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.



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;


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.


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.



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.



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.




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.


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.


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.


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:


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.



Hi friends;

This update is coming a few days later than we’d intended, but we’ve been waiting for something that we think is a little bit neat and we wanted to share.

Last week, we sent the most current version of our design files to iocolor and asked them to print several of what they call “readers”. Readers are low-cost, quick-and-dirty print and bound copies of work in progress. The paper used feels slightly thicker than, say, that of a magazine page (so, thinner than we ultimately intend to print on). But the page is printed and trimmed to our currently-selected size, and all text is represented as it will ultimately be printed in terms of scale.

Readers are useful to us for a number of reasons. Primarily, they offer us a physical understanding of where we stand with our content. This reader is about 110 pages, and contains just over 40 recipes in various states of edit. We can hold this in our hands and understand how it feels to flip the pages, and we can conjecture how the book will feel when complete. We can say “Hey this is too big” or “hey this will probably be way too many pages” or “hey we can probably include more stuff here”, and can make decisions about our page thickness correspondingly (recall that page count and page thickness impacts the structural integrity of the book, so we can push and pull things around a little to land at a page count and page thickness that feels ultimately satisfying).

The reader is our first opportunity to understand our book in a very analog, physical sense. Up to this point, our book has been more or less completely virtual. We typically view our photos and design on computer monitors, which can be either desktop- or laptop-sized, neither of which really do a great job of conveying the tactile feel of the end product. Having a physical copy to flip through is an exhilarating benchmark of progress.

A good deal of our book is still a work in progress; Sarah drops proxy photos or shapes onto pages to either sketch out design ideas or flag potential photos for me to shoot.

Several of the spreads in the reader are effectively prototypes. While we’re still honing our “cluster” section for In The Rocks, Micah and Ingi have delivered several other clusters for which we’re planning design. Here, for example, Sarah sketches approaches to the Porthole, using photography from the Alinea Group’s massive media archive. Once we’ve established some clarity in our ideas, we’ll shoot new photographs specific to each spread and recipe.

A second function of the reader: we’ve enlisted the help of one of the bar chefs here to take one of our readers and make every recipe as we’ve written it. This is a verification mechanism to ensure we’ve properly documented everything, that there are no omissions of information, steps, or ingredients, and to see if there are opportunities to augment the recipes with any further information that Sarah and I simply don’t know to ask about. Despite combing through the recipes as carefully as we can and re-verifying them with the head chefs after writing them, we’re still aware of potential mistakes that can fall through the cracks as a result of “screen fatigue”.

(A long parenthetical aside: Sarah and I pull our ideas for presenting the same information in multiple ways from a habit we’ve both picked up from our time as visual effects artists. VFX artists frequently flip  or rotate the images on which we’re working to gain fresh perspective on them, to avoid overworking areas that don’t deserve the honor or to spot mistakes we’ve become blind to. Any painters reading this will likely echo this habit with their canvases . Looking at things from a different perspective often provides new information, which can help creative decision-making.)

Anyway, back to the reader. On the technical side of things: the range of colors a given printer can produce is referred to as the printer’s “gamut”. A low-cost consumer-grade printer that uses only a few separate ink cartridges is only able to produce a limited range of colors. Use of more, specifically-chosen cartridges can address the ‘dead spots’ in this range, and can therefore reproduce more subtle shades of color. The gamut of the printer used to produce our readers is fairly limited, and so the dynamic color range of images in the readers does not represent the full potential of our images. iocolor was kind enough to produce a handful of wide-gamut test proofs, which are individual print tests of a subset of our pages printed on a printer with a much wider range of colors it can reproduce. We can see below that this wider gamut yields images with a fuller, more luminous quality that more-closely represents what the images will look like in our finished book (on the left we see the reader; on the right, a wide-gamut proof). The entire book will undergo a fairly rigorous color scrutiny later on down the road, but seeing spot tests like this is helpful for us to understand what kinds of problems are inherent to particular photo scenarios (flames are hard, we’ve learned, e.g.).

The pages of our reader are assembled together (“bound”) using a technique called “perfect binding”. Perfect binding is a process whereby printed pages are stacked and a thick bead of glue is applied to the spine to hold everything together. The pages are then neatly trimmed at their edges:

Perfect binding is an economical and tidy way to join pages for this purpose. The downside with this approach, however, is that it doesn’t allow pages to lay flat when the book is fully opened. If the pages are forced flat, the glue risks cracking.

Over time, repeated opening/closing the book – combined with aging of the spine glue – causes the glue to crack. Pages eventually come loose and fall out as a result. If you’ve ever picked up well-worn older paperbacks (which are typically perfect-bound) and noticed loose pages, this is the cause.

(Another long parenthetical aside: perfect binding is typically the mechanism used by print-on-demand services like Blurb and the like. While the short-term color fidelity of a book produced by these services can seem vivid and appealing, it’s the wrong measure of quality to apply to books produced in this way. The inherent limitations of this style of binding make books produced in this way not suitable for archival purposes.)

A higher-quality alternative to perfect binding is what’s know as Smyth sewing. In this case, clusters (“signatures”, recalling an earlier update) are gathered and sewn together, then all sewn signatures are fastened to a flexible stitched spine. This style of binding is more suitable to higher-quality books intended for archival, or books with large pages that need to lay pleasingly-flat on a surface.

Other things we’ve been working on in recent weeks include writing about and photographing drinks from The Office, and interviewing several staffmembers for the purposes of drawing information that we may use for designing and structuring this section of the book. Our recipe count has climbed to above 65 so far, again in various states of edit (our goal is 100). With so much information in play, we grow increasingly careful about ensuring accuracy and consistency; there is a lot of circling back to adjust previous recipes that we thought were locked as we continue to unearth new information.

From a personal standpoint, a thing I’ve found fascinating (and a point of personal leveling-up) is letting go of a sense of pedantry. Coming from a very technical, engineering background, it’s comfortable and natural for me to say “Ok, if we’re doing this here, we need to do it like this everywhere”. (And, in fact, I place a false confidence in myself when reading recipes that imply this kind of rigorous, lab-like precision, because it eliminates a need for subjectivity, which would otherwise put me on less sure-footing about my abilities in a new and unfamiliar matter. Sort of like buying a really nice digital camera and hoping its technology will do the work of making a person into a better photographer.)

But I’ve found repeatedly that the insistence on pedagogery often doesn’t quite make sense. Sous vide temperatures, for example, are often listed like “75°C (165°F)”. When I was given recipes involving dehydrators by the chefs, however, temperatures were consistently expressed in Fahrenheit only. I asked about this, and the chefs shrugged: “our dehydrators don’t have Celsius markers on them”. 

It is in moments like this that I realize the “kitchen as lab” aesthetic that is so fiercely fashionable is often projected unfairly on restaurants, and while the engineer side of me wants to shake my fist in the air and mumble “Why, they oughta FIX this and make it all consistent!”, the truth is that this is not a laboratory. This is a collective of artists finding new and interesting ways to appropriate tools that were not designed with them in mind to explore new ideas. Innovation, then, is messy. This puts me in the peculiar position of both wanting to be meticulously precise and understanding that doing so is not fully authentic. How to strike the right balance?

The only real choice is to continue to explore.

Aviary NYC

Hello friends;

We’re just nearing the completion of about 40 different recipes, which, given that we’re aiming for roughly 100 total recipes, puts us  a bit shy of being halfway done with this part. Photography is mostly complete for those as well, though I still have some image processing stuff to work through, and we’re constantly circling back to re-evaluate how everything looks in context (doing reshoots as necessary if things start looking too monotonous).

Included in our most recent round of recipes is what we’re calling a “cluster” recipe. Many of the Aviary’s cocktails are completely unique in terms of recipe structure, but in poring through the entire catalog of recipes for this book, we noticed many of them share a single fundamental technique. In The Rocks, for example, is a relatively simple idea: a classic cocktail served inside a sphere of ice. The kitchen periodically swaps out the classic cocktail contained inside the sphere – sometimes it’s an Old Fashioned, sometimes a Manhattan, etc. – but the overall technique is the same for all. Presenting, say, six standalone recipes for variations of In The Rocks would result in a lot of visual and informational redundancy, which would get boring. We could, of course, choose to just pick one… but that’s not all the way awesome, now is it?

So, we’ve flagged recipes like this with the intention of treating them differently from a photographic and design standpoint. Doing this requires a fair bit of planning (we want each cluster to look and feel unique), but the payoff is that we knock out 5-6 recipes all in one go. Sarah develops multiple designs, with illustrations (“storyboards”, to draw some lessons we’ve learned from working for years in the film world) to guide my photography, then I shoot stand-in photos for her to prototype with.

I have an itch to elaborate about our photography the way we recently discussed layout and design, but the past month has presented a unique opportunity that I feel might be worth sharing. That opportunity is the opening of a second location of the Aviary in New York City.

Sarah and I have experienced a handful of menu transitions at Next (for those to whom this is unfamiliar: Next is another of Chef Achatz’s restaurants, adjacent to the Aviary. It shapeshifts into an entirely different restaurant every 4 months; recent menus include “Hollywood”, “Ancient Rome”, and currently “World’s 50 Best Restaurants”). But this is our first exposure to an entirely new launch of a dining establishment. Last week, Sarah and I traveled to New York to document the final days of preparation before the bar opens for its first service.

Our time was spent moving between the Aviary kitchens and the space that will ultimately be the dining room. Similar to the ‘cage’ that separates the bar from the dining room here in Chicago, Aviary NYC features a large glass wall that allows guests to view the bar from their seat (along with a rather spectacular sweeping view of Central Park). From these vantages, we got to see the front- and back-of-house staff rehearsing and practicing their respective specialties.

In the kitchen, Chef Micah works with the Aviary NYC chefs and bartenders to rehearse the various drinks that will appear on the inaugural menu (many of which are entirely new and specific to the New York location). At the head of the bar (farthest from me, in the below photo), standing at what we call “the pass”,  is the Aviary’s equivalent of an air traffic controller: the Expediter (or “expo”). The expo is the liaison between the front of house and kitchen. When a guest arrives and is seated, the expo is notified, and the time is noted. From this point on, the expo has an awareness of everything about every event at that table (and all other tables): what time the last drink or food was served, how long the guest has been eating/drinking their current course, or how long each guest has been waiting for their next course. As drinks move from the kitchen to the guest, the expo checks every single one to ensure it has been made correctly and excellently (no drips on the glass, garnishes are bright and fresh, etc.). The expo is also made aware of any dietary concerns of every table, and ensures any drink going out to a table adheres to these concerns.

The expo is also in charge of distributing information to the bartenders and chefs. In contrast to the way a typical bar works, each bartender at the Aviary is assigned to a single station. Each station is responsible for a subset of all  drinks on the menu. As orders come in, the expo calls them to the various stations. The stations are trained to call the order back to the expo, to acknowledge they have heard the order and begun its preparation (the expo, then, is monitoring the status of all the bartenders to understand if any delays need to be anticipated).

While Sarah and I are there, the team is running hypothetical tickets, to simulate saturating the bar with orders. The bartenders spring to work, assembling the various orders that they’ve received and presenting them back to the expo. The whole kitchen then pauses to evaluate everyone’s work. This part is particularly fascinating to Sarah and I, as it’s in these evaluative moments that the bulk of the nuance of each drink (and, therefore, each recipe) is explained.

While the knowledge to be gained here is intensely awesome to witness, it’s also super-intimidating to Sarah and I, mostly because it underscores various gaps of missing information we realize we have in our recipes. These insights are passed along just as we’re experiencing: in the moment, by word-of-mouth from an expert. We try to frantically document as much as we can, but some things are just so perplexing we’re still wrapping our heads around how to handle them. One chef, for example, takes a moment to explain that he has multiple ways to shake a cocktail tin, depending on what he’s trying to do. He demonstrates each shake carefully, and Sarah and I exchange glances at each other as we wonder how we can possibly distill the subtle differences in his movement into a book.

As the drinks are honed to the point that they closely-resemble their final form, the kitchen staff brings several servings out to the dining room and presents them to the front of house. Here, the front of house are learning about the art of hosting a guest. Most of these staff members have not visited the Aviary here in Chicago, so the experience of rapidly learning a massive battery of new dishes, ingredients and preparations is a disorienting and intense one.

The kitchen chefs patiently explain each drink: how to properly say its name, the backstory of the drink, its ingredients, any serving instructions, etc. Then the front of house studiously sip the drink and begin to discuss it amongst themselves. They are led by John Schafer, formerly the General Manager of Alinea, who has relocated to New York specifically for this purpose. John is, simply, insanely brilliant at the art of effortless grace.

“Who wants to talk about this drink first?” he asks the group of staff members.

“I will,” one volunteers. He pauses, then begins, “This drink contains flavors of anise and blackberry,” he begins.

“Stop,” John quickly says. “That’s boring. Describing something by just reciting its ingredients is boring. Tell me what you thought when you first tasted it.”

The staff member pauses to consider, then, “Well, I thought it was great! The ice is fun to chew, that’s the bit I like the most.”

“Awesome!” John exclaims. “Talk more about that! Share that with the guest, talk about what you find exciting or interesting about it, or what questions you had when you first tasted it, or what flavor was most striking to you.”

As the bar staff is training, Chef Perretta is working with Chef Achatz to train up a completely different kitchen on the food that will be available at the Aviary. The kitchen staff is similarly rehearsing, and periodically present the front of house staff with servings of each dish on the menu.

“Who wants to talk about this dish?” John asks after Chef Perretta presents the staff with a dozen tiny bites that look like small candy bars.

“I’ll go this time,” another staffmember volunteers. “This one tastes like pumpkin pie to me.”

“Great,” remarks John. “What makes pumpkin pie taste like pumpkin pie?”

A few staff members volunteer their knowledge of the constituent spices in pumpkin pie. “What do we call these spices?” John asks.


“What other things use similar spices?” John prods.

“It reminds me of, like, carrot cake or gingerbread or something,” a staff member wagers hesitantly.

“Awesome, yup, so maybe we refer to them as baking spices?” John suggests. “What else? What time of year does this remind you of?”

“Fall,” someone remarks.

“Exactly, so maybe we can also call them autumn spices or fall spices? Has anyone here had mulled wine? Maybe we can call them mulling spices? We want to have multiple ways to refer to any given thing, so that we don’t reuse the same words over and over during service. Find different ways to talk about the same thing to avoid being repetitive and to keep your conversation with a guest feeling fresh.”

The insistence on authenticity (and the recognition of its value to the guest experience) is one of my favorite things about working here, and it’s both refreshing and endlessly surprising to find the many ways this percolates through the veins of this restaurant group. It’s also the thing that gives Sarah and I the confidence to share updates in our own voices (rather than using some stuffy ‘customer service’ formality). It’s a scary thing, and one we’re still finding our footing with. One of the most involved issues for us in creating this book, for example, has been learning how to do it while at the same time learning to be new parents (you may have spotted our fresh little kiddo in the original video for this campaign). This has affected the decisions we’ve made in a very real and much larger way than picking a page size has, and talking openly about that is a thing that’s very interesting to us. We’re still working up the nerve to try that though.

In any case, if you happen to be in or around New York (specifically, in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, on the 35th floor of the Time-Warner building, in Columbus Circle), stop by to say hello to the team and see what they’re up to.

Until next time;