And so I took a day off.

It’s quite ironic and sometimes very mysterious how the universe operates. My latest post was about the desperation one can feel as a freelancer, and how to find ways to utilize the down periods, without plunging into despair and losing faith that things will ever turn around. And then - whether it being an intervention by whoever one prays to, a turn of the constellations, or that proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wing thousands of miles away - something shifts, and boom - you get busy. Busy enough to actually not have time to write about not being busy. 

My work - being my own boss, instigator, manager, slave driver - consists of so much more than just taking pictures. That’s perhaps not even the major part of the equation. Before getting to the point of actually picking up the camera there are a number of variables that must fall into place, and it all starts with that beautiful email: We have a job for you, are you interested?

Uhm, yeah!

In this particular instance the email came from someone I have worked with before, who was proposing the kind of shoot I live and breathe for, so I of course accepted at once with zero hesitation. Now, shooting this kind of particular job is what can be considered a major volume, and it involves ticking off a number of steps and putting together the right team of people that you trust to help carry out the assignment to your - and most importantly - to the client’s satisfaction. In the case of this particular shoot, a person with a fundamental understanding of a very specific region was required to cook and assist in prop sourcing, and finding that person - through having carefully curated a network of amazing creatives over the years - was what kept me busy. That, and securing the right location to do the shoot, handling the budgets and general logistics. The other day I was finally able to confirm that this person is on board, and for the first time in months I felt the stress losing its grip on my cells, at least for a moment. And so I decided to take the next day off, and that’s actually what this post is really about.

Now, what do you do on a day off?

The night before I had gone to bed early, almost immediately falling into a near-comatose sleep, something I can’t remember doing for a long time. True to form I woke up to the sound of those overly excited let’s-party-at-4:30am birds, and the breaking dawn. I don’t have any curtains (after five years in this apartment putting up curtains has become one of those impossible tasks that just seem to never get resolved), but instead of trying to slumber until finally giving in to the sounds of the workers at the warehouse across the backyard and getting up - accepting that sleep is not a luxury you can enjoy when you feel like there are things that should be done - I wedged in a blanket between the window pane and the frame to block out the light, rolled over, and got a few more hours. Oh, holy, blissful sleep!

After sweating through a Dalí-esque, REM-induced nightmare I finally woke up, all groggy and puffy-faced. Determined not to leave the house, as in taking a shower and putting on clothes worthy of other human being’s glance, I needed an indoor project for the day. A while back I purchased a pasta machine, thinking I could be one of those resourceful, self sustaining people who would here-on-out make her own pasta. Not really. After the first attempt I had angrily packed the damn thing up and tucked it as far away as possible as things went terribly awry, and since patience has never been one of my finest qualities. I’m not known to bea “practice makes perfect”-kindda gal. The dough either dried out or stuck mercilessly to my fingers, and found unimaginable ways to lodge itself inside the mechanisms, in places where it surely wasn’t supposed to go. Attempting to recover said escape-prone dough, hoping to make at least a few strands of cookable spaghetti, I cut my fingers on the sharp metal edges several times. Suddenly I realized that my pasta had a strange red hue - not coming from anything I had added, such as beets or tomatoes, and that’s when I decided that this BS was not for me. Naturally I threw the whole, sad batch in the trash, and was pretty much done with it. I even almost wrote an angry review on Amazon, but decided against it. Mostly because I’m not an asshole who writes angry reviews, but also because I had to factor in the fact that it probably wan’t the machine’s fault.

However, on the day in question, feeling strangely rested and filled up with positive day-off vibes, I figured, why not give it another try? Maybe I actually can be a “practice makes perfect”-kindda gal. 

One of my first rules of cooking - or of any sort of leisurely project - is picking the right soundtrack. On this day it wan’t difficult, as I pretty much just continued where I left off the night before, and the night before, and the night before that. 

A few weeks ago I went to see one of my most treasured heroes in concert, a man whose music I have loved and had a profound connection to for more than twenty years. In his capacity of not only a gut wrenching musician and songwriter, but also as a cultural icon - a phenomenon, if you will - in the most pure form, Nick Cave has always had a very special impact on me. Having sadly missed his live performances on several occasions in the past due to cancelled shows or me just happening to be living in whichever country or city I resided in, when he decided to show up in the country or city I had just left, this would be my first time ever actually experiencing him on stage. Something that should turn out to be transformative, no less.

Due to a dumb and unnecessary misunderstanding with my friend I ended up going alone - something I’m not opposed to, and oftentimes actually choose, but that hadn’t been the premise for the night. So sitting in the theatre next to an empty seat was bittersweet, but once Mr. Caveappeared, people rushing up the isles to get close, I literally felt something shift within my very core. The show was a series of punches to the gut, tears, laughs, and pure awe. I won’t go into too much detail - it’s private and frankly not something I’m capable of conveying in writing. Especially since he appeared to be in a deeply raw and uncompromising state due to his son’s recent passing and the performing of the songs from his latest album Skeleton Tree, which in large parts refer to the tragedy - but let’s just say that after that experience I’m seriously worried that I may have developed an unhealthy obsession. 

I’ve had musician crushes for as long as I can remember. Off the top of my head: David Bowie, age 7, after seeing him in Labyrinth, and the first poster I ever kissed goodnight. George Harrison, age 10, he just had such kind eyes and a really cool guitar. Axl Rose, age 14, exploring those budding teen-feels, and hoping to one day be that girl in the short-in-the-front-long-in-the-back wedding dress. Brett Anderson, age 17, when late-teen angst and depression descended, deep and impenetrable, ultimately causing me to leave the nest of my parent’s home and move to London.

I’m surprised, but not entirely unhappy to find myself in that place again. I’m not delusional, thinking that Nick will come and sweep me away - like I may have thought that Brett would back then in London - it’s nothing like that. After all, I’m (very) grown up now. It’s more like a feeling of familiarity, a nice, comfortable place to allow myself to sink in to and indulge in for a little while. And speaking of indulge: the pasta came out great, and I shall now hence forth be the person who makes her own spaghetti. I urge you all to give it a try, but be on the look-out for sharp, blood-drawing edges. And by all means, accompany the process with your favorite comfort-music. And remember to take a day off every once in a while, just for you. It’ll do you good.

The joys and difficulties of freelance life.

The other day I stopped and took a long hard think about the weirdness that is my life. It was a Tuesday around 11am, I had just dropped off my laundry, the neighborhood was slowly waking up. It was one of those mild weathered mornings with chirping birds, sunbeams shining through the blooming branches, Brooklyn looked particularly pretty that day. That same morning I had woken up without my alarm, as I do most mornings, made my ritualistic cup of tea, done my pathetic little 8-minute work-out, checked my email, and decided to run some errands. Nothing major, just a bit of grocery shopping and such. And suddenly it hit me, as I was standing in the middle of the near-empty street, this strange feeling of guilt that I remember vividly from school when I skipped math class to go to the record store, the feeling of playing hooky. I was overwhelmed by a sense that I wasn’t allowed to be there, in that moment, that I should get back to the office asap before my boss realized that I hadn’t come in… Only my office is my apartment, and my boss is me.

Freelance life can seem pretty dreamy. The freedom, the ability to make one’s own choices, the 20 minute mid-day nap, it all sounds great - on paper. The truth is, however, that despite the obvious perks, it’s also really really hard. I’m sure, 15 years ago, before the recession it was awesome. Lot’s of assignments, solid income, the good life. This day and age? Not do much. I’m not saying that this applies to everyone, but I dare to venture the guess that roughly 70% of NYC freelancers within the creative field are feeling that struggle. Every day. The Tuesday morning laundry drop-off is more of a desperate desire to feel purposeful, than an actual necessity. And tomorrow there’s a new day to fill.

After years of chasing that next illusive assignment, having jumped through every hoop imaginable, fatigue starts to set in. Not over night, but slowly creeping through the cracks like a growing shadow that’s getting harder and harder to ignore. And with that - at least for me - follows the vicious little voice that starts to question not only my choices but even worse, my abilities to do what I perceive to do best. The fight reflex, vigorously developed and refined over the course of many, many years slowly turns into flight (or hide) mode.

It’s not that it’s not going OK, because it is - I can pay my bills and generally get by - on good days I feel very privileged to live the life that I have chosen and built for myself - and I’m eternally grateful for the things I have in fact accomplished, and for the people who have supported my journey. However - and I think this applies to all creatives - the frustration manifests when we feel like we have something great to offer, but nowhere to channel it! We have put in the blood, sweat and tears that are required to hone the skills and perfect that little something that defines our style, and I think it affects us more than we care to admit when we don’t get that instant, sweet gratification. And in the age of social media, where we are able to taylor our on-screen life to reflect exactly the self-image that we wish for the world to see, it’s easy to compare ourselves to our peers in an unhealthy manor, as an added stress factor. I’m certain that my own social media presence paints my life in a much shinier light than is mostly in fact the case. 

I tend to live by a rather strict self-imposed set of rules, and one of the biggest restrictions is that I don’t allow myself even the smallest pleasure unless I feel like I’ve fully earned it. If I don’t have at least three bookings on the calendar, I don’t deserve to do something good for myself, such as checking out a show or take a day-trip, for instance. I simply don’t think I can justify it. Once I’ve prompted myself to take refuge in that destructive place, it’s difficult to leave. I know there’s this event that I probably should go to - it would definitely lift my spirit and boost my energy - but that means I’ll have to shower, shed my sweats, and put on make-up! I mean, that’s just too much to ask of one person. That, in combination with the dread of facing a room full of people and having to come up with twenty different versions of why things aren’t going so well is just too exhausting. 

Instead I stay in my apartment desperately trying to come up with new ways to turn things around, and when I’ve run out of ideas I’ll mosey around, do some light cleaning, water the plants, launch an ambitious cooking project, update the to-do list - I do that a lot - or binge some Netflix. Not smart-people TV like TED Talks or informative documentaries (those belong in the self-reward pile, and are reserved for when I’ve done good), but some lame crime show or something along those lines. Which is essentially complete and utter BS, however, not totally unjustified. The aforementioned brand of tea comes with a little feel-good quote attached to every individual teabag, and on this particular day it read: “It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do”. Show of hands if you agree!

On a recent, particularly gloomy, day, upon completion of an hour-long staring-out-the-window session, I decided, though, that enough is enough. Depriving myself of those little fun and inspiring experiences just because I feel like I don’t deserve them is ridiculous, and certainly not why I struggled so hard to move here in the first place. NYC is packed with (inexpensive) things to do, most of which I’ve piled up for later exploration, often resulting in missing them altogether. As in the case of the Basquiat exhibit, because “you can go some other day, there’s still time”. There wasn’t time. 

Determined not to let that happen again, I went to Brooklyn Museum (a mere half-hour walk!) to see the Iggy Pop Life Class by Jeremy Deller exhibition, a collection of drawings by twenty-two New York City based artists, created at a previous live event. Iggy Pop is one of my all-time heroes - a symbol of iconic badassery - and still as relevant as ever. Talk about someone who lives life to the fullest, who still refuses to shy away from any challenge bestowed upon him, such as posing nude for twenty-two strangers at the age of 70. He has left his unmistakable mark on our time as a singer, musician, songwriter, and actor, and is pretty much unparalleled in the art of surviving. There’s probably not a substance known to man that he hasn’t smoked, eaten, or injected, yet he looks fiercely amazing, his body in itself a canvas displaying the battering it has been subjected to throughout the years. If he can squeeze every last drop out of life, there’s really no reason why I should sit and cry tears of self-pity into my tea. Let this be an inspiration to us all. The moment we stop wanting more and cease to push ourselves forward is the moment we die as creatives, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t find ways to enjoy the down periods. And who knows what opportunities may present themselves around the next corner, once we get off our butts and face the world, head-on.

The exhibitions runs until June 18, and I urge everyone to go see it. 

A small loaf of big importance.

The other day when I was researching something completely unrelated to this story, I came across a rather interesting fact that I wasn’t aware of. The Jewish word for bread, lechem, was once synonymous with food in general, because of its massive significance to the daily diet. 

That same day I was doing some improv baking on my own - something I do a lot as a stress-reliever - and I started thinking about the wondrous thing that is the bread. You basically take a few dried-up ingredients, add some liquids, mix them together, and it turns into this warm, satisfying, filling and (for the most parts) nutritious delight! It’s amazing.

As in the case of my cooking, I don’t really use recipes for baking either. I know that recipes are of much bigger importance in professional bread- and pastry production, and should be followed to the letter, but for someone like me, I find it less constricted to just toss some stuff in a bowl and see what happens, trial-and-error style. Of course this method has a certain element of chance, but what doesn’t, really? And over time I’ve developed a sort of muscle-memory, so the result is always edible and quite delicious, but with a few taste- and texture variations. Which I appreciate.

I have a few go-to loaves that I make - much to my friend Anna’s joy and happiness. She once said that if all else were to fail, I should become a baker. Coming from her - who is a brilliant cook herself, and the proprietor of The Yellow Table - I was very honored! 

On the baking-day in question, though, I decided to venture into the art of skillet baking, which is unfamiliar territory to me. Despite the fact that I love my oven, and unlike many New Yorkers actually use it for cooking, not storage, it has seen better days. The heat is uneven, the springs in the hinges are starting to grow tired despite my friend’s heroic attempt to fix them, so I thought a skillet could provide a fun alternative. At least when it comes to those breads of the flatter persuasion. In lieu of an actual cast iron skillet I used my $2.99 non-stick that I got from the local dollar store, and it turned out to work splendidly. Who needs fancy, anyway?

Baking takes patience. I do realize that the latest fad is the no-rise-no-knead, which I guess is great if time is not a luxury at hand, but personally I like the long process and the tending to the dough. I find that rise, punch down, repeat, provides a nice elasticity and allows for the flavors to set. Again, I’m not a pro baker, but I think it works.

The added bonus of all-day baking is the breaks. While the dough is rising you have these pockets of time to fill out, and - at least for me - that prompts efficiency. One hour of rising = clean the bathroom. 30 minutes of rising = drop off laundry. And so on…

The monotonous act of kneading is good for contemplation. I started thinking about the symbolisms that are tied to bread, and the impact bread has had on our societies and social developments. We use the term “breaking bread” when we share a meal with friends or strangers, and historically bread has played a significant and sacred part in major religious rituals. To Christians, bread is the symbol of the living presence of Jesus, and serves as a reminder of the need for divine and human nourishment. In Islam, the word bread is also referred to as “food”, and if a loaf is dropped on the floor it’s customary to either eat it if it’s clean or feed it to birds, since throwing away food is unethical. Different types of bread are prepared in celebration of religious holidays, such as the Jewish Challah or the Swedish Lussebulle. Findings even show that in prehistoric times, such as the stone age, people would process grains for consumption. And think about it: Bread is probably the one food that suggests the largest variety in preparation, ingredients, taste, and looks.

Lately bread has gotten a really bad reputation, and I’m having some trouble understanding why. Everywhere we turn it’s taking some major punches for being unhealthy, bad for digestion, the cause of this and that disease, even poisonous. If you don’t claim to be gluten intolerant, you’re not one of the cool kids. (I like to give myself the giggles by asking so-called gluten intolerants if they can explain to me what gluten actually is. Very few can).  

I’m neither a doctor or a nutritional expert, and certainly not qualified to give any kind of dietary advise, but it seems to me that gluten, flour, or grains, are not actually the issue. Unless you suffer from Celiac disease, which affects 1% of the American population (it’s obviously terrible, and I feel for those who do), gluten is not the problem. I believe that the cause of sickness and discomfort lies in the additives and chemicals that are allowed in processed food in general.  Honestly, store-bought bread actually tastes like a big pile of sugar laced with a nice cocktail of chemistry, seemingly having been produced in a lab, rather than a kitchen.

I’m not saying that we should just stuff our faces with white bread, just as long as it’s homemade. I’m certainly prone to sport a beach ball-sized stomach when having eaten too much of it, but the same goes for too much fruit, black licorice, or wine (is there such thing as too much wine)?

I also know that - given the fact that I work as a freelancer with time to spare, don’t have children who demand my attention, and have a knack for cooking in the first place - it’s easy for me to preach that we only eat home cooked food. But I think it’s a shame that bread in particular has become an undeserving enemy of public health, when there are much bigger sinners out there.

The curious case of the Spring Blues.

There are two statements that are so controversial that they probably shouldn’t be uttered while in the company of others. 

The first one: I really don’t like dogs. 

The second one: Spring tends to give me the blues.

But nonetheless, in the case of me, both are true. 

Let’s not dwell too long on the dog-thing, no good can come of that, but move on to the spring-thing.

Have you ever been at a party that by all known-to-man standards was perfect? Great music, lovely friends, good food, and perfectly mixed drinks, yet somehow you still felt uncomfortable in your own skin and out-of-place? That’s how I feel whenever spring comes along. 

But how can you not be ecstatic over the warmer weather, the return of the light, the blooming trees and flowers, the fresh produce? Those are very good questions, and from a rational point of view, I can see why it would defy all logic. I mean, once again we stick our noses out from under the covers of winter hibernation, we feel the warmth return to our frozen bones, we shed the heavy winter clothes and replace them with lighter ones, and finally rosé can be enjoyed in generous quantities on any flat-ish surface elevated more than 10 feet above the foundation of New York City, also know as the rooftop. I get it. 

It just so happens that I love winter. I thrive in the cold - In fact, the colder the better! I love the long dark evenings surrounded by an excess amount of candles spread out all over my apartment. I love the furious storms, and I love the snow. More than anything, I love the snow. I can’t think of anything more magical and peaceful than a heavy snow fall. Standing by the window wrapped in a blanket, watching the snow come down monotonously and hypnotic, transforming the world from a chaotic mess of colors and contrasts into a perfectly serene ocean of monochromatic whiteness, makes me feel at ease. For a short while there’s order out there. Immaculate, uninterrupted order. 

Maybe it’s because I’m a photographer, and my eyes and mind are trained to observe and process every little piece of information, attempting to fit it all into some kind of frame. This is something that over time has becomes involuntary and beyond my own control, it’s exhausting to be honest, so when finally everything around me just looks the same, my senses can rest for a bit (Until I jet down the stairs to plunge myself into the largest pile of driven snow I can find, of course. Is there anything more awesome)?  

Yes, I do recognize why the argument against snow would be the nasty, grayish slush that follows, but with the right pair of boots, you can walk right through those ankle-deep torrents of snowmelt that align the sidewalks, and still ascend onto the pavement safe and dry.

 

Try this on for size: The other day it was a balmy 73 degrees. I was sprinting around the city, packing what felt like a hundred pounds of camera equipment, laptop and, at the end of the day, groceries. Which is a pretty common scenario in my life. All around me people were sporting that familiar, slightly deranged, grin of someone feeling re-born after a long winter, donning shorts and t-shirts, looking mighty gleeful. I, on the other hand, was panting and sweating (like a dog, I guess), feeling utterly uncomfortable. That same morning I was woken up at dawn by a mischievous gang of neighborhood birds, serving as ominous messengers of the impending doom that is A/C-season. No more open windows or any kind of fresh air supply for months on end. Upon leaving your house you get hit in the face by that vicious fist of humidity, only to enter the subway, and I guess I don’t need to elaborate on that… 

Spring is a prelude to all this, but it’s actually not fair to blame spring for the horrors of summer. 

So why so blue? It’s hard to say exactly what it is, but I believe it - as so much in life - can trace back to when I was a kid. The long, dark winter evenings would prompt us - my mother, father, brother and I - to (metaphorically speaking) huddle together in the living room to watch tv, read books or just talk. The darkness outside - and the candles inside - provided a sense of comfort, and I was able to keep track of the pack. We would Hygge, if you will (I’m Danish, I’m allowed to use that word). 

When spring arrived everyone would scatter outside, the kids would play in the street after dinner, and the grown-ups would do garden work or other types of outdoor gown-up stuff. Idyllic and actually quite perfect, when I think about it. However, there was something about going to sleep in my still dimly lit room - somewhere in between day and night - that seemed unsettling. Mind you, in Denmark the sun doesn’t set until very late during those months, and the odd shadows dancing on the walls and the ceiling, combined with the noises of activities from our and the neighboring gardens sent my brain into overdrive, often resulting in some pretty outlandish dreams, once I actually fell asleep. I would try to stay awake for as long as I could, to succumb to sleep only when assured that everyone was back in the house, safely settling in for the night. 

Of course that time of year was - and is - also full of wonderful experiences and happy days and nights. Especially growing into a teenager the season would provide the opportunity to stay out late, bike around the town with friends, and meet up on the playground to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. And I do appreciate both birds and flowers. But there’s something about the onset of spring that still to this day gives me the blues. Is that a bad thing? Not in the least. It’s something that I’ve come to love and embrace, and a reminder of why I need so badly to live in a hemisphere where the seasons will forever change. 

So, do you cook at home?

Yes. Yes, I do. Let me start by stressing this, once and for all: I do not eat Michelin starred food morning, noon and night, even if this seems to be the word around the campfire. I have encountered several tidings, both first- and second hand, about my alleged eating habits, and from the looks of my social accounts I guess I can kind of see why, but it is simply not the case. Not that I don’t appreciate it because I do, but I prefer the basic stuff. 

There.

In fact, I probably cook ninety percent of the food I consume. Growing up in the rural Southern parts of Denmark where the wonders of take-out wasn’t introduced to the area until I was in my early teens, if one wanted to eat, one would have to get those paws dirty.

I honestly didn’t participate much in the dinner prep at home, I mostly just complained about the (to everyone else delicious) food that was being served, and it wasn’t until I left home and became my own nutritional responsibility, that I developed an interest in cooking. 

I started out simple; spaghetti with tomato/vegetable sauce, quiches, curry fried rice with vegetables… Nothing fancy. Becoming a vegetarian at age 19, I wasn’t always on-point with the proteins, but I got by. 

Cooking was designed for surviving, and of course a gateway to self-treating, so many years - and a lot of growing up - went by before I truly began enjoying the process of cooking. Often more than actually eating the meal.

Today is a different beast. One would perhaps be inclined to think that, given my profession and my being around food virtually all the time, would put me off wanting to spend time in my own kitchen, but it’s quite the opposite. Few things make me happier than spending time with chefs and food-savvy friends, learning and familiarizing myself with techniques, asking myriads of questions. 

I believe I can count on two hands the number of times I have cooked from a recipe. I absorb fragments of knowledge here and there, to store in my mind and apply later. This allows me to think creatively about something other than photography, and it’s a cool brain-exercise. The outcome may for certain vary in quality, but a foundation to tweak and try again is always laid. 

To me, cooking serves as a welcome stress-reliever, and I find it extremely therapeutic. I can easily spend four hours on a dish that realistically shouldn’t take more than an hour to make, and while I love having people over for dinner, I actually prefer cooking for and by myself, which to some may seem purposeless. 

Cooking is a beautiful way of hitting pause and turning inward. Much contrary to my younger self, older me will take a bag of groceries and a bottle (is it more pc to say a glass? Fine, I’ll say a glass) of white over the club any day of the week. It’s amazing how much uninterrupted thinking you can get done while picking herbs and chopping vegetables. I cherish those long evenings of solitude, and I find my mind wandering off in new unexplored directions, often resulting in at least a few new ideas for projects that I’ll later on dive deeper into. (Perhaps this is also why it takes me forever to cook a simple meal - I constantly have to put down the knife and run to make a note on whatever piece of ink-absorbent I have lying around).

I have two major passions in life - and a bunch of smaller ones - but next to photography music is my greatest passion. I often utilize these little breaks from reality to (re-)familiarize myself with a full-length album that I have been neglecting. Either one that has meant an immense deal to me in the past, or a new acquisition - yes, I’m one of those suckers who actually still buy music - that I haven’t yet had time to get acquainted with. I listen to music every waken hour, but often it’s fragmented and interrupted by work, phone calls, meetings, and all those other disturbing elements of everyday life. In these situations I can smother myself in the melodies and voices with sharpened attention, the way music is supposed to be experienced. Go on, turn off that shuffle function and give it a try!

Okay, I know I’m not exactly dropping a major shocker here, but one of the things I love the most about living in NYC is the constant exposure to new cuisines (I mean, this pretty much applies to any and all New Yorker)! Anywho, it’s safe to say that when I left Copenhagen five years ago, I had never tasted Vietnamese Pho before. I’m not saying it wasn’t available, but partly due to the fact that I had for the most parts mostly worked on the finer dining scene, and partly because my curiosity back then didn’t really extend far beyond sea buckthorn and ramson, it just wasn’t something I had come across. Shooting a job for a vegan meal kit service a few years back I tasted it for the first time, and it went on my list of foods I would try to wrestle at home. I started noticing little bits and pieces here and there about its cooking methods, and I finally felt comfortable enough to give it a go. 

The result was decent - not amazing - but the groundwork has been laid for refining and developing, and next time it’ll be better. And the time after that, even better yet. 

When an evening of cooking comes to a close I’m often tired and full from nibbling, and the meal itself doesn’t really interest me anymore. But that’s when the brilliant concept of leftovers is introduced, and we all know that those are pretty. much. the. best.

Tale of the Line Cook - The unsung hero.

I guess it comes as no surprise that I spend a lot of time in professional kitchens. Usually - well, pretty much always - I’m there to create visual stories surrounding the executive chef, who, by nature, is the key player of the show. 

However, no general can win a battle without a trusted hardworking army, without foot soldiers who are ready, willing and able to do the “dirty work”, often with little or no credit. At least not from the diners. Not that there’s anything odd about that, per se. The exec has paid his or her sweaty and exhausting dues at the meat station and earned the praise, often serving as great mentors for the next generation of super stars. Nothing comes from nothing. 

The presence of a photographer can cause some added tension in the kitchen, because a photoshoot often takes place during prep for service, and interrupts everyone’s routine. I’m very well aware of the fact that me being there can feel invasive, so I make it my damn business to distribute hugs and high fives equally among everybody. I believe that everyone has a unique story to tell, and are of great worth in their own right. 

And this is how I met Dennis Stella. I was doing a shoot at Viaggio Ristorante in Wayne, NJ, headed by young prodigy chef Robbie Felice, when Dennis came up to me and asked a simple, yet so obvious question: When are you going to do a story about the line cook?

Well, now!

Where and when were you born?

I was born in the city of Hackensack, NJ, in June of 1979.

What did you do before you started cooking?

I've been cooking my whole career. Starting from the age of 16, in professional kitchens, to the present.

When did you decide to go into cooking and what brought you to this path? Did you meet someone who inspired you? Did you grow up around cooking? Was cooking always an interest of yours? 

I'm the only person I've ever met that knew what they wanted to be at the age of 5. I was constantly in search of information. I live to attain knowledge and put it to use. This has helped me grow into many roles in life and in the kitchen. I grew up in a half Italian second generation family originally from the Piemonte region. You may be familiar with the past Winter Olympics nearby in Torino and my personal favorite Barolo wine from the Piedmontese region. Also a mostly Polish part Estonian home. Both sides of the family were very good in the kitchen, well to me at least, and to others. I definitely grew up around cooking and I still have my first written recipe from the age of 6. Cooking was and has been my biggest interest and my family was the beginning of my inspiration. As I grew older and gained experience I looked to those who knew food inside and out, for instance Mario Batali and Jean Louis Palladin. Without these culinary greats, food as we know it would be suffering today as would more people with health issues.

Left: Herb Fazzoletti, with Meyer lemon butter. Right: Branzino al Cartoccio - Fregula, tomato and olive.

I remember there was a show where they didn’t serve alcohol, as it was a show for kids to hear Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, and many other great local rock artists.
— Dennis Stella

You told me that you grew up in Asbury Park, NJ. Tell me about your childhood there, and your relationship with the place today.

As a young boy my father used to listen to local bands, some of whom are still around today. We would usually go at least a dozen times a year, arriving at or before sunrise and enjoying the whole day and night. Asbury was such a beloved place for those who loved music, as the venue the Stone Pony was the place where many artists began their careers, such as local heroes like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, who my uncle coached nearby in little league. I spent countless hours exploring the boardwalk and all the attractions and to mine and my fathers delight there was a mini golf across from his favorite small venue, for me to enjoy while the bands played the music I grew up on. 

One time I gave a quarter to a guy who had asked me for it to make a call on the pay phone outside the Stone Pony. “That was Bon Jovi who I just gave a quarter to”, I told my father. “He's a rock star”. 

I remember there was a show where they didn't serve alcohol, as it was a show for kids to hear Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, and many other great local rock artists. For the first time I got to see the inside of the place I'd spent countless hours outside of, with very cool people playing familiar songs. 

Since then I've been back to Asbury Park only a handful of times to reminisce, though it still is very dear to me. The boardwalk has been built up and some of the houses I hear have been bought by Mr. Springsteen, and both him and Bon Jovi have invested in the community and will visit unannounced to play at local restaurants. I have yet to see them play again, though. 

Mario Batali is another chef who has been a hero with his extensive knowledge of the origins of the truly Italian recipes.
— Dennis Stella

Who are your biggest heroes, both in and out of the kitchen?

I guess I'd have to say my biggest heroes have been those who push through and work for what is good for more people to be happy, informed, and healthy. Some chefs include Jean-Louis Palladin who was a pioneer in the American food industry, working tirelessly to serve amazing cuisine and changing the way American people and chefs see food. He was one of the first to say no to the rather unhealthy ways we as chefs purchased food, often buying the processed, bulk, and unnatural foods we as a country were accustomed to, and yes to local, fresh, and healthier foods. 

Mario Batali is another chef who has been a hero with his extensive knowledge of the origins of the truly Italian recipes, and how to stick with something people may have found much different from the Italian-American versions served everywhere else. Lastly Terrance Brennan who has taught me to source the finest ingredients and treat every one of them with respect. I cook carrots with the same care I cook foie gras. 

My biggest heroes have been my parents who since my childhood have supported me in my culinary journey. Both having struggled with injury and illness, they are still having the great attitude of being positive impacts in not only my life and career, but also many other’s lives. My father was paralyzed in his early twenties and my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis soon after. They have shown me what it is to overcome great obstacles in life and be a kind and strong impact in other’s lives.

Left: “Lancaster Amish” chicken “alla cacciatore”, fughi misti, house cured pancetta and polenta. Right: Charred octopus “gigante marinate” and apricot mostarda.

Do you cook on your days off?

Throughout the years if there was a technique, ingredient, or recipe I was interested in I would always cook or test at home for family and friends. I've been cooking on my days off for longer than some of my colleagues have, and it always makes me and others happy. And it improves my skill so everybody wins!

What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

I look forward and see myself owning and or running a restaurant similar to Viaggio. People may not know that eating local food with good local bacteria can boost your immune system. As well as being cheaper, local food tastes better. With over 20 years of experience I know I can teach younger cooks a skill they can live a happy life with, and to become something great if they choose to. Ive done the homework and it's worth every minute spent.

Now, how’s this for a smart, lovable, and insightful line cook? If you ever find yourself in the vicinity of 1055 Hamburg Turnpike, Wayne, NJ, go say hello!