.

MC: How did you do that?

MD: Well, it was very stinky. My hands reeked for a week. But I just said, "I know I don't know you, but would you put a smoked salmon around your head?" He was like, "Yes I will." He actually requested me to photograph him for years. I think that was my way in with Marcus.

MC: Is there any analogue to celebrities where you've told them to do something just as wacky? Or do you have special license with the chefs?

MD: No. That was a perfect example of something that really made sense. It blended the African, the Swedish, the food and the man.

That's all I'm doing is telling stories. I'm just trying to really water it all down, just get to the real core, the real essence. Sometimes I win and sometimes I miss. But Ruth received the pictures and said, "Oh my goodness, whoa, whoa, whoa. We are putting Mario Batali on the cover."

"I just said, 'I know I don't know you, but would you put a smoked salmon around your head?'"
-Melanie Dunea

MC: With the sausages?

MD: Actually, it wasn't. It was with a big kohlrabi. When I met him, I thought, "Wow, he's sort of like a Roman emperor. We have to show this big man and this big personality." He ended up being the second man who was ever on a cover of a food magazine. It was really a big deal. It was very exciting.

That was the beginning of my seduction with chefs. I was mesmerized by the world. I could see that it was beginning to -- it was something -- it was a group of people. There weren't TV shows. There was like "Bam!" What was it, Emeril [Lagasse]? And "Molto Mario." But it wasn't the phenomenon it is now. I thought, "There's something here."

MC: You knew that it was bubbling. How has it changed? You've been doing this for 15 years. What's it like now, especially with the younger chefs?

MD: It's very different. It has become a bit more of a machine -- I'll probably never work again after I answer this question -- a bit more business.

I did My Last Supper. Then I did a book in between. When I started My Last Supper: The Next Course, you would think, "Oh, it'd be so easy. You just show them My Last Supper."

Not at all. I had publicists, people I had to convince. In fact, one chef even asked me to pay him.

I remember I wanted Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] so badly. I just could not get through to him, for whatever reason. They didn't know who I was. This was before email was our big way of contact. Somebody said, "He's required to sit at the bar at Columbus Circle at the restaurant. He's required to sit there four hours a week." Boy did I go and stalk him out.

MC: You just went every night until you found him?

MD: Yes.

MC: Then did you convince him?

MD: I did. Once they're in my lair, they can't say no.

MC: Tell us about My Last Supper. When you wrote that book, you were asking chefs what they would eat for their last meal. Is this something that you're still doing right now?

MD: I came up with the idea at my wedding. I was sitting with Anthony Bourdain. I said, "Tony, I love books. I love the bookstore. There are no coffee table-y books. Every chef is for his own." It's a Bobby Flay book, it's a Mario book, it's a Todd English book back then. "I would like to really bring all these guys together. You're not eating pig's neck sashimi for breakfast or whatever, Tony, you're eating cereal."

I thought if I posed this question -- what would be the ultimate meal, where would you be, what would you be drinking, who would be your guests, who would prepare the meal? -- it would force all the chefs to answer in the way they wanted to answer. I picked 50 chefs and I asked them all the same questions. By the way they answered, I feel like they revealed themselves.

From there I took a thread of the answer. For example, Daniel [Boulud] said, "I want to be at Versailles." I thought, "Obviously we have to go to Versailles." So I called Versailles every single day for six months -- I'm not exaggerating -- and finally they said yes.

So I created the book, I did the interviews and the portraits. There's a recipe in the back. Some of them are weird -- they're like sea urchin blah blah -- and some are scrambled eggs.

MC: So you've shot in Versailles, you've shot in chefs' kitchens, you also shoot in studios. What's easier for you: to shoot in a studio or to shoot a chef in his or her milieu?

MD: Definitely not in a restaurant because they're of another mindset. I'm in the way, they're busy and they're not focused.

For example, I shot Giorgio Locatelli from London in a studio. His last supper was mackerel. I hired a food stylist to get me 700 mackerel and put them up on a wall so he could stand in front of the mackerel.

MC: A wall of mackerel.

MD: That was stinky too.

MC: You seem to like working with smelly fish.

MD: I dread the restaurant because it's busy and they're not focused. But some of the best pictures have come out of the restaurant.

[Editor's note: Watch Dunea's My Last Supper video episodes here, including Melissa Clark's.]

MC: Is there a new group, maybe not chefs, maybe farmers or food producers, who you think you might want to photograph in a similar way?

MD: I went last October on a real, real, real truffle hunt. I have never done anything more difficult in my life. It was an awakening to the source of the food. And how I might sit with you at dinner and they might be shaving these expensive truffles, but I have no idea how the truffles got to the table.

MC: That'll be your next exploration.

MD: Yes.

Melissa Clark

Melissa Clark is a food writer and author. She is a food columnist for The New York Times, and has written for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Every Day with Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart. She is the author of Dinner in an Instant, Cook This Now, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite and 32 other cookbooks.