Michael Harlan Turkell: From Aspiring Chef to Acclaimed Culinary Photographer
When you are at a restaurant and your order of spaghetti and meatballs is delivered, there is typically one thought that remains: to eat it. How often do you consider the hands that shaped those meatballs or the spoon that stirred that flavorful red sauce? Did you notice the owner sitting at the corner table with a thick mustache and cheeks as rosy as his grandmother's red sauce? Food is so much more than, well, food. It is people, places, and stories. This depth and these intricacies are precisely what Michael Harlan Turkell captures in his photography.
Turkell expands the definition of food photography. As the Photo Editor at Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn, he captures succulent food à la minute—shooting in real time—and making the goods look good without the artifice and construction so often associated with still food photography.
After years of admiring his work in the Edible food publications, I recently had the opportunity to talk with him at a Brooklyn Kitchen event celebrating the arrival of The New Brooklyn Cookbook, for which Turkell was photographer. His photos of the featured restaurants, along with illuminating write-ups by Brendan Vaughn and Melissa Vaughn, make the book worth buying.
I was shocked to discover that Turkell did not touch a camera until he was twenty years old. Less than five years later, he was named one of the top 25 up-and-coming American photographers under 25 by the College of Documentary Studies at Duke University. Cooking has been a longstanding interest of Turkell's: he started working in a kitchen at the age of fifteen. He started college at Boston University only to secretly drop out so he could moonlight as a cook. When his parents got wind of his decision, he reenrolled in a community college in New York and signed up for a photography class as an elective. The aspiring chef found that he had a knack for capturing moments with a camera, so he went back to Boston to attend Mass Art, eventually graduating from the Art Institute of Boston. All the while, he continued cooking.
As his infatuation with photography grew, Turkell's two passions were combined with the encouragement of two of the most notable restaurateurs in Boston: Barbara Lynch (of No. 9 Park, B&G Oysters, and The Butcher Shop) and Ken Oringer (of Clio, Uni, KO Prime, La Verdad and Toro). Lynch and Oringer allowed Turkell unrestricted access to take pictures in their restaurants.
"They let me in their kitchen and supported me, not only by opening their doors, but with food! Eliminating the whole 'starving artist' thing," Turkell said, with evident appreciation in his tone.
The photographs he took behind the scenes at Lynch and Oringer's restaurants received attention from the James Beard Foundation, which asked him to exhibit his "Back of the House" photographs in their Greenhouse Gallery, which then led to his job with Edible starting in 2006. He only left cooking full-time when David Shea, owner of the Brooklyn favorite Applewood said, "Why the hell are you cooking if you can photograph?"
Cooking remains an active hobby for Turkell. He says that he's one hell of a bread baker, and is currently learning how to build his own oven. He insists that his experience in the kitchen and his passion for restaurant culture play a large role in why he is able to capture such truthful moments on film. His fluency in what he calls "chef language" allows him to feel comfortable in cramped and hectic restaurant kitchens. He enjoys getting up close and personal with the chefs and line-cooks. "This feels right," he said of the niche he has carved for himself.
Despite his surprisingly late arrival into the world of shutter speeds and aperture sizes, he is not only paving a path in the food photography world, he is also aggregating a community of photographers who share his vision. "There is such a strong community in restaurants," he says, "but that is not as much the case with photography." As photo editor at Edible, he wants "to bring the community of restaurants to photography."
"Sustainable food photography," is what Turkell called his method because it does not inherently waste food, unlike traditional food photography. Sustainability is just one of the many issues for which he has convictions, and he constantly questions industry trends. He said that he is "involved in many idiosyncratic things," which is consistent with the "frenetic nature" of his personality. He is always curious, always looking to explore the "how" and "why" of matters.
A testimony to his inquisitive nature, he hosts his own weekly radio show, "The Food Seen," on the Heritage Radio Network, broadcast out of a studio at Roberta's Pizzeria. ("Sometimes during the show I can hear footsteps on the ceiling when they are picking from the garden on the roof," he said.)
On the show, he examines the intersection of food and art. He interviews those who he calls the "cogs of the industry." Topics range from the science of making high-performing knives, biohacking, using glow-in-the-dark fish to make sushi, and "making dessert with a message."
Based on his Edible merits, he has recently begun a foray into book photography, with the Clinton St. Baking Company Cookbook and The New Brooklyn Cookbook. For The New Brooklyn Cookbook, he shot at forty-one locations in the borough. A resident of Kings County himself, he acknowledged, "Brooklyn has been great to me."
Turkell's professional advice for others in either of his intersecting careers is what he calls the "barbecue methodology—stay slow and low." He is a believer in luck and persistence, and in the value of finding a community. What's next for this frenetic foodie photographer? "I want to open a restaurant in three to five years." Judging by his success rate thus far, I am eagerly awaiting the grand opening.