Cooking and Art: An Interview with Lucia Bell-Epstein
Written by Lauryn-Ashley Vandyke
When Lucia Bell-Epstein shoots the food at her work place, she doesn't just capture the finished product. She includes bits of the floor, takes portraits of the kitchen staff, and snaps pictures of ingredients in the boxes they arrived in. All of these come together to create a narrative. Lucia doesn’t want to make things feel fake. Her photographic diligence made collecting images for this interview a breeze. This interview is, for her, an homage to the people she gets to work with, to the farmers, to everyone who is a part of where this food comes from and where it ends up.
Lucia Bell-Epstein is an artist from the Lower East Side in New York. She makes photos and cooks, connecting the two with intent and intimacy. Lauryn-Ashley Vandyke is a producer, curator, and editor from Sugar Land, Texas. She sat down with Lucia a few months ago to talk about community, what fruits are in season, and her experience cooking at LaLou.
Lauryn-Ashley Vandyke: How would you describe your professional and personal relationship with food?
Lucia Bell-Epstein: Dance. Intimate. It's what I think about when I'm alone in bed at one in the morning, trying to fall asleep, looking up or writing down notes on my phone about things I want to try to make. Saving photos of dishes that inspire me. There is no boundary between the professional and intimate. I work at a restaurant. That environment is different than if I'm cooking at home with friends. The rigidness that comes with working shapes your relationship to food. In terms of time and space, and in terms of learning how to put out food that you would want to eat yourself.
But at work, it's chef Jay Wolman's food. I work at LaLou, a natural wine bar and restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Facilitating chef Jay’s ideas in a way that's collaborative is really exciting. Say we make a citrus salad at LaLou- when I go to the market on my own and see melons, kumquats or other winter citrus, I'm instantly inspired by what I'm doing at work. Those ingredients stick with me. I want to put my own twist on them.
LA: Do you have tips for people who want to incorporate fruit into their savory dishes?
Mix fruit with olive oil and dairy, or something that bites, like a sharp lettuce. You could also take beets and pair them with citrus, like blood orange or clementine.
Slice apples on a mandolin and throw them into your favorite salad.
Baked apples, or poached pears and red wine. That's delicious. You could take pears and poach them in a bottle of Malbec, and it’ll still be kind of sweet. Eat them with a piece of meat. That could be your side.
It’s citrus season right now, which is crazy. I didn't know that winter citrus was a thing until I got into food.
LA: How do you know what's in season?
LBE: I ask my mom, I ask chef Jay. I ask my friend Sam's mom, Andrea Gentl. She knows everything about produce and the market. This morning we were recipe testing for her cookbook and she made confit kumquats. You submerge kumquats in olive oil and slowly bake them at 200-250°F degrees for a few hours and they get nice and soft. You can eat them with literally anything; for breakfast with sour yogurt, or on a piece of toasted rye bread.
LA: What else is she putting in her cookbook?
LBE: I don't want to give too much away, but it's from the perspective of a photographer, so aesthetically, it's going to be gorgeous. She uses a lot of healthy ingredients that taste good, and a lot of Italian influence as well — farm to table vibes.
LA: How is cooking like making artwork?
LBE: It's one in the same. One of the first things I observed working in the kitchen at Lalou was the idea of the dance; the physicality between chefs moving around seamlessly, sometimes without speaking.
Building a salad is a total dance. You want to invite whoever's eating your salad to taste the art in the way that you want them to.
You know when you go on a date with someone and you're fighting for that last bite of food with the most shaved Parmesan? Chef Jay always says to me that every bite of the food you put out should be like that. It’s just like if I'm taking a photograph, painting or drawing. I'm not gonna leave a quarter of surface lacking that kind of lust and lushness.
LA: Could you walk us through your plating process?
LBE: I'm such a new cook that I learn from watching. When I’m at home cooking for myself and my friends, I try to break lines of the plate or make things look a bit messy and realistic. The last thing I want is to cook something that is so perfect it feels unattainable. Food should be inviting. I think a little gem caesar salad plated with your hands can be just as inviting as something that was plated with tweezers, maybe even more so.
My plating process depends on what I'm making, but height is something I strive for. I like things to be a bit glossy, so I like using olive oil to finish things. It makes everything look sexy. These are things I have learned from chef Jay and Andrea.
I also love nights where I'm eating out of the pot. We're young and don't like doing the dishes all the time.
LA: Would you rather go out on a dinner date or out for drinks?
LBE: Out on a date to get a nice meal. Even hotter than a dinner date out is being invited over to cook dinner together.
LA: In the kitchen, what does community mean?
LBE: It’s what I try to illustrate in the photos I take at LaLou. The team I work with is quite small.
I work with people that inspire me and change the way I think about food. Not many people can say that. In the kitchen there are traditional hierarchies. I'm at the bottom of that totem pole because I just started working there, but it doesn't feel that way.
Whenever I'm photographing at the restaurant, it's beautiful to watch how every person on the team has influenced and inspired the food that we put out.
Sitting after service and having a glass of wine with chef Jay and other cooks, listening to them talk about food that they want to cook; it's amazing. It's a natural wine bar, too. I'm learning about orange wines and how to make food pairings with alcohol. Community-wise, it feels like a small family.
LA: How do you build trust in that environment?
LBE: I had to prove my work ethic and my seriousness to myself and the rest of the team. We have fun, but it's serious work. It's physically and mentally demanding. Trust was built through the feeling that my coworkers accepted me for who I am, despite the fact that I'm still learning.
Rather than going home feeling weighted and anxious from whatever mistakes I've made, I go home feeling inspired to do better. Not for myself, but for the team. Trust is an unspoken result of that.
LA: What's the difference between cooking with friends and cooking at work?
LBE: At work, I'm cooking the dishes that we serve, which are the dishes by chef Jay. At home, it's my own intellectual property; I can do whatever I want. I'm so excited to go to work and talk about what I cooked in my free time.
At work, there's consistency. Every chicory salad I make will look a little different, but they all have to taste the same. Learning about new ingredients, I get all of that at work too. I'm growing as a cook and learning how to plate in new dance formations.
LA: What are three of your favorite color combinations?
LBE: I made this chocolate maple tart that was topped with toasted Sicilian pistachios with my friend Hedi Stanton. There's a tan crust next to chocolate brown ganache. It’s finished with bright green pistachios with a pinkish purple hue.
As spring and summer arrive, I want to work with more green. I'm thinking asparagus, wild arugula, leeks, green garlic, artichokes, fava beans.
There's a lot you can do with the color white; buttery, brothy cannellini beans with ribbons of pecorino...
LA: How do you come up with color combinations? Do you test things together visually?
LBE: It's less about color combinations, and more about ingredient combinations. I'm not planning the color palette of things I want to make. I’m newly into beets. At work we made this salad with beets and shaved Humboldt Fog, a type of cheese. The texture was amazing. There was the crunchiness, the green leaves, the white snowy humboldt fog with blue ash running through the middle. Then you have a glossy, tender, juicy beet dripping onto the side of the white plate and dying the lettuce. It’s finished with a bit of olive oil. When you take a bite into it, all those colors, textures, and flavors come together.
LA: Our hunger impulse is so associated with color.
LBE: Oh totally. When I shoot the food at work, I'm trying to kind of zoom out and document everything from another perspective, not just cooking the food or handling the ingredients. I really like including bits of the floor, other human beings, hands holding things, or shooting within the containers of the ingredients. All of these come together to create a narrative. I don't want to make things feel fake. I want my photos to show what we do at Lalou. I want this interview to be the truth. I don't want my photographs to aestheticize the experience I am having there, but rather show my appreciation for the space and the people I get to work with. It’s an homage to the farmers, I’m considering where this food comes from and who’s growing it.
LA: Why should people have a relationship with their food from start to finish?
LBE: The first thing that comes to mind is Canal Cafeteria. You can go to their produce stand and get free groceries. They’re community-building in the Lower East Side, where I grew up. It's great to see people in my generation taking initiative like that.
Now more than ever, we need to know where our food is coming from, what we're putting into our bodies, and how we can buy things that support small businesses and local economies. People make the argument that it’s cheaper to get pre-packaged food but there are ways to buy healthy, fresh ingredients without having to spend an exorbitant amount of money. Invest in what you put into your body.
LBE: There's nothing that releases more endorphins for me than cooking for myself. You learn so much about yourself, what you like and what you don't like. It's a labor of love.
LA: Ben made the analogy between ordering food vs. cooking at home being like swiping on Tinder vs. meeting someone in real life.
LBE: Part of growing up is learning how to nourish yourself.
LA: What traits make someone easy to work with in the kitchen?
LBE: We all have bad days and get moody, myself included. Keeping that outside of the professional environment is critical to being a part of a team. If one person's feeling off, everybody else feels it. It's how it is in any work environment.
What makes it easy to work with someone? Being a good listener and teacher. Everyone I work with is easy to work with because they all love what they're doing. If I was working in some corporate job with people that hated their work, it would be a very different environment. At Lalou, every person in the kitchen is passionate about food and cooking. If you go there and eat the food, you're tasting their hard work. They care. That in itself is art.