The words “BBQ” and “healthy” don’t typically go hand in hand. Myron Mixon’s new cookbook, Keto BBQ, attempts to marry the two by celebrating barbeque culture and providing keto-friendly alternatives to traditional Southern favorites like beef ribs, fried chicken tenders, and tater tots. Released earlier this summer by Abrams Books, it features photography by Greensboro, North Carolina-based photographer Dhanraj Emanuel.
For this project, Dhanraj was hired by Culinary Entertainment Agency, a NY-based talent agency focused on food personalities, to photograph the images for the book. Kelly Alexander, who co-wrote the Keto BBQ cookbook with Myron Mixon, passed his name on to the agency owner who reached out to him.
This was my first time working with this client. The client liked my portfolio and it helped that Kelly Alexander, who lives in NC, had been following my work for a few years (I had no idea!). Also, due to the pandemic Michael, the owner of the agency, had also moved to NC from NYC so they were looking for someone local to work with.
While Dhanraj has photographed two other cookbooks, his past experience photographing a cookbook was more conceptual while this project focused more heavily on traditional food and recipe photography. In his images for Keto BBQ, Dhanraj decided to move away from the dark, smokey look of most barbecue imagery and instead utilize a bright and colorful approach to communicate the point of difference in the recipes.
There was no design direction for the beauty shots and I saw that as an opportunity to craft the look and feel of the images. Since this was a KETO BBQ Cookbook I decided I should stay away from the saucy, gritty look of BBQ and instead go with lighter tones all while keeping the authenticity of the genre.
To show the client how he wanted to approach the project, Dhanraj shot some test images before commencing the project, and once the team saw the work, they were immediately on board. He had a creative call with the publisher, designer, and client, and during that call, the publisher suggested they shoot closeups of the food for chapter introductions, so that was added to the shot list as well.
I shot some test images with store-bought sauce and chicken wings from a fast food restaurant to create a treatment for the client. Michael and Kelly liked the images and pretty much let me do what I wanted to do.
The images for the book were taken at Dhanraj’s studio in Greensboro, NC. His 1,500 sqft studio is equipped with a kitchen, props, surfaces, and all the gear he needs allowing him to quickly and comfortably set up for production.
Once set with the design direction, Dhanraj got to work with food stylist Dawn Longobardo on capturing the images for the book over several days. He shot the individual ingredients, the dishes for each recipe, close images for the chapters, and separate images of the surfaces he used so the book’s graphic designer could use them as backdrops or design elements throughout the book.
We shot this book over 4 days in October 2020. North Carolina was in Phase 2 of our reopening and we wanted to keep the crew as minimal as possible. Dawn and I pretty much shot the whole book without any assistants.
After the shoot, the images of the ingredients and prepared dishes were minimally retouched for color and sent to the client and the book designer so they could work on the layout. Once the book pages were starting to come together, they decided to add another recipe to the shot list, so Dhanraj took it as an opportunity to cook it and try it out for himself.
Afterward the designer needed one more shot to fill out a page so I cooked, styled and shot the image for Pitmaster’s Smoky Collards and Kale recipe. It was a good recipe!
Dharanj’s vibrant photos and visual approach successfully strikes a balance between visually communicating the healthy aspect of the recipes and maintaining the appetizing texture and boldness characteristic of barbecue foods.
My biggest takeaway is that you have to be really consistent when you shoot a cookbook as all the images have to connect stylistically throughout the book. Creating a framework to work within is essential, and sticking to the framework takes discipline.
Photographer: Dhanraj Emanuel
Publisher: Abrams Books
Food stylist: Dawn Longobardo
Graphic Design: Rob DeBorde, Forager Creative
Producer: Michael Psaltis, Culinary Entertainment Agency