Sweet Cherry Rhubarb Semolina Cake with Candied Clementines & a Photo Workshop with Andrew Scrivani

by Irvin on June 11, 2012 · 35 comments

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The other day I was chatting with my friend, the fabulous food blogger Shauna of Piece of Cake, when the topic of food bloggers came up (no surprise). We started comparing food bloggers (in a strictly non-catty way, if you can believe it) and how each food blogger had his or her own sensibility and style. Shauna viewed Blogger A as a photographer first and foremost. Even though her blog has wonderful recipes, it was really the photography that makes her standout above everything else. We both decided that Blogger B is a writer who crafts evocative stories that made us laugh at his wit and wisdom, all the while investing us, his readers, in his emotional journey through food and life. We were both thrilled to see that he was getting the accolades and pieces published outside of his blog. Blogger C definitely was a food pro, someone who focused on the recipe and food above all else, though she was a very competent photographer and writer as well, really her brilliant food was what made her shine. It was obvious that her cookbook would be fantastic. Which led me wonder, what did Shauna think of me? Where did I fall in the spectrum of food blogger categories? Shauna paused for a moment, thought about it and said emphatically “You know what you are? You are bon vivant! I go to your blog because I want to know what you have been up to. I want to see things through your eyes, and experience what you experienced in that way that only you can tell it.” Perhaps it was a polite way to say that I am neither photographer, writer or food pro; instead a jack-of-all-trade and master of none. But I’ll take it as a compliment. In fact, it was the fabulous life that I lead as a bon vivant that lead me to create this inspired Sweet Cherry Rhubarb Semolina Cake with Candied Clementines.

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Friends have asked me where I get my baking inspiration from, especially when it comes to how I develop my recipes. I could write a whole slew of blog posts on inspiration (heck I could fill a whole other blog about inspiration – and no most of my inspiration does not come from Pinterest), but this particular cake has an easy point-of-origin. I took a photography workshop with New York Times photographer Andrew Scrivani at the wonderful Contigo restaurant and during that time I photographed a similar gorgeous cake. Simple as that. I went to the workshop hoping to invigorate my photography (which lately I’ve been rather bored with) and came away inspired to not only make a cake, but to look at the world ever-so-slightly different, as if I were a photographer, and not just a regular everyday bon vivant.

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If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been trying to play around with the photography on this blog. When I started this blog, I had my partner AJ take the photographs – an easy solution as AJ is a trained photographer, and I am a lazy sort of person. But about six months into the blog, I found myself become obsessive compulsive about art directing him as he took the photos. Suddenly it was just easier for me to take the photo than to stand next to him and tell him how I wanted the photo to look. This is just as well, since AJ prefers to take photos of people than of food. Of course, this meant I had to step up to the plate in terms of technical skills, but thankfully AJ was there to refresh my memory. I used to be quite adept at photography, shooting with my old 1960s manual SLR and working in the dark room, but that was a lifetime ago, and I had long since given it up.

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Instead of actively pursuing my photography, I took a couple of elective photo classes in high school and college, and then went and majored in Painting and English Lit. A few years later I drifted back to school to study graphic design and photography got relegated to me taking photos as a support tool to my design work. I was too poor to buy stock photography for my design projects, so I just took photos for my projects. It seemed to do the job and was significantly cheaper than buying stock photographs, but what it meant was that I started viewing photography from an Art Director perspective and not a Photographer perspective and there’s a bit of a difference (remind to write a post about those differences). Even Andrew touched upon that in the workshop (I believe when I said that I was an Art Director he said “And that’s why I hate you.” But I might be paraphrasing.). It was the start of this blog that had me rethinking my photography and how it helps with telling a story.

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Andrew, of course, is the master of the little details. Just as important, he paints his photos with gorgeous light. If I were to categorize his style in broad brushstrokes, I would even go so far as to say that he has a masculine way of shooting food. Just contrast his dark moody work to someone like Aran of Canelle et Vanille. Both gorgeous work, but far different from each other. Not that I’m sure they couldn’t shoot in each other styles, but that’s not their inherent sensibility. Neither is better than the other, just different.

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The driving force behind this blog has always been me wanting to tell stories. Sure those stories revolve around food, but my life seems to focus more and more on food so it only made sense to start a food blog. I’ve tried in the past to write shorter, more concise blog posts, but in the end, I realize that’s just not who I am. If I don’t get the heavy traffic, that’s OK, I can live with it. I’m a storyteller by nature, whether it’s through words, through photographs, through food, or even through design. One of the first things I always do when I meet a new design client, especially if I am working on their branding, is to ask them what their message it, what is their story that they want to tell? Companies, like people, have stories too, and often it’s the stories that help drive the brand and company forward. There’s always a history and always a story to tell, just lurking beneath the surface.

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So it’s no wonder at the photography workshop, I ended up taking just as many pictures of people taking photographs, and of the restaurant, than I did of the food itself. It was a food photography workshop, but ultimately I was more interested in the story behind the people and the story behind the food than just the food itself. The woman who wanted to be a food stylist. The blogger who is also a poet. The man who was more comfortable shooting video than still photography. The former food blogger turned restauranteur. Everyone had a story to tell. Even our teacher Andrew, had a story to tell. A former teacher, his very first paid photography assignment was for the New York Times. Luck, timing, and the fact that he was friends with someone at The Gray Lady all worked out for him. It’s a great story. Have him tell it to you someday.

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The food at the workshop was pretty gorgeous. I was secretly hoping for more challenging food to photograph, as most of my food on this blog is fairly easy to work with. Baked goods, inherently, are easy to shoot, and don’t have the same issues that a lot of food bloggers do – where the photo has to be taken immediately or the food starts to look stale and unappealing. Cookies can sit around for a day and still look just baked to the lens. Cakes can stay frosted for a few days and when you slice out a piece it will still look fresh. You can’t say the same thing about lasagna, Indian curry or beef stew. But I can fully blame Contigo for providing us with food that was both delightful to the palette and to the eye.

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For me, the biggest take away from the workshop was to break outside my comfort zone. I have a habit of setting up my photos in the same place, with the same light, in the same set up. You (the reader) might not notice me (the writer, photographer and recipe developer) falling into a rut, but I know it, especially when I start getting too comfortable with what I am doing. Working in the restaurant had me putting food on piles of wood, on the floor, against a window, outside on the patio, on a chair, against the leg tables. It had me looking for the little details in the food to highlight; it’s the details that make a photo sparkle. The gleam of the glaze of a cake. The dramatic curl of a pepper. The jagged flakes of Maldon salt carelessly sprinkled on the chocolate chip cookie. The ooze of the yellow yolk dripping off the egg white. Capture the detail, find the focal point of the image and all of sudden you have a great photo. The technical aspects are important, but it’s the details that separates the good photo from the great.

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In the end, despite all the technical details shooting photography can entail, the chance to work with others, shoot outside of my apartment box and to look at our photos critically reinvigorated me. Having a professional working photographer not only point out the differences between a good photo and a great photo was invaluable. More importantly having a chance to see how other people saw the same food in such different ways was had me thinking about different perspectives and different ways to approach storytelling through photographs. It also made me realize how much I miss art school, specifically the critiques, where I learned from my peers. It’s too easy to look at people’s photographs and say “That look delicious” and to not cast a critical eye and say “Hmm… That would be a better photo if you had cropped in more, or given it a bigger depth of field.” Or “I love that photo, but I wish you had cleaned that spoon off just a bit. It looks too used and dirty.” How else are all going to learn and grow if we don’t get constructive criticism about our work?

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Andrew will be giving a workshop in Seattle sometime in the near future (follow him on Twitter for announcements on his workshops), and will also be doing a hands-on workshop at the IFBC Portland, in August. If you have a chance, go and take his workshop. Seriously. In the meanwhile, I’m going to be taking more and more photos that are outside my comfort zone in the hopes of pushing me to places where I haven’t been. Don’t worry though, I don’t plan on giving up my life as a bon vivant anytime soon!

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Katrina @ Warm Vanilla Sugar June 11, 2012 at 6:31 am

Now this cake is just pretty! Also, love the photo workshop recap! Super interesting, and lovely photos!

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Dave M. June 11, 2012 at 9:57 am

I agree with your friend Shauna – I follow your blog for the interesting stories and adventures, the great photography, and the imaginative recipes.

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Cookin' Canuck June 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm

You do know how to weave a story, Irvin and that is one of the many reasons I come to your blog. It’s true that each blogger has that place where they sit comfortably and that is what makes each of us unique. Don’t stop writing those long blog posts. They make me feel as though as I sitting beside you, listening to you talk. Gorgeous cake!

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Irvin June 14, 2012 at 12:44 am

That is one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten. Seriously! I love that it. Thank you so much for saying that.

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Kristen June 11, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Holy. Wow. That’s all I can say about this. What gorgeous photos and as always, I love what you do, how you do it, and your willingness to challenge yourself. Keep it up!

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Nancy@acommunaltable June 11, 2012 at 1:52 pm

I second what Dara said!! I truly feel that I am sitting next to you when I read your blog posts – and now having met you I have the voice to go with it!!

Cannot wait to see what new directions you take on the blog – just wish I had a piece of this luscious cake to nibble on while I do!!

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The Blender Girl June 11, 2012 at 2:42 pm

WOW! Those photos are GORGEOUS! I wish I could have gone to that amazing workshop. The work you did and what you learned really shows. I am DROOLING and want to jump through the computer screen.

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emily | nomnivorous June 11, 2012 at 4:38 pm

The bon vivant food blogger – it’s so true! You’re able to tell these wonderful stories, whether it’s a big big event, a smaller intimate gathering or a workshop. ‘

And I have to add, I have such fond memories of Contigo. My first [only] trip to SF ended with dinner at Contigo. Heavenly. Wonderful. I loved it so!

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Irvin June 14, 2012 at 12:46 am

Contigo is fantastic. I can’t recommend it enough. AND I love that Brett used to be a food blogger and has fulfilled his dream of becoming a restaurant owner!

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Carol Sacks June 11, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I really enjoyed reading your post and the photos are wonderful; I love the diversity of them. I buried my lede: I want a slice of that cake. Such an interesting mix of flavors and textures.

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Javelin Warrior June 12, 2012 at 12:15 pm

This is a great post for so many reasons. I love that you’re not afraid to expound at length about whatever story you have to tell – I tend to do the same thing despite trying to reign in my chattery self. And I love the discussion of classifications of foodie – the photographer, the writer, the food expert, the bon vivant. I would have to agree that most food blogs I’ve seen so far fall into one of those categories…
And of course, the cake is gorgeous. I think it’s the combination of colors and textures – but it could just be that I love rhubarb that much ;)

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Javelin Warrior June 14, 2012 at 9:51 pm

Just wanted to drop by and let you know I’m featuring this post in today’s Food Fetish Friday series (with a link-back and attribution). I hope you have no objections and it gave me an excuse to drop by and stare at the photos again ;)

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anneliesz June 12, 2012 at 6:44 pm

First, I don’t think anyone who knows you thinks you’re lazy… Nice recap. Here’s to each of us stretching ourselves beyond our perceived comfort zones and not getting stuck in ruts.

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Belinda @zomppa June 12, 2012 at 8:07 pm

TALENTED jack-of-all-trades-storyteller-photographer – love the photos of photographers – great eye, great POV.

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Jazmin June 12, 2012 at 10:15 pm

I’m in the same situation you were in! Right now I’m struggling to start a food blog and since my sister is a budding photographer, I thought it would be fun for her to take pictures while I wrote the posts. Except I can’t help but hover over every picture and ask her to do it my way…I guess I should let it go or just figure out how to use her fancy camera on my own!

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Irvin June 13, 2012 at 8:39 pm

I think there’s something to be said about art directing a photographer and photoshoot, which is an artform in and of itself. That said, I definitely found it easier to shoot everything myself, especially since I already had a foundation in photography already.

The great thing about taking control of the photography yourself is you get to know the ins and outs of photography. The more you know about photography, the better your photos will turn out!

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Maggie @ A Bitchin' Kitchen June 13, 2012 at 6:04 pm

I definitely agree with Shauna’s assessment. I always try to save your blog for when I have a solid chunk of time to read and enjoy your post. I appreciate that you post when you have something interesting to share, and aren’t just posting random stuff everyday to drum up page views.

This cake looks awesome, by the way. I’ve never had rhubarb, but I LOVE any dessert with cherries in it.

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Irvin June 13, 2012 at 8:41 pm

I adore rhubarb and it really works well with cherry. In fact, but Dorie Greenspan and Nick Malgieri both extol the combination of cherries and rhubarb, as by themselves they both seem rather flat, but together as a pair they play to each other’s strengths!

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Brian @ A Thought For Food June 13, 2012 at 7:12 pm

What a great workshop! And look at the amazing shots you took! It all looks marvelous!

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Mark Wiens June 13, 2012 at 11:13 pm

I often go for the same exact food photos in the same positions in my house and I need to start setting food up in a more creative way. Thanks for the food photography inspiration. By the way, while all your photos in this post are great, that first shot of the rhubarb cake is incredible!

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Rita June 14, 2012 at 1:54 am

These photos are gorgeous. Gorgeous. Some of the details could be wedding photos (by which I mean, capturing high-end event magic), and others are totally fine art. The cherries and rhubarb picture at the end is my favorite. The red on red, and with gray and . . . rust?? is totally compelling. I would hang that in my home.

And the storytelling throughout is great. :)

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Jamie June 15, 2012 at 3:19 am

I would so love to attend IFBC Portland to be able to take Andrew and Chef John’s session! Lucky you fo being able to attend this course. I am a writer who loves food but my photography is middling. As I sit here I am in the process of buying a first “big girl” camera and just started taking photos on manual. What a process. I also can’t wait to move into our new apartment which is flooded with light, unlike where we are now. This was a great post for me to read and has inspired me to try and really think about what I am doing and how I can kick it up. I love the tart and have been meaning to make a polenta/semolina cake… now I need to add cherries.

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The Healthy Apple June 17, 2012 at 8:12 pm

You are soooo talented; I would have loved to take this amazing workshop. So glad you had a great time as your photography is stunning! Great seeing you last weekend at BlogHer Food. I can’t wait to see you next week in Cali.
So happy for you and your amazing work; you truly are so talented and I am looking forward to seeing more of your fabulous pics!
xoxo
Muahhhh

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Jen @ Savory Simple June 17, 2012 at 8:20 pm

I loved reading this!

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Hannah June 18, 2012 at 9:05 am

This is so hugely inspiring! What I would have given to be a part of that workshop… But your recap is definitely the next best thing.

The colors of that cake are out of this world- Bright and fresh, which is exactly how it tastes, I can imagine.

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Jenny (vintagesugarcube) June 19, 2012 at 1:05 pm

It’s official.. I want (need) to me you now! And that cake? Supercalifragelistic or somethin’ like that. Cheers!

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Jenny (vintagesugarcube) June 19, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Typing too fast out of excitement (need to MEET you now)… :)

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Jim @ True Confections June 26, 2012 at 3:12 am

Some really beautiful photography and a stunning cake. I love the new trend I’ve been seeing of ‘title’ card photos for the blog posts (seems to have started just a couple of months ago) and you’re obviously having a lot of fun with this trend.

I especially love how you worked a popping cake board into your title graphic. Keep up the amazing work, Irvin.

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Louise July 17, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Love this stuff! Your cake is ammmmmazing! I found your blog by following a link from Molly at Sugar Rush here: http://cakestacks.blogspot.com/2012/07/in-season-rhubarb.html.

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