Too many cooks spoil the broth? That’s not the case at Munich’s Food und Text studio. Here, in the south of the Bavarian capital, six of them are huddled around a rectangular kitchen island. One is slicing vegetables, another is stirring stuffing, a third and fourth are busy scoffing samples, a fifth skewers a cabbage while the sixth surveys sizzling pots and pans. Outside, snow is falling; inside it’s steamy and there’s a mouthwatering mix of fresh smells in the air.
“My mum gave me a miniature stove for my third birthday and that’s when I first discovered my love of cooking; it was an early career aspiration,” says Hans Gerlach, co-founder of the photo studio. It specialises in creating and capturing recipes for clients that include Germany’s largest daily newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, and home-appliances manufacturer Bosch.
After travelling from one Michelin-starred restaurant to the next, Gerlach – who has always had an eye for aesthetics – changed direction and studied architecture. To finance his degree he jobbed as a food stylist; before long this part-time role became his full-time passion. “I just feel happy when I can work with food,” he says, beaming, as he dips the skewered cabbage fresh from the Viktualienmarkt into a pot of boiling water. A Nikon camera, suspended above the improvised cooking station, snaps the moment and in all his enthusiasm, Gerlach burns his finger on the scorching stove. The inconvenience is soon forgotten, however: there are six food shoots to complete today and the show must go on.
While Gerlach styles and photographs three of his recipes for weekly publication SZ Magazin, his colleague Christopher Tech is busy overseeing the shoot of a how-to video for Bosch. Together with hand-model Silke Schlund and co-worker Michael Wimmer, Tech is leaning over a table that resembles an Old Master’s still-life painting. The goal is to make an entertaining stop-motion film documenting how to mix a homemade ceviche of king prawns in Bosch’s AutoCook device. “We want the naked prawns to jump into the pot,” says Tech, gesticulating the journey of the crustaceans with his hands. He turns around and asks, “What are we having for lunch?”
Communal lunches have become a ritual at Food und Text, no matter how busy the day nor how many nibbles the team have already consumed (it’s almost impossible not to sample all the beautifully arranged food on display). “There’s not a moment when I’m not eating,” says beanie-clad food stylist – and today’s cook – Nils Lichtenberg, who’s as slim as a beanstalk despite his purported indulgences. He sends Tech out to get loup de mer (sea bass) for lunch. Fortunately the city’s best fishmonger happens to be next door.
A few minutes later – during which time Gerlach’s cabbage leaves have been stuffed and rolled up for the camera – Tech returns with two fresh fish and hands them over to Lichtenberg, who’s munching on a pretzel. While the latter preps the loup de mer, the bespectacled Gerlach plates his dish for a final shot. But for that he needs the right tableware. He disappears in the entrance hall, which resembles a flea market and is furnished with tables loaded with plates, bowls and glasses of all shapes and sizes. “Whenever I travel I bring something back,” he says, fumbling around and returning with a ceramic plate and a hand-blown glass. Then he takes out his tweezers and gets to work. Everything has to be in place for the last photo in the series.
“My Japanese bonsai tweezers are an extension of my arm; if they got lost I’d have to stop working,” says Gerlach, just a touch melodramatically. “I lost them at a shoot once; they were gone for half a year and I was devastated. Fortunately they were returned to me and since then everything’s been going super well.” It seems the tweezers are indeed a lucky charm because since they’ve been found, Gerlach and Tech have settled into a new studio space and commissions have been flooding in.
“Lunch is served,” says Lichtenberg, lowering the loup de mer onto the wooden table and licking his fingers. For once the tweezers stay pocketed. “In 2018 they want everything to be purple, even the cauliflower and the carrots,” says Gerlach. “It’s about provenance and, above all, deliciousness. But we like to cook simply.”
We’re inundated by phone-shot food photography but the stylist’s job isn’t just about polishing plates and getting the light right: it’s about reflecting the way we eat. The images that adorn cookbooks and glossy periodicals show something more telling about our eating habits: cue the strange disappearance of the tablecloth and advent of the bowl (plate sales are plummeting).