Signature dish

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 October, 2012, 10:34am

"I'm not sure about the placement of the tomato" is a phrase that I never imagined would come tripping lightly off my tongue.

I actually said that last week as chef Umberto Bombana and a photographer and I carefully examined a dish of snapper with baby spinach that Bombana had cooked at his restaurant, Otto e Mezzo. The position of the tomato garnish really bothered me.

Bombana - and 19 other chefs - will appear in a cookbook scheduled to be published this month. The book is composed primarily of my recipes that have appeared in Post Magazine.

Because my recipes are already written and photographed, doing a book based only on them seems a logical and easy thing to do.

But getting the green light for publication took some time: management said yes, then no, then yes, then no, then "yes, but we want to include restaurant chefs and can we have it done by the end of September?" (My reply: "yes to the chefs, no to September".) Then "yes, but can we publish it in time for the Hong Kong International Literary Festival?" (which starts this week, and which has two events I'm appearing in). Again, I said no.

It's very odd to be photographing chefs' dishes. I've worked with photographers and stylists on the images for my own recipes, where I could dictate (if I were so inclined) my preferences for the look of a dish if, say, I didn't like the shape of the plate we put the food on.

I defer to the chefs on the presentation of their own dishes because we want to stay true to how the food is served at their restaurant.

Last week, the photographer had a hard time with the different shades of pale in an almond soup served in a white tureen at Fook Lam Moon in Wan Chai. The off-white soup would have "popped" better if served out of a darker tureen, but that's not how it is served at the restaurant, and none of us - including Daniel Chui, third-generation member of the Fook Lam Moon family - wanted to change it.

Some dishes were easier to photograph. The only part of the miso-marinated black cod at Cepage that gave us trouble was the hoba leaf garnish, which we wanted to fit snugly around the fish without covering it. Caprice's crab tiramisu was photographed the way that chef Vincent Thierry put it on the plate.

But the hardest part of these photo shoots is photographing the chefs. A few are natural in front of the camera, but most of them are very shy. What you won't see in the book (or anywhere else, I hope) is pictures of me jumping up and down and making funny faces behind the photographer, in an attempt to make the chefs laugh for the camera.