Shooting the chef

Sandlin Gaither wanted to point his camera at loud, foul-mouthed, rowdy, besotted subjects, which is pretty much how he ended up shooting chefs.

Street vendors, Bangkok, Thailand Photos by Sandlin Gaither

"God, they almost look like pirates," local photog Gaither says of the back-of-the-house workers who've become an ongoing project for him. "They have tattoos, they're wearing bandannas, they're cursing and they're dirty. Some of the guys are ugly as can be."

That doesn't pose a problem for Gaither, who's bent on capturing the "soul of chefs," ranging from Memphis pit-masters to Manhattan molecular gastronomists. He's hoping to publish a book of his ever-growing portfolio, tentatively titled In the Kitchen.

"I would like to think this book would give exposure to authentic chefs," says Gaither, who's planning portrait sessions of celebrity chefs from both coasts and Asheville culinarians such as Savoy's Annie Petri and The Lobster Trap's Tres Hundertmark. "If someone's coming from Ohio, and they want to eat real country cooking, they'll be inspired to go to one of those places, instead of going to the Moose Café and having an imitation of it."

Chefs weren't the first dirty, rotten artists that caused Gaither to pick up a camera. A longtime bartender at Grey Eagle Music Hall, Gaither started edging toward the medium when he realized the bands that played the venue were terrifically photogenic. Gaither bought a point-and-shoot camera that he kept behind the bar.

"In the middle of bartending, there'd be 200 people at the bar and I'd tell them to hold on," Gaither says, recalling how he nabbed some of his first shots.

Pit maven Jim Neely, owner,  Interstate Barbeque, Memphis, Tenn.

While Gaither's antic style befits the bar vibe, he soon discovered the best photo opportunities didn't happen on his shift. They occurred long before the band took the stage, or sometime after, when the musicians collapsed into their pints or stole a few drags of a cigarette out back. Gaither's epiphany came while "watching musicians eat a plate of rice and beans." The Grey Eagle hung Gaither's contemplative portraits on their wall, piquing the interest of visiting bands.

"They'd come to me and ask if I'd take their picture," Gaither recalls.

Gaither complied, and found himself making a living a photographer, stumbling upon a career that remains a fantasy for most hobbyists. "I didn't want to pour beer all my life," he laughs. Armed with a Nikon D700, Gaither started contacting upward of 50 management companies a month, landing enough contracts to stay solvent and compile a book.

But, true to the rock cliché, Gaither wasn't just seeking money and fame. He'd figured his camera would serve as a calling card to life's great characters, the men and women who glibly trashed their hotel rooms, flouted all conventional fashion wisdom and hearkened to typically unheard muses. And it turned out that rock stars just weren't that way anymore.

"Chefs," Gaither says with well-earned authority. "Chefs are the new rock stars. They sleep until noon, they curse, they sweat it out, do their drugs — or whatever they do — and get drunk til three in the morning.

"What better place to go after rock stars?"

A self-described amateur foodie, Gaither first turned to Food Network, a warehouse of kitchen slaves done good. He assumed ponytailed heroes like Mario Batali would look stirring rendered in pixels.

"But the more I got in touch with them, the more I realized they're not even in the kitchen anymore," Gaither says.

Even worse, the top chefs Gaither lined up behaved badly — and not in a did-too-much-coke and cooked-too-much-bacon way. Gaither dumped $250 on a tasting menu at one establishment before learning the chef had changed his mind about the scheduled session. "He didn't feel like he wanted to have his picture done that day," grumbles Gaither, who was left with an unshakeable sense of irritation and a gnawing post-molecular feast hunger he sated 30 minutes later with a meatball sandwich.

Since stars make a point of not sweating, crying or doing anything else that paparazzi might get paid for documenting, Gaither opted to work with less-famed cooks, seeking out the wizards of traditional, oft-neglected kitchens, like Martha Lou's in Charleston, where he'd gone to school. He made a pilgrimage to Memphis to photograph Jim Neely, the pit maven at Interstate Barbecue. And he shot the street vendors he patronized in Southeast Asia, who chopped durian and served up skewered meat that tasted like chicken.

"In my opinion, they're all doing something authentic," Gaither says of the commonalities among his subjects.

Still, Gaither admits that edible authenticity can be hard to discern in photographs. Health codes requiring head coverings and plastic gloves have made all cooks look very much the same. That's why he tends to focus on revealing details.

"I want a close-up of their hands," he says. "I want to show their scars."

Gaither is eager to find worthy chefs to photograph here in Asheville, but worries that authenticity may be a scarce commodity.

"Asheville is sort of a strange thing in that I don't think people in Asheville are as hungry for authentic food as they should be," he says. "There are a lot of people walking around town that look like they have serious appetites, and it upsets me that they're eating at Cheddar's and Chili's."

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