“I am very lucky with the chefs whose first languages are not English,” explains photographer Drew Kerr, the man behind the Queens Chef Project. “There was always somebody who was available to act as an interpreter…” Drew took on a massive task; without any sort of large publication’s or outlet’s backing, he knocked on doors. His idea was to show off the most important item of various chefs in Queens, New York. Brooklyn and Manhattan get a lot of play, so it’s easy to forget the most diverse place in America. It’s home to various kitchen staff, your Uber drivers, and it’s where I was born and raised. Drew’s story has a special place in my heart.
The Queens Chef Project is fascinating in so many ways. Drew had to start from scratch and gain the trust of many different people. Then he had to find a way to execute on the imagery. How he did that is also a testament to the fact that, sometimes, the gear isn’t very important. So instead, he relied on people skills: something that’s an essential part of being a photographer.
“Spy-C Cuisine’s Chef Dr. Tom Lo is practically in a class by himself as a cooking school dropout, doctor, former Wall Streeter, 9/11 survivor (on his birthday!), and Food Network competition winner.”
The Essential Camera Gear of Photographer Drew Kerr
It’s a funny question. Originally, I was ready to take the Canon Rebel XT with my lenses and flashes all over the borough. My photographic mentor in the project, professional architectural photographer Ashok SInha asked me what kind of mobile phone I had. I told him an iPhone 12. He said these chefs are so busy when you go into their kitchens, do you really want to bring that equipment for setting up when your iPhone will make it a lot quicker? He had a point!
So here is my gear: iPhone 12 and its camera app, Adobe Lightroom app in my iPhone, and Adobe Elements 10. A SONY portable digital recorder. Most of the work took place in the iPhone itself, especially using the different variations of Portrait Mode. I used the stage light setting for the close-ups of each objects so they would appear to be lit in a spotlight. I also took many shots in natural light setting to focus on the chefs in the foreground while blurring out the rest.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.
Drew Kerr: I grew up many years very much involved with filmmaking and then videography. I didn’t come seriously into photography until the last 10 years, when I bought my Canon Rebel XT and began fiddling around with my iPhone. It was a lot of trial and error, especially with the iPhone because I was overwhelmed with the amount of editing and filtering apps. Thankfully, I discarded most of those bells and whistles and kept just a few. I began hopping the 7 train, sometimes for the hell of it, exploring the neighborhoods, or going to Mets games, and just shooting with my iPhone and playing around with the Camera+ and Hipstamatic camera apps.
Phoblographer: What made you want to do a documentary project like this?
Drew Kerr: I know the food world shares a few things with the sports world — namely there is an inherent assortment of superstition, personal beliefs, and lucky objects. I felt the pain of what chefs were going through with my conversations with them and reading about their financial plights and unfortunate closings. I saw it first hand at emptied Chinatowns in February 2020, a month before everybody else.
I knew that they had to tell stories instead of doing the usual showing of food so viewers would connect with them on a much more personal level. I have a journalism background and have worked with many of them as part of my communications practice. It was time to put on the journalist’s hat and get those stories via photos, audio, and video. I knew in the end, I wanted people to not only see but hear their actual words about the objects because they come from the heart, no matter where they are from. You also hear the accents and inflections, which reflect the diversity of Queens’ many immigrant populations. To me, that’s keeping it true to the location.
“I began hopping the 7 train, sometimes for the hell of it, exploring the neighborhoods, or going to Mets games, and just shooting with my iPhone and playing around with the Camera+ and Hipstamatic camera apps.”
Phoblographer: So you went around asking different chefs what the one item was that they really felt was important to them and their work. What were the surprises for you?
Drew Kerr: There were three big surprises. Some of the best surprises were when I showed up for shooting one chosen object and then ending up doing another, A perfect example was at The Bier and Cheese Collective in Astoria. The owner Rick White chose this big mural on the wall of Astoria with notable landmarks, including his restaurant. Not a particularly easy thing to shoot because of the glare factor. When I showed up, I noticed these colorful miniature cards that looked like funky tarot cards taped above a set of beer dispensers in the wall. Rick explained they were beer tags that customers drew and painted since the day the restaurant opened. It was like I heard a bell — that was just too good to be true and I convinced Rick that these were the objects to shoot. He had plenty to say about them for the interview too.
Another big pleasant surprise was convincing many of the chefs to do unconventional poses. Both my comedy and rock and roll DNA came into play. There is no reason chefs have to take themselves so seriously. After joking with my subjects and starting with the straight poses, I pushed the envelope with these objects as props. Take a chef like Chintan Pandya — he is winning awards left and right for his groundbreaking Indian restaurants, but I don’t think anybody ever asked him to make believe he was a heavy metal god and “play” his skewers like a guitar. Or getting Chef Dave Acocella, who Food and Wine magazine says makes one of the best pizzas in New York State, jump up in the air with his pizza peel doing his best Pete Townsend impression. I think subconsciously, a lot of chefs really wanted to break beyond the usual stand and grin.
Phoblographer: What were some of the most fascinating and heartfelt stories that you heard?
Drew Kerr: It is hard to measure “heartfelt” — I think in almost all the cases, the stories qualified in that criteria by a large measure.
Spy-C Cuisine’s Chef Dr. Tom Lo is practically in a class by himself as a cooking school dropout, doctor, former Wall Streeter, 9/11 survivor (on his birthday!), and Food Network competition winner.
I was particularly moved by the stories of women empowerment, The mother and daughter behind La Adelita in Woodside fought great skepticism in their Mexican culture that they could own and run a restaurant by themselves. Petra Rickman came over from Eastern Europe as a nanny and found herself in New York City, literally and figuratively, turning the tables on a life where she would be taking orders and instead, decided to give them. Dawn Kelly walked away with a big buyout from Prudential and turned it into The Nourish Spot, an oasis of health in a neighborhood dominated by fried foods. Suin Park moved down from Canada to New York working in a series of jobs until she felt she had to pick up her mother’s legacy of making kimchi. Irma Vargas of Ricas Papusas and Nellie Osorio of Arepa Lady had administrative jobs with no cooking background, yet fate unexpectedly put them into the restaurant business.
Phoblographer: Creatively speaking, you’re focusing on putting a “spotlight” on the product and the chef’s hands. What inspired this creative choice? Did it ever dawn on you to possibly make environmental portraits, or do you feel like that would’ve detracted from the overall idea?
Drew Kerr: I have to credit my photographic mentor Ashok Sinha with coming up with the spotlight idea. I knew I was going to photograph them holding their objects, but he threw out the idea of the stage light setting on the iPhone’s Portrait Mode. Those objects were always going to be the core of each chef’s gallery because no two are the same and they are the springboards for their stories. I wanted the food to be secondary or perhaps not even on the page, so everything would focus on the “object” theme and what the chefs and owners said.
Luckily, I asked the chefs about their business/life journeys, because it was only after I assembled all the object materials and content on the web site did I realize that I had to give them some background color on who they were besides just their objects.
Phoblographer: You focused on Queens. Why? I was born and raised in Queens and so I’m aware of how incredibly diverse Queens is. We’re the most diverse place on the planet. But why not go beyond Queens?
Drew Kerr: I grew up in Queens — Flushing and Howard Beach — and after college, I lived in Briarwood for 10 years. You are where you are from, no matter where you may move. The real melting pot of New York is in Queens. The most diverse Chinatown is in Queens.
The food media world has a hard time crossing the bridges and tunnels out of Manhattan, but frankly, it’s in neighborhoods from Astoria to Richmond Hill to Ozone Park where the immigrant working class live and cook their native dishes. Elmhurst was the hardest hit neighborhood in all of New York City during the pandemic’s peak. With all due respect, Manhattan gets enough attention. Let’s look at the people who really walk the walk in Queens. I have a soft spot for the underdogs.
I also believe that good projects have rules, structures, and boundaries. Besides the Queens location, my rules was you couldn’t not choose an award or a menu item as your object. I don’t list any awards any of the chefs may have won — every story had to be seen as equal.
Phoblographer: What was the hardest part of this project? Were there and language barriers? How did you overcome those obstacles?
Drew Kerr: The hardest part was convincing more than 50 chefs from all over Queens that not only was this project legitimate, especially without credentials from a well-known media outlet. I was incredibly lucky to have introductions made by grassroots group Queens Together, the king of all Queens food Joe DiStefano, the Queens Economic Development Corp, three local business improvement districts, and one congressman’s office.
I had to deal with flaking out from a few congressional offices who promised to connect me with local restaurants, including in my home neighborhood of Howard Beach, and then went MIA when I followed up with them.
As a communications consultant, I know the power of introductions and how to parlay them into opened doors.
When I showed up for the shoots, I was offered plenty of food, but I turned it all down because I didn’t want anybody thinking I was doing this project for free food. I believe that helped my credibility with the chefs.
I am very lucky with the chefs whose first languages are not English. There was always somebody who was available to act as interpreter: Katty Garces of Woodhaven BID showed up to do it for both Cancun Cafe and Brisas Del Mar 2. One of Armondo’s head staff sat right with me when I interviewed Chef Lina Pacio. And Chef Amy Zhang’s daughter Sabrina helped me at Beijing Dumpling House. I felt posting audio of all of them speaking in their native languages was essential.
Phoblographer: I adore the square format, and it’s present through all of your imagery on the website. Is this because of social media, or is there some other goal you want to achieve by shooting square?
Drew Kerr: I am a big fan of split-screen imagery on films, especially the groundbreaking titles and editing of the original version of “The Thomas Crown Affair.” I had those squares in mind when I shot the chefs and then designed the online exhibition. They not only work for social media but as floating objects on a black background with the accompanying audio and video in the exhibition. It feels like motion, the energy of Queens, and New York City.
Phoblographer: What are you going to do with this project?
Drew Kerr: I have been having discussions on leveraging the project to raise funds for non-profits or as a guide to Queens dining. I’ve been kicking the tires on the NFT market, surprise surprise. Unquestionably I am entering the project in some competitions and grant opportunities. Hey, Brooklyn and The Bronx — what are you waiting for? You have chefs too!