Sensitivity

Hello friends;

I’d like to begin this update with some dry, “status update” info before delving into an interesting design problem Sarah and I have been working on recently.

As has probably been evident over the last year, we’ve done a fair bit of wandering around and experimenting with what we collectively want this book to be. During the past month, however, we’ve shifted our efforts away from this experimentation and towards finalizing the book’s content. This means taking (or retaking) any remaining photography, completing all recipes and essays, and in general trying to get to a spot where we can confidently step back and say “Ok, this is our book”.

Being able to stabilize the bulk of our content allows us to work on some ancillary things that need to be addressed. A table of contents or an index, for example, can’t really be created until we know what page numbers need to be referred to. We have a few places where we refer to other pages or sections of the book, which up until this point have just contained placeholder text. There are lots of these kinds of little details, and we are working carefully to ensure the accuracy of each.

We’ve mentioned this before, but just to be clear: because we ended up adding quite a bit more content than we originally budgeted for, our delivery date has been affected. We’re currently aiming to deliver sometime around September of this year. This is obviously later than we’d originally estimated, but the scope of our book is richer than we’d originally planned.

This delivery date remains just an estimate, however, and there are still a good many unforeseeable factors that stand to influence it. When Sarah and I printed our own book, The Alinea Project, we happened to deliver its contents to our printer around July, which put us right at the height of “busy season” for book printing.

“Busy season?!” I asked iocolor, flabbergasted that such a thing even exists.

“Yeah. All the big book publishers want their books available before the holiday season, which means they all want to print stuff around July or August, to get books around October or November,” explained iocolor.

Because our print run for that book was so small (750 copies total), we were placed into the printer’s queue later, as a lower-priority project (and, incidentally, received our books after the Christmas rush had ended). Our book was further delayed by a dockworker strike in Los Angeles at the port to which our books were meant to be delivered. This strike lasted for several weeks, leaving our books languishing in a storage container on a cargo ship while Sarah and I helplessly stressed out about late deliveries to our Kickstarter backers for that project.

So, lots of unexpected things can go wrong; part of the next phase of this project involves factors that are out of our control, which will require us to shift energy from creative matters to managing these as best we can. Our updates will shift sharply to focus on the process of physically producing this book in the coming months. 

To highlight one of the more interesting design challenges we’ve been working on over the past few weeks, I’d like to share a snazzy little video:

Anyone familiar with the English language (and, perhaps more specifically, with American language) could be forgiven for finding the lyrics of this song to be frustratingly familiar but not quite comprehensible. They are, in fact, complete gibberish. The singer, Adriano Celentano, is an Italian musician/comedian/actor who designed the song to sound uniquely like American music, despite the actual words having no meaning at all.

I find this completely fascinating. The act of decoupling words from their meanings frees a person to evaluate the lower-level qualities of language itself, which in turn can reveal interesting biases and assumptions.

Sarah and I are currently exploring a design challenge that swims in these same waters. The Aviary’s recipe for A Year In Kyoto is actually several recipes in one, comprising a tasting flight of four small cocktails that The Aviary created during Next’s Kaiseki menu several years ago. Each cocktail in the flight is meant to evoke one of the seasons of the year. When discussing the design of the flight, Chef Micah pointed with interest at our small flavor signifiers we’ve mentioned in previous updates:

“What if we include some text in Japanese that evokes something unique about each cocktail?” he asked. We thought this was an interesting idea, and after a bit of discussion we decided on a single Japanese word for each of the cocktails that we intended to place as a decorative element within the recipe.

Now, I should point out that Sarah and I are not Japanese. We neither speak it nor read it, and have zero Japanese ancestry in either of our families. So the issue of placing these words we’d chosen into the design of this book poses two major problems.

The first problem is obviously one of translation. This seems relatively easy to solve by using any number of online language translators. We hopped over to Google Translate and popped in one of our chosen words: “barbecue”. Here’s what that looks like:

Sweet, totally done, right? All we need to do now is copy-paste this into our design document, and move onto problem two, which is picking a typeface. We’re working on Macs, which come with a few pre-installed Japanese typefaces. Surely we can just pick one of these, dust our hands of the matter, and call it a day, right?

Let’s pause for a moment and consider an example of what this recipe looks like without our Japanese text added to it yet. What I’d like to look at, however, is not the recipe, but rather the text itself. To help force myself into a space where I can focus on this, I’m going to write a little bit of code to randomize the letters and words in this recipe. I want it to feel like an English-written recipe, but I ultimately want to render it meaningless gibberish:

 

With meaning removed from the words, we can focus more clearly on what Sarah is trying to communicate with the design decisions she’s making. What is the overall feel that this type conveys? To help offer a counterpoint, what if I re-set this text using a different typeface:

While the meaning (or lack thereof) of this text hasn’t changed, the page itself now feels very different. The above text is set in perhaps one of the most ubiquitous typefaces of all, the venerable Times New Roman. Times has been a default system font since the early days of desktop publishing, which makes it one of the most commonly-seen typefaces today. Before its appearance on computers, Times enjoyed an extensive career as newspaper type, having been created in the 1930’s for use in the eponymous British newspaper.

Times New Roman’s wide deployment renders it simultaneously everything and nothing, eminently readable yet totally unremarkable. Because it is so strongly associated with being a “default” typeface (undesigned web pages, e.g., with no other type opinion expressed, fall back to Times), the use of it subtly implies our page is undesigned, as if we simply offered zero consideration to the typeface choice at all.

What if we try a different typeface, this time Courier:

Courier is another widely-recognizable typeface, designed to mimic the output of a strike-on typewriter. This inherently puts our text in a particular time and place in history, and – because the typeface choice is likely to be widely-recognizable – also begins to draw on some associations a reader may have with other uses of this typeface. For example, are we reading a screenplay here? Is this some sort of top-secret dossier from a spy film? The Courier typeface has such a strong personality that it becomes dangerous to use because of the associations it inherently provokes.

We can continue this exercise with any number of other type choices:

In each case, there is no change in the text itself. But we can see how each typeface can provoke associations that may or may not be entirely intended, and can raise assumptions or biases about what the intended meaning of our unintelligible text might mean. It’s possible you might look at the above three examples and wonder if these recipes are meant to be part of a kid’s book, or maybe some sort of kitschy boutique.

This, of course, assumes that you have some exposure to the English language (and, again perhaps even more so, American culture and use of type). But what if you don’t? If you’ve never seen the typefaces in the above examples, you have no preconceptions about them. And if you don’t even know what the words mean, the matter is reduced to a purely aesthetic one of lines and shapes.

The fact that we can deliberately do this exercise with our English(-ish)-language text means we can also accidentally accomplish the same provocation of (potentially undesirable) bias by not approaching our Japanese translation and typesetting choices with a high degree of consideration. Worded more simply: simply slamming some words into Google Translate and applying a system-installed Japanese font, dusting our hands and calling this design task done stands to be grossly insensitive to anyone with any familiarity with Japanese language and design. It could possibly be the equivalent of using a typeface like this:

(The typeface above is an example of what some designers refer to as a “chop suey” font – sometimes also referred to as a “wonton font” or a “chopstick font” – a genre styled to mimic the brush strokes found in some Asian calligraphic writing. These typefaces are meant to convey some sense of “Orientalism”, but are in fact a completely Westernized fabrication that bear no history in or connection to actual Asian typography.)

So the decision to set four seemingly-simple words in Japanese has involved Sarah and I spending the last few weeks learning about the Japanese language and consulting with a few experts on our typeface choices. Type that looks interesting and appropriate to us has, in many cases, turned out to provoke strong associations in directions we did not intend. “This looks like an ad for cheap kimono,” was one bit of feedback we managed to provoke. “This is a typeface used by a large Japanese pharmaceutical company,” was another. It’s probably obvious that such a drastic juxtaposition in style might feel jarring and confusing to readers who have fluency with both Japanese and English language and design, and we want to be sensitive to that. Ultimately, we would like the two languages to sit together on the page harmoniously, both visually and in meaning. We recognize that the effort involved in honing this is likely to go unnoticed by many, but we still feel it is work worth doing.

This sensitivity is not incongruous with what we see practiced by those with whom we work. In fact, the staff of the Aviary (along with those at Next, Roister, and Alinea) all go to quite great lengths to educate themselves on matters such as these so as be prepared for moments in which they may be able to offer an extra modicum of care to a guest. There’s always the chance that the time may come where a small gesture of sensitivity can contribute immeasurably to someone else’s experience…the cocktails are just a small part of the equation.

Until next time;

–a

 

 

Visual Effects: Pt. II

Hi friends;

Before we launched this Kickstarter, Chef Micah and I had a “practice run” photography session. The exercise was meant to get me thinking about how we might want to handle the photography of different kinds of drinks. Micah chose a range of drinks to test, including Meet Me In Tennessee, which he worried could look boring when photographed:

Because the drink had been presented to me in this way (“This one’s pretty boring, let’s see how we can make it look more interesting”), I’d already been primed to try some unusual lighting. Then, to add more visual interest, I generated some weird CG flourishes and composited them in:

Another drink that presented me with something to think about was Bring Another Smurf. This incredible drink is actually two cocktails in one glass, separated by a disc of ice. Upon being presented with the drink, a guest is invited to blow into a straw protruding from the glass. This disrupts the ice raft, turning it into a paddle that stirs the drink, which in turn triggers an interesting color change. For our test shoot, we affixed a tube attached to an aquarium pump to the straw to blow bubbles into the drink:

Looking at the photos, I realized that any single one of them sort of failed to properly capture the experience of seeing this color change. We could obviously present a spread of multiple images, but that felt a bit predictable. And in any case I was on this jag to think critically about how vfx could be used as a tool, so I started wondering about the idea of using computer graphics to try collapsing a span of time into a single photograph. I set up a fluid simulation of two liquids and wrote a small bit of code to diffuse their colors together over time. I then rendered out a few frames of this fluid simulation, and composited these into a single photograph of the Smurf.

After finishing these tests, I took a step back to consider them both.

To me, the Tennessee experiment wasn’t particularly successful.  Sure, the weird little light curves do indeed add some extra visual interest…but to what end? Including some random computer-generated element that calls a lot of attention to itself for no apparent reason would be, I think, a clumsy application of this technology. It’s not really different than Chef Achatz’ general disdain for garnishes which serve no purpose on a plate, in fact.

The Smurf test, however, is much more interesting to me. It makes me wonder: can I selectively employ computer graphics in a way that supports the “story” of this cocktail?  Does doing so provide more information in an effective or interesting way? Does it add anything, or is it just functionless digital garnish?

Even if I’m not directly augmenting an image with computer-generated elements, I find opportunity to leverage techniques I learned working as an artist in VFX studios. Let’s consider one example. Here’s a simple image of a computer-generated sphere:

We can see the sphere is illuminated by a single, blue-colored light coming from screen right

Here’s the same sphere lit by another light, this time a warm-colored light coming from screen left:

And finally, here’s the same sphere lit by some ambient light data I collected from The Office in NYC:

(This ambient light data looks sort of like a panorama):

A bit of physics knowledge teaches us that light has the peculiar property of being “additive”. This is a fancy way of simply saying that if you have two lights, and you shine them onto a surface, you end up casting “Light 1” + “Light 2” amount of light onto the surface. We can see this visually here:

In the image above, we can see my ambient-lit sphere, my left-lit sphere, and my right-lit sphere. If we add each corresponding pixel in each of the first three images, we end up with the result on the right.

Now, imagine you’re an artist showing a director the above, rightmost image. It’s possible the director might say, “I love this, except I wish the light coming from screen right was less blue”. It would normally be pretty tricky to isolate the contribution of the blue light alone in the rightmost image. But, because we actually have each light split out separately, we can do a neat trick where we can adjust just one of the images, re-add them up, and change our result:

In the above image, I’ve re-colored the screen-left and screen-right lights to be more neutral in color, and re-added everything up, resulting in a more neutral overall image.

I can even do interesting things where I adjust the intensity of the lights independently, as if they were each on a dimmer switch:

Here, I’ve boosted the intensity of my ambient light, and lowered the intensity of my screen-left light, which yields the result we see here.

Working this way allows a vfx artist to respond quickly to a director’s comments without having to re-do a lot of extra work.

When photographing cocktails in The Office, I knew I wanted to include the Office environment itself in my photos. The lighting in the office consists of lots of differently-colored lights: the bar itself is sort of purple, and is tinted by all the bottles sitting on it. The ceiling lights are all a very yellow tungsten color. And my flashes are “daylight-balanced”, which means they’re more blue-white in color. I suppose a “for realsies” photographer would know how to use colored gel filters to tint the color of each of these light sources to bring them all into balance. But, instead, my instinct has been to try using the above light-splitting idea when shooting in situations like this. Here’s an example of a very, very old bottle of bourbon, lit from above:

Here’s the same bottle, now light from screen-right:

And again from screen-left:

I can add these images similarly:

The above example is a relatively simple one, but other photos are a bit more complex:

Working this way has bought me a lot of flexibility: I don’t have to ask for reshoots nearly as often, and I can effectively change my lighting after the fact. This latter bit is useful if we find that this image might need to be placed on the left page in a spread vs. the right (which might encourage me to ‘relight’ it a bit to make the whole spread feel more balanced).

Another example of leveraging computer graphics: Sarah and I talked a bit about designing a bird flock motif to use as a design element throughout the book. Rather than hand-illustrating several flocks of birds, I offered to help Sarah with this work. I started with a simulation of particles:

Then I created an animated cycle of a bird flapping its wings:

I can then “stick” a copy of this flapping bird onto each particle. I can offset the animation forward or backward in time (so that the birds aren’t all flapping in unison).

Sarah then chooses a frame or two she likes, and we render them out for her to use in her design.

There are lots of other places Sarah and I are finding ways to use our collective vfx knowledge (Sarah also has an extensive career in the industry) to apply towards this book. The above examples are meant to highlight how we’re approaching this, attempting to apply our skills in ways that enhance rather than detract from things. We’re hoping the final result feels harmonious, balanced, and well-integrated.

Until next time;

–a

Visual Effects: Pt. I

Hi friends;

Of all updates we’ve shared on this project, this is the one I’m admittedly the most excited for.

I’ve made plenty of noise about all the things that I have little to no experience with on this project. But, I’ve had the privilege of working as a visual effects (“vfx”) artist on feature films for about 20 years, which makes it a field I do know a little bit about.  In our very first meeting about this book with Chef and Nick, Sarah and I asked, “how do you guys feel about the use of visual effects in this book?”

I felt sure I already knew the answer to this. The “branding” assumptions I mentioned in our Photography updates led me to assume that the images in this book should be spartan and minimalistic, focusing wholly on the drinks themselves. Surely computer-generated embellishments had no place in this project.  But I was genuinely surprised when Chef and Nick both exclaimed “Awesome! Go for it!”

I was ecstatic! The idea of finding ways to apply at least some of my vfx experience to this drastically different context was super appealing to me, but I also wanted to be sensitive about how it was done. So I found myself in the unusual and very interesting position of thinking very critically about the role visual effects might play (if any) in a book about cocktails.

A bit of context to explain how I’ve approached thinking about this:

The thing that attracted me to visual effects in my younger years was that the whole thing seemed like a magic trick: I could type some stuff on my computer, and a picture would appear on my screen. It was so cool! The more time I spent typing, the cooler I could make the image.

When I entered the vfx industry, I quickly learned that visual effects in films can be a pretty time-consuming process: I once spent about 8 months working on a single shot in a film, something that flicked by on screen in less than a few seconds. That amount of time and emotional investment tended to mean I really wanted my work to shine – I wanted what I was making to call a lot of attention to itself. And for many years as a vfx artist, that’s kind of the attitude I carried with me.

This kind of myopia, however, can cause a “can’t see the forest for the trees” kind of problem. I’d often labor on details that became very important to me, but that were largely irrelevant to the film’s director or the audience itself. When showing a director a computer-generated splash of water that I’d labored lovingly over weeks, he might say “Can we make it smaller, and make it move to the right instead of to the left?”

“But that’s not physically accurate,” I’d argue. The director often wouldn’t care, but rather than trying to understand why, I just tended to feel frustrated and pouty.

Then I had a very memorable experience that really stuck firmly in my head, and that drastically reshaped my understanding of this art form. It came during my time working as an artist at Weta Digital in New Zealand. While developing the technology needed to make Avatar, Weta worked exhaustively to develop a cutting-edge way of recording facial animation from actors, then using this animation data to drive the facial animation of our computer-generated characters. The system saved thousands of hours that would have otherwise been spent painstakingly hand-animating characters’ faces to get similarly-believable results.

This system was subsequently used on Rise of the Planet of the Apes for the animation of the completely computer-generated ape, Caesar.

There was one notable exception to the use of this system, however. A climax of the film involves a moment in which Caesar’s trust is violated. Distraught, Caesar presses his face pleadingly against a thick plane of glass behind which he’s held captive. The decision was made, for this critical moment, to forego the use of the facial motion-capture system.

This decision scuttled the efforts of the facial tracking software team, and foisted a large workload on animators. It would have been far easier at this point to just use the tools that had been developed for this purpose. So why did Weta and the filmmakers do this?

The facial mocap rig was an intrusive, bulky device that sat right in front of an actor’s face, straight in their field of view. Trying to act like it’s not there is difficult; some psychological effort on the part of the actor is required to overcome this intrusiveness in order to deliver a believable performance. This moment in the film needed to involve the actor acting frantic and terrified, while pressing his face desperately against a pane of glass – something that would have been impossible with the facial rig on.  In this case, the technology would have interfered with the authenticity needed to properly convey the story of this shot. So, rather than sacrificing this authenticity for the sake of convenience, the filmmakers chose to do things the hard way to create a more emotional moment in the film.

Understanding why this decision was made gave me an understanding of visual effects as a supportive storytelling tool, rather than something that clamors for attention in and of itself. I began developing a sensitivity to knowing when visual effects should shout, and when they should whisper. When considering how vfx might be applied in the context of a cookbook, it’s been this idea that I’ve tried to keep in mind as I explore.

The use of visual effects in a cookbook context also involves another peculiar issue. In the case of films, the objective is often to deliberately distort or fabricate reality. People tend to go see films to be entertained, and vfx allow a director to realize a vision that’s often impractical or impossible to create in the real world. But the images in a cookbook, in addition to being eye candy, also need to serve the functional purpose of illustrating how a final dish or drink should look. Falsifying reality in a cookbook threatens its credibility, and I worry it could ultimately undermine the efforts of our chefs and bartenders.

So my Golden Rule for approaching this has been “Do not mislead or distract”. It feels ethically irresponsible to manipulate images for the goal of misrepresenting the cocktails or suggesting an impossible standard for the reader. Instead, I’ve sought to leverage my experience with this stuff to enhance the book in ways that add beauty or clarity without misrepresenting anything.

We’ll see what that’s meant for the book in the next update.

Cheers;

–a

Photography: Pt. V – Outtakes

Hi friends;

I’d like to conclude the week by saying thank you – sincerely – to those who have taken a moment to offer a comment of encouragement to us, both for this series of updates and for those past. Please know it truly means a lot to us as we find our way with this.

Sarah suggested I end this discussion about photography by talking a bit about photography failures. I like this idea a lot, but I also realize that the factor that makes “bloopers” compelling from a storytelling standpoint is an outright crash-and-burn: something that’s unequivocally bad. In reality, most failures I’ve experienced are more along the lines of “This isn’t as good of an idea as I thought it might be” or “this just isn’t compelling enough”, which tend to fall into the valley of mediocrity. Nevertheless, I’ve dug some up examples from my digital trash pile to share.

To offer a bit of context: a thing I used to get pretty into on my own blog was looking for opportunities to make little “art projects” out of the the various techniques or ingredients that I was getting to play with.  Some examples that I think turned out reasonably well:

I wanted to try similar tactics for this book. For the most part, this has worked out well, but sometimes what seems like a good idea turns out not to be. For example, making an oregano tincture involves sealing fresh oregano with grain alcohol and cooking en sous vide. This starts out looking something like this:

I thought I was being clever and interesting by painting out the outer edges of the vacuum bag in which this oregano is sealed. We’d included this image in one of our early book layouts until one afternoon when Chef Achatz saw it, wrinkled his nose, and asked Chef Micah why we were including a photo of rotting oregano. When I explained what it was, the chefs had an “Ohhhh, right” kind of moment, but it was enough to make me realize that it’s not super-obvious what’s happening in this image, so we decided to scrap it.

For another recipe that uses cantaloupe, I had the bright idea to try building a mosaic of nicely-cubed melon, then realized that – because the melon cubes were all the same color and texture – this didn’t really make for a very interesting image, and in fact only really highlighted my crappy melon cube stacking skills:

Another recipe involves compressing some pear cubes. Apparently resistant to learning from my own mistakes, I thought the textural difference this process introduces might make this cube mosaic idea more compelling. But…meh. These aren’t particularly impactful:

Yet another recipe involves caramelizing some onions. Chef Ingi often stores ingredients like this in vacuum bags to hold them until we need them. Without really thinking it through, I grabbed this bag and tried snapping an image of the caramelized onions:

This obviously isn’t terribly appealing. But Ingi, ever-patient and willing to try helping me with this idea, did something rather incredible and carefully caramelized a half-moon onion slice of onion, then sat it perfectly aside its uncaramelized counterpart:

Incredible technique aside, this image notably more compelling for sure. But we’re not sure it deserves an entire page of space (plus, the layout for this recipe feels a little too congested if we try to wedge this in just for the sake of including it).

But I have experienced one failure that’s unarguably terrible. Our Gin & Tonic involves making spherified cucumber juice. I find the green spheres compelling, and cucumbers themselves are really pretty, so I wanted to try juxtaposing the two together.

These are all just vaguely weird and mediocre though. But I wasn’t ready to give up on this idea, so I came back to the studio the next day to try some even worse ideas:

And finally, here’s one we’re on the fence about. One of our recipes involves a pretty fascinating step wherein a mixture is clarified by milk curds. The idea is that you add milk to an acidulated mixture, which causes the milk to curdle. The mixture is then strained through a chinois, and – this bit is important – becomes clarified by flowing through the curds (so, it’s the curds that are doing the actual straining, not the chinois). Chef Ingi and I thought this step was worth dwelling on a bit, so we built an ad-hoc tank out of a few sheets of plexiglass, filled it with water to which we’d added a bit of vinegar, and then poured milk into it to demonstrate the curdling effect:

We can’t tell if this image is awesome or really offputting. Anyone else want to weigh in?

In between sharing these updates, we’ve pressed forward with more photography this week (including building a small sand dune in the dining room of the Aviary, shooting a drink on it, and cleaning it up in the span of about a half hour between staff meal and doors). We hope to finish the bulk of the photography in the next couple of weeks. Sarah will then need some runway to add these photos to her design, and we’ll take a step back and see what gaps exist or what needs more coverage. While she’s working on this, I’ll shift focus back to the writing side of things, honing some essays we’ve written about food pairing, non-alcoholic and low-alcohol cocktails, and a host of other topics we’ve been inspired to include.

Until next time;

–a

Photography: Pt IV – Fun Is Fun

Hi friends;

A few months into this project, several things happened that would change the trajectory of my photography.

The first came during an early review of book materials with Chef. “How do we feel about including some textures or some other qualities of the Aviary into these photos?” he asked Sarah and I.

I knew shooting in our studio encouraged me to operate in sort of a visual vacuum, and I started wondering how I might be able to address this point. I started hunting around our storage spaces for leftover building materials from the buildout of the Aviary, and also began contacting a few of the contractors and interior designers who fabricated the space. My hope was to collect materials that I could use to build some small sets or backdrops to begin mimicking the look and feel of various spaces within the Aviary. Some leftover kitchen tiles, e.g., excellently replicate the walls near the Aviary’s Kitchen Table:

Shortly after this meeting, we happened to schedule some photos of cocktails served in The Office, the speakeasy situated below the Aviary. The Office – being underground and windowless – poses none of the problems the Aviary itself does in terms of shooting conditions: it’s quiet, mostly empty during the day, and dark enough to allow for very controllable lighting. We also discovered that its luxurious and eclectic decor lent itself to photography that felt strikingly-different than the sleek, minimalist look I’d been generating in our studio:

These moments caused me to develop a sense of paranoia about my photography. I was getting the hang of the technical aspects of things (which is to say: I was growing more comfortable managing reflections and understanding how to light the drinks), but worried about possibly stagnating creatively for the bulk of the Aviary cocktails. And the pressure I put on myself to not let either Chef or our many project backers down loomed large in my mind.

To try to understand how to move forward, I decided to print out several “contact sheets” (small thumbnail-sized images) of every photo I’d taken so far. My goal was to identify patterns and see what – if anything – might push me in a new direction. This is a thing Sarah and I often do when we feel a bit stuck, and doing it this time caused one set of photos to jump out at us.

When Nick, Chef, or other team members visit our office, they invariably notice and point out the same set of photos: those of the Green Thumb.

Compared to the stark white or black backgrounds featured in most of the rest of the photos, this drink looks so drastically different that it almost risks not belonging in the book at all. And yet everyone at work here points at the print of it on our wall and exclaims “Oh that one’s awesome, we should do more photos like that.”

I admittedly really love it as well: it’s bright and arresting and feels whimsical and fun. But it also conflicted with my understanding of the overall aesthetic or “brand” of this restaurant group. Alinea, Next, the Aviary, and even Roister feature interiors that skew towards the austere. I recall some early writings about Alinea that described how its interior design was specifically meant to feel very neutral, so as not to detract attention from the food itself. Luxury brands in general tend to share this minimalist, bare aesthetic:

This minimalist aesthetic indeed allows the product to stand undistracted. It also sort of suggests an air of solemnity: these products are meant to be taken seriously. The aesthetic concept of “luxury” as a whole, in fact, seems to take itself very seriously – these products do not suggest a sense of humor.

But…but…is there anything serious about a drink served with a spritz of hotdog-scented aroma?

“Of course there isn’t!” Nick said when I asked him about this. “This is a book about cocktails! Cocktails are supposed to be fun! We don’t want to take ourselves too seriously.”

This has been a jarring concept for me to wrap my head around, and I realize that it’s almost entirely based on my own bias rather than direct experience here. I’ve been incredibly sensitive to the visual identity and “brand” of the Aviary since the beginning of this project…or, at least, I’ve been very sensitive to what I assumed it was, being one of a group of fine dining, Michelin-starred establishments. So when I found myself questioning whether this Green Thumb photo was “too fun”, it was Nick and Chef who sort of laughed and helped me realize maybe I was taking myself too seriously with this.

I began retracing my steps that led me to this photo. Chef Micah and Ingi had mentioned to me that this drink was actually served with a patch of grass sprayed with the BBQ-scented aroma; it’s meant to taste and smell like summer.

 

These little tabletop dioramas are not unusual amongst the restaurants here. As Ingi words it, the chefs love to “play dress-up” with the table, the goal being to create a sense of immersion that can’t be created by a plate alone. Several years ago, for example, Alinea literally served a pile of dirt. In the dirt was planted a handful of tiny, perfect baby lettuces, and guests were presented a beautiful pair of small silver scissors that they used to harvest a custom salad for themselves.

Even as recently as a few months ago, guests at Alinea would tromp and crunch through mounds of autumn leaves to get to their table, on which was piled more leaves that the guests needed to clear to find their first bites hidden amongst the foliage.

All of this led me to realize that maybe “texture” didn’t necessarily need to specifically refer to the building materials of the Aviary. Maybe texture could come from pushing the presentation of the drinks to be more interesting and interactive, and maybe my photo of the Green Thumb was actually more on-target with the “brand” and general aesthetic of the Aviary than any of my super-stark photos had been.

I began revisiting the work of other photographers I admire, in search of inspiration. I love, for example, the portraiture of Jill Greenberg:

When I first started learning about lighting and photography years ago, Jill’s work was one of my first sources of inspiration. I wanted to pick apart how she was lighting her subjects. One afternoon, Sarah sat with me in our tiny garage very patiently as I fiddled with my lights, ultimately producing this – one of my very favorite portraits of her:

Flipping back through this work, I wondered Hm…maybe I could try shooting some cocktails sort of like this?

Since this turning point, our shoots have grown notably more complex. This in turn has required more creative thought and planning. By far our most involved shoot as of this writing has been for Turtle Doves, which Sarah explains in this video she shot of us a few weeks ago:

This shoot took a month or so of planning and watching the weather here in Chicago. And Chef Ingi and I decided we didn’t all-the-way love the images we got from the shoot you see in this video, so we ended up waiting another week or so for a second snowstorm to come through before re-doing everything (with a few tweaks to the process). In the end, however, we got an image we think is pretty, well, fun.

Side note: drinking a cocktail from a snow-rimmed glass is pretty awesome.

–a

Photography: Pt III – Early Shoots

Hi friends;

Around the halfway point of working my way through the Alinea cookbook, I felt as though I were starting to hit a stride in terms of photography. I was fascinated by the striking colors and textures that I was getting to experience while learning about this style of cooking, and had grown comfortable lighting and capturing dishes in a way that felt interesting to me. A thing I found particularly satisfying was shooting the dishes on backgrounds of solid black or white, which tended to remove any sense of scale or place, and sort of heightened the sense of disorientation and precision involved in the food. The stark backgrounds also, I felt, really showed off the vibrant colors of the food itself.

It was a fairly well-practiced instinct, then, to try shooting my first few photos for this book in a similar way. But I learned almost immediately that photographing cocktails offered several different challenges that I’d not yet run into.

Let’s see a contrived example. Here’s a single-light setup illuminating a cocktail glass with a fairly simple shape:

Let’s throw some bourbon, ice, and an orange peel into our glass:

We can immediately see a few problems. The reflections of the light onto the glass are fairly distracting, especially the front surface reflection, which is obscuring the cocktail liquid. And the liquid itself is almost completely lost against the dark background.

Let’s switch momentarily to a lighter-colored tabletop:

Having something bright to refract kicks a bit more life and color up into the liquid, which is a good clue for me to keep in mind. As for the glass reflection, a bit of physics knowledge suggests that we might want to put the camera in a place where the light isn’t bouncing off the glass towards it. One such angle is:

The upside here is that we now see nice color and shading in the cocktail, and have sidestepped the distracting reflections. But we’ve also composed a photo that – as we’ve seen – looks pretty familiar. And I don’t want to be constrained to shooting every cocktail from this angle for the purposes of avoiding reflections. I want to shoot this cocktail from my original perspective: low and close. So, I reason, I can probably try inverting my camera positioning strategy, and moving the light to a place where it doesn’t cast a reflection onto the glass from the perspective I want to use:

This is a bit better; I’ve lit the glass the way I’d like, but I’d still like the cocktail itself to have some more presence and life. I can try introducing a second light, with a modifier called a “snoot”, which funnels the light into a very controlled small spot (namely, squarely into the cocktail):

That’s a bit better. But I’d like to push even more light into that drink. This particular cocktail is quite transparent, which means light wants to travel through it rather than bouncing off of it. I almost wish I could put another light under the drink, but clearly that’s not exactly possible. After some experimentation, I find I can do this:

I can tuck a small piece of white paper under the glass. This is hidden from view, but kicks light from the upper, snooted strobe back up into the cocktail, giving me some extra illumination from the bottom:

The usefulness of this is more evident if we switch back to our dark tabletop:

Unfortunately, just because I’ve figured out some clues as to how I might light this one cocktail, it’s still just one of many. The Aviary’s drinks are as diverse and vibrant as the dishes in Alinea, and each poses different challenges and needs.

I learned early on that cocktails involve not just one subject, but multiple. The glass, the liquid inside, any ice or garnishes, and any other elements (hands, smoke, etc.) often need to be lit differently. And, while it may seem like I’m explaining all of this easily, it’s taken me since the start of this Kickstarter to wrap my head around these challenges (and I still have lots to learn). Scrolling through the earliest shoot dates of our photo library, we can see how I did quite a bit of “hunting” to find a decent shot of 2 in 1:

Bitter offered the added challenge of an inverted smoke-filled glass. Simply photographing the cocktail carafe next to the glass didn’t fully explain what was going on, so we decided to shoot the glass being lifted, which helps illustrate its function more clearly.

Tea in Trinidad builds on this problem: the cocktail is served inside a glass sphere which contains both the cocktail liquid and an aromatic smoke.


Thankfully, our chefs are incredibly patient as I shoot, adjust, shoot, re-adjust, etc. and have been uncritical when I ask for remakes of cocktails because of failure to get things right on the first go-around. But shooting over 100 cocktails has given me plenty of time to get the hang of things, which means I’ve gotten faster at designing the lighting setups for each drink. This buys me extra time to think a little more creatively about the photography (and, like the chefs, I don’t really like sitting still too long before I get itchy to try to push things a bit further). We’ll see what that has meant for later shoots in the next update.

Cheers;

–a

Photography: Pt. II – The Studio

Hi friends;

The Aviary is situated in a corner space of the building in which it resides, with lovely floor-to-ceiling windows lining two of its four walls. It is not open during the day, but is open 7 nights a week starting at 5pm. During the day, a full staff of chefs prep components for the evening’s service while another front of house team prepares the dining area.

These relatively unremarkable facts drastically affect how one might approach shooting oodles and oodles of cocktail photos. Aviary’s kitchen is small, without much space for photo gear or maneuvering around the chefs as they’re trying to work. The dining area is less congested during the day, but the massive windows flood the room with daylight. Shooting in this available light is, I feel, misleading, and also lacks any controllability. Blacking out the windows for the purposes of shooting under controlled lighting is unpractically arduous. And in any case, photography equipment would need to be packed in and set up to start shooting mid-morning, then completely broken down and packed back out each afternoon before doors for service. Chef, Nick, and Martin and Lara Kastner have all recalled with heavy sighs how it felt to do exactly this with the original Alinea cookbook: it’s slow, painful, and not much fun.

So instead, we built out a small storage space within the offices above the Aviary, converting it into a photography studio:

While modest, the studio has proven to be quite effective for us. It’s directly adjacent to a small kitchen, which we’ve converted into a test kitchen for the book. We prep and store components for drinks in this kitchen, and its proximity to the studio means we can move quickly to make cocktails for photographing or adjust recipes on the fly as we notice we need to.

Our management of photo shoots is an amalgamation of how a film shoot is structured and how a kitchen runs. We have daily call sheets with shot lists, to ensure we capture footage of everything we’ve planned to, or to make notes about what might need reshoots. The chefs prep any mise en place as needed prior to each shoot.

All of the lighting I use is portable. I suspect this is unusual, but it’s the equipment I learned to use while photographing stuff for my Alinea blog. I’ve grown to be comfortable with it, and it’s incredibly versatile given that part of my job is shooting stuff unrelated to cookbooks at all of the restaurants as well. I can move quickly with these portable strobes, they require no external power or cords, and I can fit into small spaces without being too obtrusive with them.

We invested in a half-dozen or so low-cost portable flashes that can be triggered wirelessly by my camera, along with a handful of various light modifiers. The latter allow me to shape the quality of light, shadows, and reflections in our photography. It’s rare that I ever need to shoot with all lights at once; the reason we have so many is so I can keep them all set up (rather than having to constantly break them down or swap out their modifiers), which turns out to offer a significant time savings.

Given that we’re in a studio environment – and not in the Aviary itself – an early concern for us was how to maintain some semblance of authenticity in our photos. I emailed Chef early on to ask if there might be some spare unused tables from the Aviary in storage somewhere. Incredibly, a day later, a granite tabletop from the Aviary appeared in the studio… along with tabletops from Alinea pre- and post-renovation. Tabletops without the pedestal foot attached are awesome: they’re portable, which means we can move them around or adjust them as needed (being able to sit a tabletop on the floor for a top-down shot is super-useful!)

Armed with this space and equipment, I was ready to start taking the book’s first photos. In the next update, we’ll take a look at some of the first photos I took in this space, along with some problems I ran into early on when trying to learn how to photograph these drinks.

Cheers;

–a

Photography: Pt. I – Context

Hi friends;

I’d like to talk a bit about the photography of this book. I feel there is too much to say about this to fit it into one (overwhelmingly-long) update. So, much as Sarah did when she talked about design,  I plan to share multiple updates throughout the course of this week.

We’ve been pushing aggressively on our photography schedule since Christmas, and are near the 85% completion mark (we think) for photos. I’ve been reticent to write about this subject so far because, honestly, I’ve been learning as I go and didn’t have a ton of confidence that I could share anything interesting until now. I’ve mentioned before that I came into this project having zero experience photographing cocktails. Discovering how it differs from photographing food, learning and developing new strategies to address these differences, and getting to a point on the learning curve where I’m adept enough to make creative decisions rather than just technical ones has taken some time.

Nick wrote extensively about why we are choosing to self-publish this book, but I’d like to belabor one of his points a bit. Printing a book is a physical process; unlike the digital realm, where the use of color doesn’t really affect the “cost” of a web page, laying ink onto a piece of paper involves cost considerations. Black text on a white page literally requires less ink than a photo (which requires a minimum of 4 colors to represent…we’ll get into the technical ins and outs of printing in a later update). All of this is to say: printing photos in books is expensive.

Publishers often seek to mitigate these costs by minimizing the inclusion of photos. When it comes to cookbooks, the ramification of this, as Nick points out, is that a home chef is far less likely to try cooking a dish for which no photograph is provided. Unless the reader already has a familiarity with the flavors or visual character of such a dish, they are unlikely to try making it.

This problem is even more exacerbated in the world of cocktail books. It’s tempting for some publishers to dismiss cocktails as “just liquid in a glass”. The supposition is that cocktails are typically visually boring, so why take up precious page real estate with costly inks to show a glass holding brown liquid? There also seems to be a (perhaps historical?) precedent for the form factor of a cocktail book. They’re generally small, designed to be tucked behind the bar and used more as a reference manual, which supports the apparent lack of need for photographs (why include photos if you’re gonna be looking at this in a dim bar?)

All of this leads to the landscape of cocktail books available today: small, few photos, with kind of a “handbook” vibe. To be sure, there are exceptions to this, but a browse through the “Cocktails” section of a local bookstore shows they are rare.

The Aviary’s drinks are, by design, visually-arresting. The chefs here often seek to provoke some sort of emotional response and want to involve as many senses in this effort as they can. The presentations and flavors are also likely to be unfamiliar. Both of these factors strongly suggest that photography of each drink (and, in cases, the process of making it) could be helpful.

So, from the beginning, this has been an agreed-upon mandate we’ve imposed on this project: there will be photos of everything.

To understand how I’ve approached learning this aspect of things, I feel it might be useful to start here:

This is the first photo I ever took of food. I know…magnificent. But for the sake of discussion, let’s pick this apart a little bit. What’s the story I’m trying to tell here? It’s clear that I seem to have grilled some vegetables and meat, and it’s clear there’s some sort of glaze dripping off the skewers. But it’s not entirely obvious what the flavors in the glaze might be. To add clarity, I included some extra information: the ingredients I used to make the glaze. I then took a photo of everything from what appears to be the position I was sitting just before eating the skewers.

To see why I think this observation can be useful, let’s consider some other images that I did not take:

When I began looking around for examples of cocktail photography, some patterns began to emerge. I noticed one of these patterns was shared in my skewers image: a desire to add information. Taken alone, these cocktails convey little information about what they might taste like. The inclusion of constituent ingredients helps add clarity (and also some extra visual interest).

There’s an interesting problem with this approach, however: if you don’t know what, say, Tiger Sauce or Campari or Red Vermouth tastes like, the extra information isn’t actually helpful.

In making this book, we realize that investing in cocktail ingredients can be expensive. And we want a reader to be able to hunt through our recipes and have an understanding of the flavors, so they can decide whether they might like to try making the drink. But I find the inclusion of bottles and such in photos of Aviary drinks distracting; as I said, the drinks themselves are designed to be visually-appealing, and we don’t want to detract from that. So to address this, Sarah came up with the idea to present this information in a design element that we include on every recipe:

Offloading this information in this way accomplishes a few things: it offers information we hope is helpful, and it pushes me to be more creative by taking away the need for a compositional strategy I might have been tempted to use otherwise.

Let’s consider some more examples:

Another pattern that emerges to me when I flip through cocktail books is the use of the same composition seen in my skewer photo above: the cocktail is photographed from a perspective that one might normally view a cocktail (which is to say: sitting near it, looking down at it). This, to me, is a very comfortable composition: it’s familiar and it conveys scale well. It’s so comfortable, however, that it can lack a bit of surprise or impact.

We can see how a bit of extra drama can be added by using a wider-angle or macro lens, which allows the camera to be positioned closer to the drink. This throws the table and background more out-of focus, and tends to make the photo feel less like a snapshot and more like a formal portrait of the cocktail:

Addressing the issue of adding extra visual interest to an otherwise spartan photo of a cocktail seems to give rise to a handful of recurring strategies. I notice in food photography that adding a human element can often add interest (e.g. hands manipulating utensils or serviceware). This image, for example, was one I took in my early days of working through the Alinea cookbook:

Sarah’s hands were in the photo by necessity: I needed her to hold the bowl because the bottom is rounded, making it impossible to sit on a tabletop (this is by design; the dish is meant to be held by the guest as it’s eaten). But I was surprised at how much I liked the extra warmth and interest her hands added to the image.

I notice cocktail book photographers sometimes reach for this same trick. When the involvement of hands feels natural or functional, this can add some nice extra interest to a photo. In other cases – when there’s no apparent necessity – the image ends up feeling less natural to me.

Another strategy I notice is the creation of a still life or diorama to give a vibe or feel to an otherwise visually-bland drink. These, to me, can range from subtle and interesting to totally perplexing:

By far the most common aesthetic I see in the majority of existing cocktail photography, however, is this sort of vintage, stylized Prohibition-era vibe that suggests cocktails are somehow “antiques”. I think I get it: there’s a very deep, fascinating history to this particular culinary subject, and this antique feel is romantic, charming, and beautiful. But to me it also implies that the very concept of the cocktail is somehow cemented in this rose-colored past and hasn’t changed since.

And, obviously, this is pretty much the exact opposite of the general approach Chef Achatz takes to anything here.

In studying this, I’ve also found a handful of sources of inspiration. My favorite cocktail book from a design and photography perspective is “The Cocktail Lab“. Here’s an example: the book is unafraid to let this drink speak for itself, with no extra adornment:

I love this photo. I love the subtle coloring and the graphic reflections from the lighting environment, and I love that it’s composed the way you might shoot a portrait of someone.

Other examples from the book feature tastefully-subtle and apropos environments or backgrounds, which help offer a vibe for the drink without being obnoxious:

Even in the cases of “still life” approaches, I generally find the extra set garnishes interesting – more modern than antique – which is refreshing to me:

Ultimately all of this study is meant to help me calibrate my standards for this book and formulate an aesthetic game plan. I’d very much like to push myself and the content of this book creatively, to help serve the subject matter itself and to ensure each of you ends up with a book you feel is unique and interesting. We’ll dig a bit more into what that means in the coming days.

Cheers;

–a

Collaboration

Hi friends;

2018 finds us with almost all recipes fully-written and in various states of finalization. The past couple of months have been filled with a flurry of writing, which has in turn slowed photography. As the writing side of things slows, however, I’m shifting attention back to matters in the studio itself.

There’s one issue we’ve run into numerous times while transcribing recipes that’s particularly interesting for me to wrap my head around. The Aviary often engages in collaborations with various distilleries, breweries, etc. The results of these collaborations  – products that have been custom-designed specifically for (or by) the Aviary – are pretty fascinating to learn about, but offer some notable complexity when it comes to writing recipes.

Consider, for example, Cloche Encounters:

When handed the recipe for this drink, Sarah and I noticed one of the base ingredients was “Maker’s Mark Private Select Aviary Barrel Bourbon”.  At first glance, I assumed this was simply a single barrel containing either classic Maker’s Mark bourbon or Maker’s 46.  I say “simply” because – while I recognize buying and using an entire single barrel of bourbon is nontrivial if you’re not a bar – substituting for this is relatively straightforward: our recipe would likely have called for a bottle of Maker’s or Maker’s 46 instead. 

But Chef Micah explained that, actually, it was neither of these.

Maker’s Mark, if you’re not intimately-familiar with the distillery, has produced a single eponymous bourbon for over 65 years.  A good deal of their infrastructure and production process is dedicated to ensuring consistency in their product. This necessitates some sophisticated blending processes (both temporally and spatially within their rickhouses). While this is good for creating a predictable flavor profile, it creates difficulties for the distillery if they wish to introduce some variation in their product line (much of their operation is built around reducing variation).

This doesn’t mean they have no desire to experiment, however. And so, years ago, they developed a rather clever process by which they could introduce some variation without needing to refactor their production pipeline. The way they do this: after creating a batch of the blended, “classic” Maker’s Mark bourbon, a portion of this is re-barreled with a handful of charred barrel staves. These staves are different than those used in the construction of the barrels themselves, and are specifically designed to impart various flavors into the bourbon. You can think of it like making a tea of sorts: the staves infuse different flavors into the base bourbon.

These “infusion staves” are all different: they have different toast levels and surface characteristics, designed to impart different flavors into the bourbon. Maker’s explored many variations of stave combinations before landing on a stave recipe that ultimately yields Maker’s 46. In so doing, they found the process of exploring this so compelling that they decided to offer this experience to others.

And so, intrigued by this, Chef Micah and some other bartenders here took a trip to Kentucky to work with the distillers to develop a stave recipe of their own. The staves and aging schedule chosen by the chefs yields a bourbon featuring prominent cinnamon, chocolate, and vanilla flavors which is – by design – unlike Maker’s Classic or Maker’s 46. The Cloche Encounters pairs these flavor notes with similar aroma notes (mocha and smoked cinnamon) in a design that’s based entirely on this unique bourbon.

I find this story completely fascinating!

It also, incidentally, creates a uniquely difficult situation in regards to recipe writing. Simply swapping the Aviary-designed bourbon for another seems to me like a huge disservice to the creativity involved in designing this cocktail. I mean, as a reader, I’d want to know this story! On the flipside, as someone sympathetic to those who may wish to try this at home, I’m sensitive to the problems that an ingredient like this poses.

After consideration and discussion, our current plan for Cloche Encounters is to suggest a substitute…and also to provide the Aviary stave recipe itself.

This book is rife with cases like this, and we’re trying to be thoughtful about each one. When it’s reasonable to suggest substitutes for Aviary-specific collaborative ingredients, we do so, but we’re also reticent to completely obfuscate what is actually a very big part of the creative process here (namely: forging relationships with potential collaborators, and creating drinks that are the direct result of these collaborations). The general hope is that doing this helps inspire creative thinking about products beyond simply choosing one from the shelf.

The Continuum

“It’s scary to think of our concepts being immortalized as recipes. Dishes we create change over time; they always get better. None of us would suggest that a particular iteration of a dish, drink, or technique is as good as it could ever possibly be. We can always improve.”

– Chef Grant Achatz


This thought – expressed in an email thread among Sarah, Nick, Chef and myself several months ago – has provided me with the single most interesting insight I’ve had since starting this project. It came as part of a conversation in which I explained some concerns about our progress collecting and writing recipes for this book. Some of the recipes seemed to be undergoing a churn of sorts: ingredients and presentations would change suddenly for reasons unclear to me. I found decreasing consistency in the descriptions of techniques, with multiple versions of each.

When I would ask the chefs which was “best” or “most correct”, they would often shrug. “You could do it any of these ways.” They would pause, then add, “Or, maybe a better way would be to…” Pressing them for the “best” anything was often a meandering, inconclusive conversation. I found the experience flabbergasting and frustrating.

This frustration, I think, stems from an unconscious bias of mine that assumes recipes are meant to be immutable, archival-quality things. I suspect this may partially be due to the way I generally see recipes presented. On the wall in my childhood home are framed recipes for my grandmother’s egg nog and my grandfather’s spaghetti; my mother’s family considers these nearly gospel. Food websites, no doubt interested in attracting traffic, share recipes with titles like “The Ultimate Smoked Turkey Recipe” or “The Best Way to Fry Chicken.” One stroll through the cookbook section of any bookstore and it’s easy to find books filled with similar ennoblement. These recipes carry a tone of authority, representing themselves as “THE way to do X” rather than “A way to do X”.

So I, the custodian of these Aviary recipes, assumed ours should be presented similarly. Discovering there’s not really one correct way to execute a given technique or one right ingredient to use in a particular drink has violated my understanding of where recipes come from. It’s particularly disorienting given the general aesthetic of lab-like precision present in the kitchen here.

Chef’s words, however, helped me realize that our chefs’ intention has not been to offer flighty or deliberately confusing notes. They’ve been asked to crystallize their experiments for an audience of thousands. These recipes were captured at one (or sometimes various) points along the continuum of a drink’s life. Sifting through our vast library of recipes (which, to be clear, is more-accurately described as “chef’s notes”) – some of which were created over half a decade ago – it’s entirely understandable how the benefit of hindsight could lead our chefs to think “Hm, I could probably do this a little better knowing what I know now.”

I can turn this insight inward and re-evaluate my own understanding of where recipes come from to address something I’ve been struggling with myself. When I read any cookbook on my shelf, I assume it’s written in a very authoritative tone. Thomas Keller, Rene Redzepi, Dominique Crenn, the EMP guys all write with this unassailable credibility predicated on countless hours spent refining their craft.

And then there’s me.

I knew little more than how to make a mediocre Old Fashioned before moving here. My writing game has historically been honed on a blog, where informality rules and I can get away with writing words like “pweeeep” if I feel like it. I’m a computer dork visual effects artist; I have zero educational or professional training as a writer. I don’t remember anything about conjugating sentences, for pweeep’s sake!  Surely, I often think, Chef and Nick have made a mistake asking me to work on this with them.

And yet, Chef Achatz’ words made it clear that having a sense of humility is ok – necessary, even – when trying to be creative. Recognizing this allows me to relax into my fears and try to leverage them to this project’s advantage. Perhaps my task isn’t pretending to be the voice of an expert with this material. Maybe instead I can work on trying to bring my perspective of curiosity into balance with the expertise of the staff here.

So, let’s talk about some ways we’re doing that.

DUMMY BOOKS

Two weeks ago, we received in the mail 3 dummy books. These are empty books cut and bound to the same specifications (page size, page count, paper type, etc.) that our for-realsies book will eventually be.

Each of the 3 books was made with a different paper. Two of these are smooth, coated papers that Sarah and I are considering. A third is an interesting textured paper that seems to be used more often for brochures than books.

We are considering this textured paper for our Office section of the book. Whereas the Aviary is tightly precise and modern, The Office is ardently rooted in tradition. Hand-written labels adorn the bottles, there is none of the flashy gadgetry or theatrics… it feels very classic. So, in addition to deserving a different design treatment and different photography style, we’re debating the idea of presenting it on this different paper type.

The decision to use coated or uncoated paper is one that affects how ink sits on the page when applied. Uncoated papers tend to be more absorbent, soaking the ink up a bit. This affects the edge quality of type and images, and dramatically affects image contrast. Images printed on uncoated paper tend to have a muted, rustic feel, with low color contrast. Some examples:

Coated papers tend to encourage ink to sit on rather than in the page. Edges are more crisp, and color contrast and saturation can be more vivid:

It’s probably obvious that we feel the Aviary’s content strongly favors the use of a coated paper. We care quite a bit about edge quality, and we absolutely want to maximize the vividness of the colors featured in our cocktails here.

The textured paper we’re considering is also coated. This means we could potentially offer the tactile experience of touching older parchment-like paper, while still preserving good color and edge fidelity.

EXPANDING CONTENT

When we showed these dummy books to the chefs, they had one predominant reaction: “Huh. It’s cool.” Long pause. Then, “it’s a little skinnier than we expected.”

We originally spec’d 100 recipes for this book. Having not actually seen them, Sarah and I roughly estimated the book to be around 400 pages…or about the page count of the Alinea cookbook. Our cocktail recipes are proving to be shorter than those in Alinea, which offers us some unexpected extra runway to play with.

So we’ve decided to add another 20 recipes or so.

In discussing other content we might like to include, we landed on one idea that I’m particularly excited about. Chef Micah, Aviary’s Beverage Director, has a fascinating obsession with antique spirits. He scours all manner of estate sales, auction sites, and a number of other sources he’s deliberately coy about, amassing an enormous collection of antique spirits dating all the way back to the 1800’s.

I find this fascinating, but hadn’t quite figured out how to make mention of it in the book in a way that didn’t sound self-aggrandizing. Then it occurred to me to ask Micah what he does with these things. He explained to me what he calls “dusty bottle cocktails”, a concept that’s pretty much exactly what you might imagine. A White Negroni he’s developed, for example, makes use of a Campari product that was discontinued over 25 years ago. The drink includes vermouth of a similar age, which Micah notes “is extremely oxidized, with a sherry-like finish that mimics the finish of a classic negroni.”  The solution here seemed suddenly obvious: rather than simply listing out a collection of antique spirits, why not include some recipes that highlight not only the spirits themselves, but how one might mix a drink with them?

Some other ideas we’re exploring is the inclusion of multiple versions of a drink, to show the evolution an idea undergoes during its lifetime on the menu here. The original Micahlada, a riff on the classic combination of beer, lime, and hot sauce, was served at the Aviary years ago in a pint glass with a spice rim. In its current form on the Aviary menu in New York City, the drink has been drastically altered to include two small food bite pairings and is served in a custom-made service piece. We will include both versions of this drink.

RECIPE TESTING

We forge ahead with recipe testing, confirming nothing’s gotten lost or mis-expressed in our transcribed recipes. We periodically gather as a team to taste and discuss clusters of recipes. Sarah and I filmed our most recent tasting meeting, with the intent of sharing some insight into what that process looks like:

ON A WIRE

We’ll conclude this update by sharing a recipe we’ve recently tested. On A Wire is a warming drink to offset the chilly weather settling in here. You can download a printable copy of the recipe here.

Let’s get geeky about this recipe.

  • simple syrup – recalling our original mention of how the Aviary makes simple syrup…this is how the Aviary makes simple syrup. It’s not the only way, it’s not “more correct” than, say, blending water and sugar in a blender, or heating them together in a pot. But this is how it’s done here, and here’s why: simple syrup is a foundational ingredient in cocktail making. For home use, small fluctuations in sugar-to-water ratio could be considered negligible, but here we make a lot of syrup, and we need it to stay consistent. The traditional way of making syrup by boiling water with sugar introduces evaporation. Depending on how long the water is allowed to boil, evaporation can significantly affect the concentration of the syrup. To eliminate this potential error, we mix equal measures hot (not steaming) water and sugar.
  • graham cracker syrup – avoid breaking up the graham crackers too much to yield a cleaner, clearer syrup.
  • batch/individual portion – this recipe exemplifies how we realize gains in efficiency by pre-making parts of our drinks. If you’re making this cocktail for guests (or, if you’re like Sarah and I and just dig having pre-made cocktail base stashed in your fridge so you can bang out a drink easily), pre-making a batch can significantly reduce service times once your party gets going. Our batches for service here often exceed 20 quarts or so in size, which we realize isn’t particularly useful for most readers. Rather than simply presenting our recipes in this format, we’ve dedicated quite a bit of effort to scale all batch components to yield approximately 6 portions.
  • other notes
    • With few exceptions, we buy spirits in the same form as a home bartender will (glass bottles, typically 750 ml). This means we have heaps of empty glass bottles on hand at any given time. Rather than simply discarding these, we repurpose them into storage containers. This works well for us: glass is durable, reusable, easily-storable, nonreactive, and is a familiar form factor for our bartenders to work with.
    • Cocktails involving citrus are typically shaken; experienced bartenders may find the lack of a shaking step here unusual. Our dilution here, however, comes from the spiced cider. As we noted in the Carrot Cake Ramos diagram a while back, the idea of optimizing use of “flavor real estate” (in this case: replacing the water that would come from shaking with ice with the spiced cider) is a common one for us.
    • After pouring the apple brandy portion into your serving glass, you can hit it in a microwave for 5 seconds or so to warm it enough to ignite easily. We hold a bottle of this brandy in a low-temperature water bath during service to streamline assembly of multiple portions.
    • We suspend the rosemary tip in a small custom-made service piece designed for us by Martin Kastner at Crucial Detail. A similar result can be achieved at home by lightly toasting a rosemary tip over the ignited brandy (use tongs or tweezers), dropping the rosemary into the glass, and pouring the cocktail over it.

Tidbits like this are a result of extensive conversations with the chefs about each of these recipes, as well as quite a bit of testing by Sarah and I. Noticing my fascination with these little bits and bobs, Sarah thought to funnel my curiosity into the recipes by introducing the idea of sidebars into her design template. These currently look something like this:

The above recipe for On A Wire has been redesigned to fit nicely onto a standard 8.5×11″ sheet of paper in anticipation of folks wanting to print and use copies over the holidays. This page size prevents inclusion of these sidebars, but they fit comfortably on the larger final page size we’ve chosen for the book.

And with that, I’ll leave you to enjoy your holidays.

–Allen