Where to take Bonjwing Lee for a drink in Midtown? The food photographer and restaurant reviewer behind the blog The Ulterior Epicure – no title is more befitting – dines out more nights than not. And not just anywhere. Most days, Lee is racking up Michelin stars around the world over breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Lee is one of the preeminent food photographers of today, renowned for his beautiful, yet strikingly simple photographs of chefs, food and the places he travels to. His restaurant reviews are written with a deep understanding of what goes into creating each dish. There’s hardly a chef he doesn’t know personally, and his personal log of restaurants visited would make any foodie weep.
I do my research and learn that Lee hasn’t been to Má Pêche since 2010. I’m honored to be the one to introduce him to Crack Pie, and over pretzel milk I discover the downside to being one of the most popular bloggers out there, his favorite New York haunts and why he loves Michelin.
You’re a film major-turned lawyer-turned food photographer. How did that happen?
I’ve always been creative. At film school, I was less into the production side of film-making, but loved taking film stills. I was pretty bored as a lawyer, so I started writing about the restaurants I was dining at, and taking photos of food. I’ve always loved to eat, I can’t say no to anything. The blog just grew from there.
I still feel like a little boy, I can’t believe that I get to work with people that I admire in this industry.
If that’s not enough, you also collaborated on a cookbook in 2011, bluestem, with Colby Garrelts, a Food & Wine Best New Chef and five-time James Beard Award nominee, and his wife, Megan. What was that like?
So much fun. I love those two so it was such a wonderful process to create this truly beautiful cookbook together, and I’m genuinely proud of it. It was a very collaborative project, we spent a lot of time in the kitchen, taste-testing all the recipes.
Where are your favorite places to eat out in New York?
I really love Jungsik. It’s very refined cooking. And I love L’Artusi. I was there with a group of friends for dinner, it’s such a warm, comfortable space. I also just had another incredible meal at The Modern.
What do you think of Michelin – is it still relevant today?
Very much so. There’s a very high standard with Michelin, from the reviewing process to the restaurants that own the stars, and that has to be respected. I don’t always necessarily seek out Michelin-starred restaurants, but I know that the standard is there, and I’m going to have a great meal.
You were anonymous for four years, there was a blog dedicated to discovering your identity, you have stalkers, you’ve even received death threats. What is that like?
It’s awful, I really hate all that. I’ve seen staff shaking when I walk through door.
I went to a well-known restaurant once, and wrote that I thought the fish smelled a little funny, but that otherwise it was a wonderful meal. The manager saw my review, and ordered the chef to throw away his entire fish inventory, it cost thousands. That was just a terrible experience that I don’t feel pleased about.
How do you feel about diners taking photos of their meals in restaurants?
I understand why people want to take photos of their meals, but just take the photo and enjoy your meal. I take my camera out, take a photo or two, and put the camera away. I try and make as little a scene as possible.
How do you prefer to photograph?
I like to sit in the corner and observe. I could not be an agressive paparazzi. I’m more subtle. I like to wait for the right moment to photograph. I do events, and you have to hustle. Like at the James Beard Awards or the Bocuse d’Or in January, you have to hustle because it moves so fast. I like the adrenalin of that, but I’m not going to be up in your face. I wait for the crowd to disappear, and then I have a moment of quiet.
Those are the moments that I love. Be it with a subject or a plate of food, it’s that quiet moment of intimacy that I love the most.
Your photography is very colorful, but also very natural and organic, with little styling.
It’s just how I see the world, it’s how I think the world should be perceived. Other photographers say I have a great rapport with my subjects, and I don’t know that. When I photograph people, I just assume that’s how they are with other people.
Colors are very important for me, because I think that’s what separates great photography from good photography. Color is like our taste buds. Just like cooking, if it doesn’t taste right, don’t serve it. I take a lot of photographs, and if it doesn’t look right, I won’t post it. There’s a lot of shit on the internet, people will post whatever. It’s not that I only take flawless photographs, it’s just that I’m very choosey about what I put up.
The camera is a dead machine, it has no emotion. Photography is about manipulating light. If you understand light, that’s all it is, and you can create so much emotion simply by how you manipulate that light.
How do you choose what to write about?
If it’s a restaurant that I really loved, I will generally write about it. If it’s a friend’s restaurant, and I haven’t had a super meal there, I will avoid writing about it. And that’s why I’m friends with a lot of chefs, because they understand that, and don’t expect me to write about my meal. That’s not why I’m eating out. I’m eating out because I want to try the food, not because I want to write about it or get something out of it. I’m in it for the love of the game, so to speak.
Do you love to cook as well?
I do love to cook, I just rarely have the chance to do it! Last year I was away more than I was at home. And when I’m home in Kansas City, I like to eat at local restaurants, like bluestem.
What’s coming up?
I’m helping to organize two phenomenal fundraisers in Kansas City: The Chefs Classic at The American Restaurant, with local and visiting chefs including Susur Lee, Matthias Merges and Carl Thorne-Thomsen, and the Friends of James Beard Foundation dinner, also at The American, with Bryan Voltaggio, Joshua Skenes, Gavin Kaysen, Brooks Headley and other great chefs.
I’m open to doing anything. I might be going to Iceland to do some photography. I’d love to teach photography. I just feel very fortunate to be doing something I love. That’s the dream, isn’t it?