June 21, 2009
Shoot while it's smoking
Food photographer Edmond Ho has an eye and a taste for good food
By Fiona Low
Food photographer Edmond Ho will fly to Bangkok just to satisfy his craving for one particular dish - charcoal-grilled prawns.
He is such a big fan of the dish that the owner of the street stall in Bangkok's Chinatown recognises him and knows his order.
'The prawns are so succulent and so fresh,' Ho gushes.
Given his love of food, it is no wonder that the photographer, who is in his early 40s, chose to specialise in the field of food photography.
The area was relatively neglected when he first started, he recalls: 'Back then, all the photographers wanted to do fashion and shoot models.
'Food photography in the 1980s tended to be very contrived, so I decided that this area was a goldmine and I wanted to capitalise on it and change people's perspective of it.'
Since then, the graduate from the Malaysian Institute of Art has shot more than 25 cookbooks and won numerous awards for his work. Most recently, he received a gold at the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards in 2008 for his photography in Tea Flavours Cookbook, a publication by The Peninsula Hotels group.
His passion for photography began at an early age. As a secondary school student, the enterprising shutterbug would shoot pictures of Hong Kong movie stars when they came to Singapore and sell the prints to his classmates.
'I've always wanted to be a photographer,' says the Malaysian native who is based in Singapore. 'My dad wanted me to study business, but the thought of that didn't excite me. Art is in my blood.'
Today, the accomplished photographer runs two studios. He first started Edmond Ho Photography in 1995 and later Jambu Studio in 2004, which he set up with the aim of providing a platform for young photographers.
'It's a fantastic career,' he says reflectively as the interview rounds to a close. 'I would not change it for anything in the world.'
You spend a lot of time with food for your job. Are you also a foodie?
Absolutely, especially when it comes to Japanese food. I am a huge fan of the cuisine. I must go to Japan at least once a year just to eat otoro, which is fatty tuna. I'll buy it sliced fresh from the market in Japan and it is so good it literally melts in your mouth.
What are some of the challenges faced as a food photographer?
Sometimes it is difficult dealing with chefs who are temperamental or rigid about their food. As a photographer, it is sometimes necessary to add garnishing or to rearrange certain items on a dish to make it look better, but there are chefs who will get angry with that.
Also, it is difficult trying to please so many parties, including the chef, the art directors, the marketing department and the F&B directors who may all have a different idea of what they want.
Lastly, it is also a great challenge to keep photographing the same items over and over again, especially during certain times of the year. Mooncakes are especially hard, because they tend to look the same no matter which restaurant they come from. So there is a need to be continuously creative and to look for new ways to photograph them.
What is your secret behind taking great food pictures?
Going up close and making sure you capture its true essence. Pictures should translate the taste of the food.
It is also important to shoot food when it's fresh, either when it is piping hot or icy cold, as in the case of ice cream. Speed is always the key - to catch the food when it is still smoking.
What is the most difficult food item to photograph?
I would say clear soup, such as those served in Chinese restaurants. Because it is clear, the soup is difficult to capture on camera, especially if the chef presents it in a white bowl. Also, you need to continuously scoop away the oil from the surface of soup.
To solve this, photographers will usually prop up the ingredients in the soup so it rises above the surface, making it look more appetising.
What is your favourite quick meal to have when you are pressed for time between shoots?
Tom yum-flavoured cup noodles. It's unhealthy but I have it about once a week. Otherwise, I try to have muesli bars or apples on the go.
What is the craziest thing you have ever done to satisfy a food craving?
I am willing to drive for 45 minutes to an hour just circling around looking for a parking space to get my favourite bak kut teh in Geylang. And if I still cannot get one after that time, I am willing to drive to Beach Road, where the stall has another outlet, just to get my weekly dose of pork rib soup.
What is your favourite local dish?
Other than bak kut teh, I also really like chicken rice. I used to have it up to five times a week, but these days I have been trying to cut down and watch my diet.
I go to quite a few different stalls but the one I eat at most often is Tian Tian chicken rice at Maxwell Food Centre. I like white chicken rice and I enjoy the skin most.
What is your comfort food?
Pork belly marinated with dark soy sauce and braised with spices such as star anise. I love it when my domestic helper cooks the dish, but my wife, Joycelin, stops me from having it too often because it is very fattening, so I only eat it about twice a month.
Are you a bigger fan of hawker centres or fine dining?
Even though I love fine dining, I would say I am a bigger fan of hawker food.
In my line of work, I deal with food from fine dining restaurants every day, shooting as many as four restaurants in a day, so I tire of it sometimes.
I grew up with hawker food, so I just want to go back to that and be able to enjoy my meal in a relaxed atmosphere.
What are some of the perks of being a food photographer?
I certainly get a lot of free food, as you can tell from my size. Making friends with chefs and those in the F&B industry also means I often get better tables in restaurants and special items which are not on the menu.
WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?
For starters, I would have a rocket salad with beetroot, roasted walnuts and blue cheese, drizzled with olive oil.
This will be followed by Buddha Jumps Over The Wall, which is a soup of scallops, sea cucumber, abalone, shark's fin and various other ingredients.
For mains, I will have charcoal-grilled Kobe beef topped with unlimited shavings of white truffles and three slices of fatty tuna.
I'll skip dessert, but I'll round off the meal with a glass of Merlot.