In February of 2006, I was living in Brooklyn and working full time as a painter; I had just returned from opening a successful show with my gallery in Miami. We sold the best piece in the show before it even opened, and for a tidy sum. In the weeks before the show, I painted and repainted that piece a number of times, trying to get the colors to do what I wanted.. After coat number seven, it looked pretty good. I Stared at it for a couple of days and determined that it wasn’t quite right. So I took it apart and painted it for an eighth time. Would it have sold as quickly had I shipped it after the seventh coat? I’ll never know. But I have no doubt that it wasn’t finished until number eight.
Pretty much right after I returned from Florida, I started a blog about my dinner. I barely remember the circumstances; I do know that I had begun reading much more online, since the Internet had begun its exponential inflation by then, and I think I found a couple of food blogs that impressed me. I liked to cook, and Blogger was free. At the outset, I posted no pictures. The only digital camera I had was a shitty consumer-grade thing; my good camera was a 35mm that I used to shoot slides of my paintings. Remember slides? I hated slides. About fifteen years earlier, I had been a pretty good photographer, but those skills, especially anything to do with the darkroom, did not translate to the garbage point-and-shoot technology of 2006. Nonetheless, over time I began shooting shitty food shots with my dismal little camera because the Internet wanted photos and would not be denied.
We moved upstate, and I put in a big garden. I upgraded to a better shitty camera and the pictures got better. Over the next few years the blog started to take off; I landed a couple of local magazine gigs writing about food, the blog got mentioned in New York magazine, and I won a charcuterie contest where the prize was a trip to France. So I bought a real DSLR, and a good flash, and built myself a light box, and set about understanding how to use them all. The pictures continued to improve, as did the writing.
The whole time this was happening, I was still working in the studio. But because of the financial collapse, the last few years of painting were fraught with pretty serious anxiety; sales had dropped way off and I was having trouble justifying my studio practice as anything more than an expensive hobby. The food writing kept chugging along, though. Gigs led to more gigs. The pay sucked, but other forms of validation flowed and I enjoyed it. My midlife crisis, such as it was, centered entirely on my identity as a creative person; I’d been drawing almost daily since I was two. What the hell was I supposed to do now?
This period of adjustment took a few years, during which time I worked on many fronts, keeping busy, trying to figure out which direction felt right. I painted, I cooked and wrote about it, I gardened, I kept writing for magazines, I made a lot of ceramics. A whole lot. (Fish & Game even uses some of them.) The sole criterion I brought to all these endeavors was that they had to satisfy the same creative desires that painting exclusively had for so long. Then, in the fall of 2012, Edible Hudson Valley assigned me a story: “Remember Fatty Crab? Pelaccio moved upstate and is opening something in Hudson next year. Go find out what it is.”
I met Zak, Jori, Kevin, and the crew (such as it was back then) in February of 2013, spending four consecutive Thursdays with them at their place and in the restaurant, taking photos and notes and getting a sense of what they were up to as they worked on recipes and techniques amidst the ongoing construction. I filed the article. It was well received. Edible Manhattan wanted an updated version for their next issue.
At the end of March, after the first Edible piece came out, I sent them this email:
I don't know if you've given this any thought, but surely a Fish & Game cookbook is in the future. I think the book could be unique and beautiful and it could do something that cookbooks don't do: depict the flow, the rhythm of a kitchen and the evolution and change of dishes as one component comes into season while another goes out. Instead of only being fixed recipes, it could be a portrait of the process, beginning with the ingredients, then the condiments, then the techniques that make your food so good. I could also photograph the living shit out of it.
We met a few days later at their place, chatting over lunch on their sunny patio on a gorgeous day, and shook hands on the deal there and then. Our deal was specific in some ways and vague in others; as with joining a jazz band, you need to show that you can hang with the changes. We agreed that it needed to be beautiful, and we planned on self-publishing it so we wouldn’t have to compromise our artistic visions, man. We set a roughly two-year timeline for me to gather material.
So I became artist in residence at the restaurant: embedded, with total access, and with full autonomy over the subjects I covered. Zak or Jori would email me about various off-campus activities like garlic planting or cider pressing or fish sauce making/unveiling (they made the new batch on the same day they opened and strained the previous vintage). I attended all those, plus wine tastings, the honey harvest, maple sugaring, and the first anniversary staff pool party. And I shot damn near every seven-course tasting menu they ran in the first two years, which menus I also ate (strictly for research purposes).
This deep continuity through the better part of three years made all sorts of serendipity possible. The ham I photographed them covering in salt and hauling out to their truck to take back to Chatham on our second day together (since the walk-in hadn’t been installed in the restaurant yet) is the very same prosciutto that, fifteen months later, Zak is shown slicing in the book: their first. Time, or more accurately the passage of time, is a key collaborator in so much of what they do; vinegar and fish sauce each take a year to ferment, and the hams need even longer. Honey and maple each happen once a year. And I was there for beginnings and endings of all these processes.
Best of all, even though waiting got pretty frustrating at times, all the time I had to edit, revise, and rewrite made the book much better than it would have otherwise been (as did all the helpful input from the good people at U.T. Press, who ended up buying it). All those many refinements, revisions, and little tweaks were analogous to that eighth coat of paint; maybe nobody else would notice, but I definitely did. And I think the result was worth the wait.
It didn’t happen right away, but making this book—whether spending time with the crew, or traveling to meet the various producers, or even editing the over 50,000 photos I took for the project—eventually all felt like my work. While totally unlike painting or ceramics or making dinner for my family, it nonetheless fit squarely into that category: what I wanted and needed to be doing. The angst faded; I had a creative purpose again. People ask me if I miss painting. I don’t, which might seem strange but doesn’t feel that way. It turns out that I just need great projects to work on, irrespective of medium. Now, almost exactly four years after we shook hands on the deal, the book comes out: an unlikely collaboration between an accidental food writer and some brilliant chefs. I hope you enjoy reading and using it as much as I loved making it.