In January I did something impulsive and booked a food photography workshop in Northern California. Well, it wasn't that impulsive because I'd been looking for a workshop for a while, saw this one hosted by two food bloggers (Betty and Bella) who I really admire, and pondered basically every single day about signing up until the day registration opened. My friend Madeline attended one of Betty's workshops in Montreal last year and absolutely loved it, and once I found out that she as doing one on the Northern California coastline on a *goat farm* I knew it was fate. Even though I hadn't been yet I knew being in Point Reyes would be amazing since I fell in love with Northern California when Pat and I drove from San Francisco to Big Sur for the first time last November. The rural and scenic landscape with the possibility of having limited cell phone service also sounded ideal, since sometimes I feel like I'm constantly surrounded by excess noise in New York. Also, as someone who spends an unnatural amount of time watching YouTube videos of goats climbing trees, my soul was telling me I had to go!
But in all seriousness, one of the main reasons that I signed up for this workshop was because I wanted the opportunity to immerse myself in something that I truly love. I've talked about this before but the past couple of months I'd found myself in a creative rut when it came to creating recipes and photography. I felt that this workshop would be the perfect way to remind myself why I have this blog, to learn and be inspired by others, and to just spend time with like-minded people who care about good food. Bella and Betty were incredible hosts and teachers, and our chef Matt was stellar. I cannot thank them enough for the most amazing experience.
I had an early morning flight to San Francisco and was kind of nervous about renting a car and driving, since I don't do it that often (as my parents kindly reminded me - and then suggested I take an Uber :-/ ) but luckily I connected with Rebecca, one of the girls from the workshop, beforehand and she hitched a ride with me from the airport. We took the scenic route on the way to Point Reyes and the drive was breathtaking, winding through narrow roads lined with cyprus trees, along cliffs with sweeping views of the San Francisco bay, and through endless farm landscapes dotted with horses and cows. Once we arrived at the farmhouse we were greeted by everyone, and tasted different kinds of kombucha while waiting for everyone else to arrive. The farm itself was magnificent, with rustic wood floors and an airy, open kitchen. Outside big, colorful chickens were roaming around and we could see the sheep and goats grazing on the hillside.
We began with Betty and Bella styling a colorful crudités platter with carrots, watermelon radish, and the most delicious roasted beet hummus (I will never forget the taste of it), and began our first lesson on creating movement in a dish. Later that night, Bella and Betty styled the dinner tablescape with fresh lemons, leaves, and beeswax candles. I loved watching other people style things because it was so interesting to see how they made choices and adjusted things throughout their process. For dinner we had fava bean soup with creme fraiche, roasted chicken, and the most heavenly warm bread (I think it was rosemary and meyer lemon) with garlic butter. For dessert we had coconut pots de creme with salted caramel. It was so rich and decadent but amazingly light at the same time. I had lots of favorite moments during the workshop - it's hard to pick one - but one of the best parts about the first dinner was the ease at which everyone conversed with each other. I was definitely nervous about going to live in a house for four days with people who I had never met, but everyone connected instantly and I was excited for the next couple of days.
Each morning in California I woke up at about 5:30 AM, which I think was the combination of my body being on an East Coast different time zone, and a feeling I have whenever I'm on vacation that I should wake up early to take advantage of the entire day. The fog rolled in over the hills and it was absolutely breathtaking. Friday morning we had a delicious frittata with goat cheese and then settled in for a quick lesson about food styling from Betty. It was so helpful to see her pictures on the screen and to hear her vocalize different tricks, techniques, and ideas to keep in mind for successful photos. Sometimes when I'm photographing I'm in my own head, and it reminded me about the importance of stepping back and actually looking at what I'm doing and thinking about how it can be improved. We then photographed some Maldon salt flakes on a dark background, something I'd been dying to try for a while, and it definitely inspired me to practice taking pictures on dark surfaces more often.
Afterwards we had a tour of the goat farm and cheese factory, complete with cute and cuddly baby goats! I was in love. The property where we stayed was so gorgeous, with incredible views and lots of goats, sheep, chicken, and ducks roaming around. Afterwards, we watched Bella and Betty style the an extravagant cheese spread (actual heaven for me) and obviously took more photos. I loved watching the way they broke up bits of cheese, played with crumbs, and added in layers of small pinch dishes, cheese boards, and utensils as a way of adding movement into the picture. That afternoon Bella demonstrated decorating a layer cake and we went over the creation of stop-motion videos, which if you read my blog, know is one of my all time favorite things and my goal is to one day master the perfect one. I'll get there someday! Later that night when we ate the cake, it was sooo amazing. It was super dense, not too sweet with a bright pistachio flavor, and had light whipped cream frosting, which in my opinion is superior to buttercream.
One of my favorite things about the workshop was waking up each morning and watching Bella make everyone matcha lattes with almond milk. I find matcha to be hit or miss - sometimes I've had it and loved it, but other times I've found it to be too grassy. Bella's lattes were perfectly sweet and made with almond milk, and she totally inspired me to try making my own at home (hence when I arrived back in NYC I promptly ordered myself a bamboo whisk and milk frother). One morning a bunch were on the counter. I asked Betty if we could do a quick photoshoot with them because they were so pretty and the perfect shade of green. This impromptu shoot ended up being one of the most valuable for me, because I finally learned how to correctly shoot food in harsh lighting. This has been a huge challenge for me, deterring me from ever trying to take pictures when bright light was streaming into a window. I think a lot of it had to do with me not properly understanding how certain functions of my camera work, and not knowing how to correctly adjust the settings so that the photos didn't turn out blindingly bright. Betty helped me see the light differently and I ended up taking photos that were some of my favorites of the entire weekend. I loved the shapes that the shadows from the cups created and the monochromatic color palette. I can't wait to try some pictures in light in my own apartment!
Later that morning Bella walked us through creating a food story, leading us through the garden to pick colorful chard, coming across some beautiful purple chive blossoms, and gathering fresh chicken eggs. It was particularly inspiring to me because I always find myself asking the question of how to create a story with food, and how to use food as a vehicle through which I can engage others and make it more meaningful. I think that people connect deeply through food and seeing Bella lead us through creating a food story made a key click in my brain about how I can start thinking about my cooking and food styling in the same way.
One of the first things I noticed about the house where we stayed was the amazing wood-fire oven in the backyard. On Saturday we finally used it to make pizza for lunch, something I loved because it was hands-on. Chef Matt taught us how to roll our own dough (which answered a lot of my life-long questions), we topped them all as we pleased, and out came perfectly crispy pizzas with that intense wood-fire flavor that I love so much. On mine I put pea pesto, mozzarella, fresh shaved asparagus, chive blossoms, parmesan, olive oil and sea salt. You know when you have a meal and years later you can still remember exactly what it tasted like? Well this is how I felt about that pizza. I can still taste it, it was that good. One of the highlights of the workshop was the moment when everyone had their pizza and we gathered around a long wooden table to devour them. You could feel the satisfaction and enjoyment in the air.
I was also super excited to finally get a chance to see the coastline in Point Reyes that afternoon. The California coastline is so beautiful and different everywhere you go, with big flat beaches in Southern California and steep, treacherous cliffs in Big Sur. The shoreline at Point Reyes reminded me more of the Oregon coastline with flat beaches, rolling waves and large jagged rocks dotting the coast. It's amazing that all beaches can be so different, yet still feel universally like the beach, no matter where you go.
Day 4 & Reflection
By the fourth morning, I couldn't believe that everything was coming to a close! We had an easy breakfast of cheese and bread and everyone packed up all of their cameras and belongings. I felt like I wasn't ready yet to leave the farm, but at the same time I was excited to go home and put all of the things I learned into practice.
The workshop definitely changed my perspective on food photography and styling by re-energizing my creative juices and desire to push myself more. I also felt like the connection between taking a pretty photo and actually telling a story clicked for me and it's made me think more broadly when I'm working on recipes and setting up a scene. I finally feel comfortable using my camera, and I think that just simply watching how other people approach photography enhanced my own perspectives. The workshop also forced me to step outside my comfort zone as we worked with a multitude of color palettes, harsh light, ingredients I don't normally work with, and different styles. As an introvert, I was particularly anxious about going somewhere I'd never been completely alone, but it ended up being the best experience. Everyone in the house, all from different walks of life, really connected with each other and I feel like I gained a dozen new friends, which is truly invaluable. Bella, Betty and Matt were amazing hosts and I appreciate them so so much for the opportunity they gave us all!