‘We had three minutes flat with each dish. Perfect’

Photographer Rohit Chawla, 46, likes to shoot things that move. So his new coffee-table book The Fine Art of Food is an exception. Chawla ventured into the kitchens of The Leela hotel in Delhi and captured over 60 dishes prepared by chefs from across the world. Writer William Dalrymple proclaims in his foreword that the book celebrates the “skill of new India’s chefs”. Chawla tells Aradhna Wal why it is important for good food to look appetising.
Edited Excerpts

Flavour of art Rohit Chawla
Flavour of art Rohit Chawla

Does food photography demand a different approach?
I have a very graphic, minimalist sensibility to most things. The Leela gave me this opportunity to play with design. The food from the restaurants Le Cirque and Megu was perfect for the concept — to concentrate on the food and to not get sidetracked by props. Minimalism is like Haiku poetry. I had to evoke the taste. So I stuck to the realm of the dish, without using extra ingredients.
How would you describe your transition from high voltage fashion photography to minimalist food art?
Working in advertising has instilled discipline in me. That is why I could complete this book in 15 days. No one has done food like this — focussing on its design aspect. Restaurants like el Bulli in Spain made food look sexy, but even they haven’t done such a concept.
What were the particular challenges?
Since I shot the food from a top angle, it was difficult to bring out the shape and the contours of each dish. One hurdle was the powerful white light underneath the glass surface on which the food was placed. Its heat sorely affected the presentation. The ice cream would melt, so would the chocolate. We had three minutes flat for each dish. Which is perfect. Something that requires 30 minutes is boring. One person who helped me was chef Karan Suri. I could work spontaneously with him. There’s no rocket science to food or any photo graphy. What you need is a brain, and you also need to be quick on your feet.
Flavour of art Rohit Chawla
Rohit Chawla

What dishes made the best and the worst models?
The cover dish — Le Cirque’s vegetable garden — is my favourite. I’ve framed and hung it in my house. Another memorable one was the crispy fried red snapper with spicy mango sauce. William Dalrymple took one look and pronounced that it resembled the ‘Unswept Floor’ mosaic from 2nd century BC Greece. That was a happy coincidence. Indian food was hard. How do you make poori bhaji look stylistic? I had to pick food that was malleable, that I could set up aesthetically. This entire shoot is a tribute to Nouvelle cuisine that states good food should also look good.
Which international food photographer do you admire?
No one in particular. Looking at food bores me. This is the last time I’m shooting food. I respond to design, whatever the subject. The digital age has forced us professionals to reinvent the eye. Some stick to simple document ation and call it a pure art form, but that’s bland and lazy. We need to incorporate our style and personality into our photographs to push the boundaries.
Aradhna Wal is a Trainee, Features with Tehelka.