At IFBC 2015 in Seattle, one of the highlights was the photography session with Christopher Testani. Since I do all the photography for my blog, it’s always great to get photography tips, as well as exposure to different styles. During the presentation, Christopher showed different slides of his travels around the world, and before he started talking about the photo on the screen, I knew it could only have been taken in Peru. As it turns out, I recognized several of the Peru photos from an article I had seen a few months ago, before I knew who he was. Inspired by our Peru connection, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christopher about his experience in Peru, and in the process learned more about all the preparation, planning, and research required to take these photos.
Pisco Trail: Good morning Christopher, it was a pleasure to meet you at IFBC 2015 in Seattle a few weeks ago. I really enjoyed your photography presentation, and was delighted to recognize some of your photos that appeared in the Conde Nast Traveler article Peru: The Future of Gastronomy which was published last year. Peruvian cuisine is very popular right now, not only inPeru, but all over the world, and in your photos you’ve shown us a glimpse of some of the people, culture, and landscapes that are shaping that culinary boom. How did you end up in Peru for this adventure? And was this your first visit to Peru?
Christopher Testani: This was my first visit to Peru. I was on assignment for almost a week photographing a story on the culinary scene in Lima, for Conde Nast Traveler magazine.
PT: This assignment took you to the gastronomical capital of the Americas, Lima, and it included visits to two restaurants ranked among the best in Latin America and in the World, Central and Astrid y Gaston, so you knew that you would definitely be taking pictures of food. Was that a factor in your preparation for that trip? And how did you decide what equipment to bring?
CT: Yes, definitely. I had a pretty specific shot list from the magazine, in terms of restaurants and locations (and even some specific dishes) that they were hoping to have photographed. So for the most part, I based my preparation and planning around the understanding that food, chefs, and restaurants would be my primary focus. In terms of equipment, on a job like this, where you’re going to a lot of different locations and don’t know exactly what you’re getting into, you have to be prepared for anything, but also streamlined and able to move quickly, so you don’t want a lot of equipment slowing you down. I had one assistant with me, but between the two of us, for most of the locations we’d just bring cameras, tripod and enough to be able to light a shot if necessary.
PT: Besides my mother and grandmothers, Virgilio Martinez and Gaston Acurio are two of the cooks that I admire the most, so if I had an assignment that took me to their restaurants, I would be very excited. Were you familiar with Peruvian food before this trip? Or did you have to do some culinary research in order to get better acquainted with the subjects you’d be photographing?
CT: I was familiar with some Peruvian food & drink – mostly the staples like ceviche, lomo saltado, papa a la huancaina, etc…and of course pisco. My fiancee is half Peruvian (her father was born in Lima), so I definitely had some prior experience with Peruvian food & culture. But I also did some additional research before, just trying to learn more.
PT: In the Conde Nast Traveler article, three of your photos were featured, a fish lying on rocks at a beach, an octopus dish at Central, and a potato dish at Astrid y Gaston. Can you tell us the story behind these photos? Did the chefs make recommendations on which dishes to photograph? Was there anything particularly challenging, for example, did you require any special lighting or props?
CT: The dishes that were photographed at the restaurants were a combination of dishes that the magazine requested to be photographed, and chef’s selections for what they wanted and thought would look best. The fish on the beach rocks was just a happy accident – I was at the beach just photographing and exploring, and I happened to come across two fisherman who had just caught a chita fish, and had it resting on the rocks next to them. The two restaurant dishes were both on my shot list as dishes to be photographed. Both the octopus and the fish at the beach were both just natural light. But the potato dish at Astrid y Gaston was photographed in the evening, so by the time we were able to photograph, it needed to be lit, and we set it up in a few different areas of the restaurant and on different surfaces before settling on the final arrangement. Those three were selected by the magazine – typically on a job like this, I will edit thousands of images down to several hundred images, send those to the magazine, and then they will make their final selections to print with the story.
PT: As a cook, I have to ask, did you get to enjoy any of the dishes that you photographed? I’ve enjoyed the Alturas tasting menu at Central and El Viaje tasting menu at Astrid y Gaston, both of which are unique culinary journeys, but I also really like the huariques or small hidden restaurants that no one knows about and which serve the best ceviche in Lima. Did you venture to any such places?
CT: Eating my way through Lima was an unbelievable experience, and I definitely made it a point to try most of the dishes that we photographed (although sometimes by the time you’ve photographed them they’ve been sitting around too long) and you’re always in a rush, so you don’t exactly get to relax and enjoy them the way you normally would. The thing I appreciated most about the trip was getting to taste the whole spectrum of Peruvian cuisine. We tried everything -the super high-end, like the tasting menu & wine pairing at Central, classic ceviches and family-style dishes at casual restaurants, street food like antichucos, tamales, incredible soups/stews…I’m getting hungry just thinking about it again. Overall, there were three places that really stood out as favorites, all for different reasons. The tasting menu at Central was an unforgettable experience. My favorite ceviche (and just a great place to hang out) was at a place called La Canta Rana, in Barranco. And maybe my favorite experience was going to a simple little restaurant in Lince (which I of course can’t remember the name of) that was recommended to me by my fiancee’s father, who grew up there. There was no sign of tourists anywhere – just a true local neighborhood restaurant. They had the best tamales verde I’ve ever had, and an incredible seafood stew. Then after our lunch, the owner introduced herself, and with the help of someone translating, gave me a small gift of a ceramic figure from Northern Peru, where her family was from. Definitely one of the most memorable moments from an amazing trip.
PT: And finally, if someone was planning a food and photography trip to Peru, what would be your advice or recommendations?
CT: My advice for anyone traveling to Peru for food & photography is to take advantage of all it has to offer – visit the mercados, try the whole spectrum from high-end restaurants to street food, and most of all, talk to people and make friends while you’re there! Getting to talk with locals usually leads to good things that you wouldn’t know about on your own.
PT: Christopher, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you about Peru, thank you for taking the time to share your stories with us. I hope you get a chance to visit Peru again, maybe for a story on Pisco? It would be my pleasure to show you around the Pisco Trail in the Ica Valley of Peru, and to share a Pisco cocktail or two along the journey. Until next time — cheers!
As an active food blogger, I was eligible for a discount during conference registration and in exchange I promised to write 3 blog posts on a subject of my choice related to IFBC 2015. This is the last of 3 posts about my weekend adventures at IFBC 2015 in Seattle.