Text by Mandi Keighran
They’re responsible for providing gastronomic experiences to hundreds of diners each week, but what exactly do the chefs and waiters at the world’s top restaurants eat? Per-Anders Jörgensen, the Swedish food photographer and editor of cult food magazine Fool, turned this question into a decade-long photography project culminating in a book, Eating with the Chefs, which was published by Phaidon earlier this year. Jörgensen’s dramatic images not only document the staff meals at 18 restaurants around the world – from Noma in Copenhagen to St John in London – providing a behind-the-scenes look at some of the planet’s best eateries, but also pay homage to the people who spend so much time cooking and caring for us when we dine out.
“To capture staff preparing and eating their own ‘family meal’, whether they do it standing up at their station, in the debris of the dining room after service, or in the shade of a tree in a beautiful garden, gives a very human perspective on how they think about and relate to food,” writes Jörgensen in the book’s introduction.
The project began at Mugaritz, the Michelin-starred restaurant near San Sebastián, when Jörgensen and his wife Lotte, who is Fool’s co-editor, were invited to share the staff meal.
“I was struck by the huge contrast between what they served in the dining room and what they fed themselves,” says Jörgensen. “It was solid Basque peasant food – bean stews, hearty rice dishes, pork ribs… and I was struck by the notion that so many restaurants must be mirroring family life like this,
backstage in their kitchens. I thought it would be interesting to show what happens behind-the-scenes from a documentary photographer’s point of view, but also as inspiration for people to cook simple food quickly from humble produce.”
The recipes Jörgensen uncovered, which also feature in the book, range from the elaborate to the hearty, but all are relatively simple to prepare and have culinary touches that evoke the restaurants whose staff they feed. At Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, staff dine on squab torte and champagne gelatin; at St John it’s devilled kidneys and grilled ox hearts; at Roberta’s in New York, they turn to the wood-fired pizza oven when leftovers fall short; and at New York’s wd~50 it’s a house take on the Big Mac followed by fried apple pie that keeps staff fuelled.
“There are different ways the menus for staff meals are devised. At Chez Panisse, the whole kitchen stops in the middle of service and eats the same food as the diners, at Noma they have 80 staff and a chef solely responsible for cooking the meals, and at Mugaritz they even have a book with recipes made with a nutritionist,” says Jörgensen. “Everything has been done honestly; we checked it was the real thing and not a mock-up.”
Flicking through the book, it’s impossible to miss the obvious camaraderie that ties the staff at these restaurants together. “These are family meals,” the photographer says. “It’s a moment for the staff to be themselves and not feel any pressure.”
For the closest destinations to featured restaurants, Norwegian flies to Bilbao, London, Montpellier, New York, Paris, Pisa and San Francisco. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com