Based in Detroit, portrait photographer Chuk Nowak has distinguished himself through his colorful and expressive work. Chuk often embraces an element of storytelling in his photography. Utilizing his background in design, he stages scenes that exemplify the true personalities of his subjects. This results in a myriad of moods within his images ranging from incredibly serious to playfully surreal. Just as vibrant is Chuk’s food and beverage photography, capturing every level of cuisine from brick-oven pizza to fine dining. He has done multiple projects for returning client Hour Detroit, a monthly magazine dedicated to happenings in the Motor City. It covers local restaurants, clubs, the arts, and culture. Hour Detroit has also been covering local talent recognized by the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards. This leads us to their latest collaboration with Chuk.
Like all American cities, Detroit prides itself on the many cultures that call it home and has an incredible food scene to prove it. With 9 local finalists being considered for this year’s awards, Hour Detroit needed a photographer experienced in precisely what Chuk Nowak specializes in.
The assignment really was a perfect match, as a big part of my focus is portraiture and food & beverage in the hospitality space. I’ve been a regular contributor to Hour Detroit Magazine for the past year. The majority of which have been projects involving food establishments and chefs in the metro Detroit area. I make it a priority to emphasize the people behind the food, especially in an editorial setting, and I think that was a major factor in getting the request to create images for this feature.
The editorial team had already concluded its interviews by the time they brought Chuk into the process. The nominees each came from different backgrounds, some from the area and some being immigrants. Yet all shared stories of perseverance not only to create their careers and establishments but to also survive the pandemic. With such a dynamic group, Chuk needed to present them in a consistent manner that told a larger story.
The art director gave me lots of room to decide how this piece could look, as long as the images all work together as a cohesive set. This was a super important project as it was going to be one of two major features in that month’s issue. In all, I believe it covered about 16 pages. I’ve met or have interacted with many of the folks on the list, so I made some preliminary notes about unique composition and pose for each.
Established in 1990, The James Beard Foundation Awards are a big deal in the culinary world. A nomination alone can bring in much interest for an establishment seeking a wider audience. Yet America’s Midwest hasn’t typically enjoyed such attention from culinary institutions like this.
I was definitely aware of the JBFA’s going into this, as it’s basically the Oscars of the culinary and Hospitality industry. Detroit and S. E. Michigan in general have not been considered a “Dining destination” in the eyes of organizations like these until recently, getting lumped into categories with other more sizeable midwestern cities. A Great Lakes category was recently established (which still includes Chicago), but helps put a greater focus on the amazing and diverse talents in S.E. Michigan.
Chuk had 13 people to schedule within about a 3-week timeframe. Considering that this was peak summer vacation time, he had to be as organized as possible with the logistics. He asked for a max of 90 minutes to shoot the portraits and stage plates in each restaurant. Some were able to give their complete attention and personally staged the plates being photographed. Others only had a few minutes during their busy prep hours for him to pull away for portraits.
The personalities were indeed as varied as the food represented. The one constant though was the generosity of time (no matter the duration) and talent that each chef shared on the shoot. I’m fascinated in general by what motivates people to do what they do. So I ask lots of questions when working with anyone. All of the chefs represented have a similar passion for hospitality and sharing great food with others. Most people are excited to share their stories and work. So the energy was positive across the board.
Given the condensed schedule and unknowns around the duration of some of the shoots, I opted to work by myself without an assistant. I’ve also learned from experience that a curious staff member can make for a great momentary assistant in a pinch.
Chuk is a seasoned portrait photographer. He meets all types. Chefs, like those in any profession, have a wide range of personalities. Yet, given the realities and responsibilities of running a good, safe, and effective kitchen, a large one is often needed. In walking into an establishment, one is walking into a chef’s world.
Some of the chefs have been photographed dozens of times, and some prefer to stay out of the spotlight. My goal was to make sure that these images were unique to this project, so I did plenty of research on how they’ve been portrayed in other media prior. On the food side, it’s an absolute dream to work with talented people in representing their work. The accumulation of their experience comes out in these dishes, and I didn’t dare mess with styling anything too much. My main concern was that the food images complimented the look and feel of the portraits.
One of Chuk’s greatest assets in this project was his own attitude. While time was short, spirits were high. After all, many chefs dream of recognition, let alone nominations, from the James Beard Foundation.
I value connecting genuinely with others as a personal trait, which guides my work in portraiture. It’s important for people to know what my intentions are with a shoot and to give them some clear direction before I even pick up the camera. One chef in particular that I had not met before had a reputation for being somewhat prickly with the press/media. I went in with a plan to have them do some more unusual poses and quickly discovered a really nuanced and wry sense of humor. They appreciated the considered and off-beat approach and we connected instantly. This ended up being one of my favorite sessions from the project.
In some cases, I really wish I’d been able to explore the spaces more for portraits and plated food settings. Connecting with this many people in a span of a few weeks could have been a bigger hurdle, but most people were excited to make time. Budgets in editorial are not what they used to be, but I look at projects like these as an opportunity to create great work and make connections and relationships, which I value greatly.
I think every shoot provides touchpoints that aid in career development, whether that’s building through repetition or solving new problems in challenging situations. In this case, I feel my confidence as a producer on top of my role as a photographer was validated.
Check out more of Chuk’s work on his website.