Taking a Big Bite Out of D.C.’s Food Scene

Alumna and photographer Emily Pearl Goodstein documented some of the area’s best food for the “Washington, DC Chef’s Table” cookbook.

January 28, 2013

By Kurtis Hiatt

A cream peach pie, its lattice crust perfectly browned. A half-moon empanada, resting on a rainbow medley of sautéed peppers. And cheese fondue, sitting in a cast-iron bowl, its skewers waiting to stab the crunchy French bread nearby.

For months, photographer Emily Pearl Goodstein, B.A. ’05, crisscrossed the District and surrounding ’burbs, meeting (and sometimes, luckily, eating) these and dozens of other culinary delights, snapping shots of everything from five-star cuisine to the unapologetic, bad-for-you diner food. It was D.C.’s food scene, from restaurants Art and Soul to Zengo.

But as Ms. Goodstein sees it, the four months of work she put into the “Washington, DC Chef’s Table” cookbook is a flurry of numbers: the 19 rental or Zipcars rented, the 3,157 photos submitted to the publisher—and the two minutes spent crying after hearing the story of President Obama’s visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl.

Ms. Goodstein, a native Washingtonian who works as a client services manager at Blackbaud, said receiving the offer to lend her photography chops to a cookbook was surreal. Now that the reality has fully sunk in—the book has hit the shelves and its creators are in the launch party phase—the self-described sweatpants enthusiast and rabble-rouser took some time to speak with George Washington Today about the project, dishing about photography tricks and foodie tips.

Q: Tell us about the cookbook. How’d you get involved?

A: My good friend and the book’s author, Beth Kanter, has written several other books about food and D.C. We were connected through another good friend, GW alumna Elissa Froman. Good thing I put so many photos of food on Facebook, since I am pretty sure that’s how Beth knew I was interested in food photography. We entered into a formal agreement with our publisher in January 2012, and delivered all of the finished photos in June. We spent most of February and March scheduling photo shoots and chef interviews and most of April and May taking pictures and chatting with chef friends. It was a whirlwind, but it was also very fun.

Q: What were your favorite parts throughout the process?

A: My favorite part of the project is a toss-up between working with the chefs and working with Beth. I loved meeting the chefs and talking with them about their path to cooking—and tasting their creations, obviously. Beth and I also became close friends through the course of the project and talk multiple times a day now. I think the best gift of working on this project was collaborating with her.

And my favorite dish? That is a very difficult question as everything was divine, but I have to say the pudding at Ris was one of my very favorites. My office is right down the street from Ris, so I am lucky enough to cross paths with the pudding on a regular basis.

Q: What was the most fun to photograph? Most difficult? Why?

A: I had a great time photographing the shake and bake fried chicken at Ted’s Bulletin.  Chef Eric was really fun to work with, and took lots of time to set up all the spices he uses in the chicken on a big table in the restaurant for our photo session. And he wore these great striped pants which made for an excellent backdrop in most of the images.

The pan dulce at Masa 14 was difficult to photograph, but only because we wanted to feature the whipped cream that goes along with it but didn’t want the cream to melt in the process of photographing it, so I had to work very quickly.

Q: Tell us about the restaurants featured in the Foggy Bottom area. What’d you like about them?

A: We featured three Foggy Bottom spots: Ris, District Commons and Marcel’s.

Ris is just such a warm and welcoming chef. She was fun to spend time with and really made our photo shoot a special experience. Her restaurant is also so cheerful and sunny inside.

District Commons is a pretty new spot, right on Washington Circle. It wasn’t there when I was a student. It is a huge space with tons of natural light. We photographed the mustard butter which was also very yummy—I snacked on it after I photographed it.

And Marcel’s. A classic Washington food destination. I’d actually only been inside once—for a very fancy dinner with my parents on their 30th wedding anniversary—and remembered how amazing that meal was. Chef Robert Wiedmaier has a really dry sense of humor and made me laugh while we were taking pictures. He also made me take my shoes off before climbing on a chair to get a specific shot I wanted, then complimented my pedicure.

Q: Talk about the food scene in general in Washington. How would you describe it to someone who didn’t know anything about it?

A: The food scene in Washington is lively, diverse and dynamic. I think we are heavily influenced by the changing population of the city, so there are new restaurants opening on a really regular basis. We also have some amazing Indian and Asian food in town.  Have you ever been to Tiffin in Takoma Park? It is a life-changing chicken tikka masala experience.  I just blogged about it.

Q: Where does food fall on your list of favorite things to photograph?

A: Great question. I would say food is up near the top of the list, mostly because it means I—usually—get to try what I am photographing when I am done documenting it.

I also really love to photograph babies being born, which is called “birth story photography.” I am a member of the International Association of Professional Birth Photographers and am always looking for expectant mamas in the D.C. area in search of a photographer to document their labor and delivery. Birth story photos document the day babies are born, including moms and dads and grandparents and doctors or doulas and midwives and tiny toes and hospital charts or birthing center clocks. The photos by themselves are stunning and celebrate an amazing day, and together tell the story of little people arriving into the world.

Q: Let's get into the nitty-gritty of food photography. We know it’s more than just a couple of shots and then a big celebration dinner. How do you set up your shots? What’s important when photographing a dish?

A: The most important tip I have about food photography is to use natural light. I will go to great lengths to bring food I photograph into the sunlight and avoid ever using a flash.  I take food outside, wait extra time for a table by a window, use alleys and sidewalks and friends’ hands to ensure I have a really well-lit area to photograph.

I also get extremely close to my subjects. If you think you’re close enough, get closer.

And lastly, I love using hands and utensils in food photos—this helps to give scale to the item I am photographing and also humanize the dish. After all, we want to know about the food but also about the people who made it, right? This all applies to iPhone food photos, too.

Q: For the aspiring food photographers out there, how do you recommend they get their start?

A: Start a blog! Post photos everywhere! Ask for feedback! That’s what I did, and look where it got me. You may also consider approaching a restaurant you like and asking them if you can photograph their food and then share the photos with them for use on their website and social media. Since digital photography is so paramount, the best way to get great at taking pictures is to take more pictures.

Q: Lastly, how about your favorites in the area?

A: This is such a difficult question because there are so many great places to go.

My favorite dive would have to be Lindy’s on campus. I have such fond memories of the Red Lion’s takeout counter and crowded upstairs bar. By the way, this answer would have been the Madhatter’s M Street location, but since they moved to their new location on Connecticut, I don’t think it is considered a dive anymore.

My favorite date place is Pasta Mia—but beware, they sometimes close randomly, don’t take reservations, and only take cash. But the food is so good, and it is right in the middle of Adams Morgan so the area nearby is fun to walk around.

I love Teaism for a cheap dinner. Their ginger scones are also fabulous. Their recipe for hempseed pancakes is in the Chef’s Table—check out the syrup photo I snapped.

My favorite new spot is DGS Delicatessen on Connecticut Avenue. One of the folks who opened the restaurant, David Wiseman, is a friend from elementary school, and the stuffed cabbage is basically the most delicious thing I’ve eaten in the last six months. Go there. Go there now and tell me how you liked it.

To keep up with Ms. Goodstein, read her blog. And follow her on Twitter. Or friend her on Facebook.