Guest Editor | Natalie James
A true Epicurean Adventurer, Natalie is an LA local, cataloging the best places to grab a bite both at home + abroad. From Mexico to Puerto Rico to back state-side, Natalie's photos speak for themselves. Read on as Natalie dishes on some of her favorite haunts, travel locations + shares some food photography tips. All photos courtesy of Natalie.
You’ve got an eye for snapping beautiful food photos. When did you find a passion for culinary photography?
In the winter of 2011 I had decided to leave a 9 year relationship that had been stifling growth in almost every aspect of my life. During this time I had already been writing a blog, but its content discussed the intersectionality of fashion and feminism, but on occasion I would include more personal stories, such as where I was traveling or where I was eating – I discovered that people really responded to that. When I made this major life change, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to leave many things behind me and start fresh. That is where food writing and photography come in, it all felt very natural to me.
You’re often spotted photographing new restaurants across town. What are some of your favorite recent openings and must order dishes?
As much as I love scoping out new restaurants and their menus, I don’t get too carried away in the hype of something new. I am very loyal to the establishments I frequent in my community (they never let me down), such as Chengdu Taste in Alhambra or Luscious Dumplings in San Gabriel. On the newish front, I was really blown away at Saint Martha, a restaurant that opened in Koreatown a few months back. Hands down one of the best meals I had this year; the staff was so warm, inviting, and dropped major food & wine knowledge upon me. When you find yourself in a restaurant for 4 hours, you know you’ve had an amazing time. I recommend their seafood, especially their octopus and Santa Barbara spot prawn tartare served on a giant cold block of pink Himalayan salt. Chef Nick Evren is really creating some delicious plates there.
It’s Fall! What are some of your favorite seasonal ingredients and preparations?
I hope it’s not too delusional to say that I think Fall has finally graced L.A. After all, it was just 90 degrees last week. As I answer these questions I am wearing a light sweatshirt, so I think we finally made it. When it starts to cool down I love drinking Mexican hot chocolate. Not only are the flavors absolutely incredible – cinnamon, chilies, anise – but the simple act of preparing it reminds me of when my grandmother and I would whip up a batch with the molinillo (which I still use). I currently have a nice batch of Georgia collard greens growing in my garden, so I think those will make for a lovely pairing with some pan fried chicken. Fall always evokes comfort and warmth in me.
What are some quick tips you can provide aspiring food photographers?
Try to tell a story above everything. There is no shortage of beautiful photos on Instagram and the internet, but aim to weave in more than just eye candy. From my experience, natural lighting is your bestfriend when it comes to photographing food. These days you’ll be hard pressed to find me shooting a late night dinner.
What past or present restaurant and chef would be a dream photo subject to you?
Though most people outside of the food world know Anthony Bourdain as an amazing tv host, I have been following his career over some time – he even had a book signing at the library I used to work at (sadly I didn’t meet him)! Because he has inspired my work so much, he’s the chef I’d want to talk to, but I wouldn’t so much ask him about his time in the kitchen, but rather about his travel experiences and what it is like to meet cooks from all over the world. He has a perspective that very few people have, and I’d want the chance to absorb as much of his knowledge as possible. And of course, photographing him!
It’s Happy Hour. What’s your drink of choice?
These days I have limited my alcohol consumption as I’ve been focused on making my body feel the best it possibly can, but I will always be a sucker for any tropical drink, especially if it’s served with an umbrella. If you have never been to the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar in San Francisco, put that on your to-do list now!
Do you have a favorite local artisanal treat?
I make a killer olive oil granola that I adapted from the blog A Cozy Kitchen, which was tweaked from the New York Times. There is someone at least once a week that texts me asking if I could make them some. I’d have to say my own artisanal treat drives me wild. On the artisanal event front, my friend Sara Tso of Matchbox Kitchen created the Los Angeles Cake Club, where people bring their delicious cakes and sweet treats to swap with one another. This is something to be experienced.
Midnight snack of choice?
Am I faded or nah? If under the influence and I could wave a magic wand to have exactly what I wanted, it would be white cake with white frosting. Simple, but oh so amazing. I’d probably have it with a tall glass of whole milk, despite how sick that would probably make me. Wait, I just remembered the chocolate covered potato chips from Trader Joe’s – those are a REVELATION. Other than that, I’m not much of a snacker and this old lady has been in bed by midnight for the past few months.
What food photographs the best? What’s the worst?
Burgers and donuts photograph splendidly, but I particularly love shooting seafood because it has so much personality when done right. If you are looking to have a popular photo, I say go with sweets any time. People seriously go nuts for cakes, macarons, donuts, ice cream, anything made with sugar. Things are are stewy I find are far more difficult to capture, say Japanese curry, Ethiopian lentils, Indian palak paneer – all which are some of my favorite things to eat by the way.
What’s up next for you? Any exciting culinary travels or ventures to share?
I recently returned from the most incredible adventures in Quintana Roo and the Yucatán Peninsula, covering grounds from Tulum to Playa del Carmen to Valladoild to Chichén Itzá. It was such an amazing journey of food, beaches, jungle and culture. That was my second trip to Mexico this year and I think it’s time I round out the year with one more. I am trying to plan a road trip through Baja California with my mother, with many stops along the beautiful coast. We have family in La Paz and I’d like to hit 5 cities before we make our way to them. As a Mexican American Angeleno, I have made it a priority to experience as much of Mexico as possible, the country is absolutely breathtaking.
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