Today I’m thrilled to have two of my favorite bloggers/photographers answer my questions about them, their amazing work, and even Memphis and food trucks ~ Jeni Afuso of Oishii Eats and Dylan Ho of Eat Drink + Be Merry, a young couple out of Los Angeles brought together by their love of food. Austin actually brought the three of us together as Jeni found my blog through a search of places to see for their trip to Austin. My series documenting my New Year’s trip to Austin led them to stay at the Hotel San Jose and eat at Homeslice Pizza. Jeni and I soon became twitter friends, and I then discovered her blog and Dylan’s blog. I was completely awestruck with how personal and beautifully they presented, not food reviews necessarily, but their stories on food and the people behind the food. I included just a few of their photos that will surely inspire all the food bloggers out there. I love that they even add the graphic text overlay so well.
“We enjoyed hearing the stories behind the food and eventually realized how important it was to include people in our food shots.” “With food photography, I approach it as though it's a story or a recap. When I write about food, I don't want you to just see what I ate'. But more so, this is 'how we felt' when we ate it.”
~Jeni and Dylan on their photography and writing approach.
So as a fellow Asian, I don’t feel as rude asking, “What is your ethnicity?” I assume Jeni you have Japanese roots with your blog name Oishii Eats. How has this influenced your adventures in eating and food blogging?
I’m half Vietnamese and half Japanese. My mom is from Saigon, Vietnam and my dad is from Honolulu, Hawaii. (They met here in Los Angeles on a blind date and eloped 6 months later in Vegas.) My adventures in eating started 10 years ago when I moved to Osaka, Japan to teach English on the JET Programme. Before Japan, I ate only meat and fruits. No seafood, no veggies, none of that. I ate a lot of Vietnamese food growing up, but since my dad had a Southern (because he was stationed in the South back in the day) and Chicano (grew up in San Fernando, California) stomach, most of what I loved was fried chicken and Mexican food. When I moved to Japan I knew I was going to have to start eating fish…my worst fear. I grew up not liking fish and gagged every time I tried to eat fish. But my principal at one of the Junior High schools I was working for in Osaka invited me to a dinner…a sashimi dinner. That night I he told me to “Fight-o!” He cheered me on as I closed my eyes and ate sashimi for the first time. The sashimi wasn’t bad, it was actually tasty. Ever since then I knew I had to give everything a try.
I was born in California and I'm 75% Chinese and 25% Laotian - but I only speak Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese. I grew up in a predominantly White and Latino area near Pasadena, CA and grew up around very few Asians. Like most kids, I wanted to assimilate into the mainstream and I often felt left out because I was "oriental". It wasn't until high school that I started to immerse myself back into Asian culture - whether it be food, family and cultural events. I was very proud of my heritage and eventually ended up majoring in Asian American studies - my college was also 45% Asian. So you can see where my love for Asian food is derived. Lately, I've been really interested in learning about my 25% Lao heritage and all of Southeast Asia.
Have you always lived in LA or the area? What brought you to LA if not?
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, about 15 miles north of Downtown Los Angeles. By the age of 12, I knew I didn’t like living in the suburbs. By 14, I was going to high school in Boyle Heights (East LA). My husband and I now live in Silver Lake, a neighborhood 5 miles away from Downtown LA.
Born and raised near Pasadena, California. Jeni and I love the diversity of Los Angeles and don't see ourselves moving anytime soon.
Jeni, is teaching still your full-time job and photography your side job?
Teaching is my full-time job and full-time passion. I’m currently teaching in Koreatown. Most of my students are Central Americans. They are amazing kids with big dreams. They’ve got a lot of barriers that will keep them from succeeding (language barriers, gangs, our public school system), but we do all that we can to provide equity and access in the classroom. Photography is our side-job. It’s my outlet to express myself and my way to control factors that I can’t seem to control in teaching.
Dylan, is photography your full-time job?
I'm a freelance advertising and interactive art director for my 9-5. We enjoy photographing food, travel and portraiture whenever we get the opportunity and have been doing this professionally for the last 3 years. It's awesome having two different careers that you love.
Dylan, I’ve read Jeni’s side of the story on how she developed a crush on you before you met in person and how sweet you were when you finally did meet. What is your side of the story of how you first discovered her and your first meeting?
I ran into Jeni's blog back in late 2005. I recognized some people she had taken a group photo with in one of her postings and figured she probably went to the same college as I did. We started to read each other's sites on a regular basis and chatted online. A few months later, I had set up a dinner for a dozen or so LA food bloggers to finally meet one another and that's the first time I met her in person. From there, we ended up having our first date at a taco truck in Echo Park. Next thing you know, I proposed to her in Mexico City and we got married in Las Vegas. It all happened so fast.
I’ve only discovered recently that I wanted my food photography to be not just still shots of plated food but more shots of eating and enjoying the restaurant. Both of you photograph that enjoyment so well. Has that always been your mission from day 1 of food blogging? What made you realize it was important?
I am not sure what my mission was when I first started my blog in 2006. I just gotten over a long relationship and needed a way to express myself. I enjoyed food and enjoyed sharing my experiences with food. I started to realize the role of people in eating and even preparing food when Dylan and I started dating. We enjoyed hearing the stories behind the food and eventually realized how important it was to include people in our food shots.
Eating is a very personal and emotional experience for some people. It's important to capture mood and energy. Our food photography in the very beginning was atrocious, maybe it still is! I've always had a love for photography, as early as 15 years old. I found my old parents 35 mm film camera and took a few classes at Art Center in Pasadena. But my Asian parents felt photography was more a hobby than a career and I enrolled in a 4-year university. In college, I would sneak into the photo lab and develop my own B&W film. I lost interest in shooting for a good 10 years and then when I met Jeni, decided to get back into it because we both enjoyed documenting what we ate/cooked. We only had a point & shoot camera and like most people, eventually graduated to a digital SLR which was a big deal. Through years and years of shooting, we've finally found a style that we are happy with and approach everything we shoot in the same manner. With food photography, I approach it as though it's a story or a recap. When I write about food, I don't want you to just see "what I ate". But more so, this is "how we felt" when we ate it. I try my best to make the reader feel as though he is there. If we ate in a dimly lit restaurant with tabletop candles, then that will be the way I shoot it - usually not with flash. Also, shooting at a slower shutter speed to capture motion is one of the best ways to achieve liveliness. Sometimes, although a food shot may be beautiful, it can appear flat. It took me a few years to get where I'm at, and I'm still learning. If this all happened overnight, I'm not sure that I would enjoy photography as much.
Can you share some food photography tips including any technical aspects?
Lighting is key. Lighting is what I care about most. We will always try and find a table by the window. Nothing beats natural light. We also shoot in RAW. Shooting in RAW gives us so much more control in when we post-process.
Tips for shooting in a restaurant. These are from good/bad experiences and I'm learning something new every time. Practice how to shoot discretely and quickly. It can be unnerving to capture a photo if people are watching you. Have a dining companion interact with the food - twist the pasta in a spoon, use chopsticks to pick up noodles or have them putting food in their mouth. Have fun with it and try not to look too flat. Take time to set up your shot as you'll save yourself a lot of time during post processing. If a can of coke is too distracting in the background of a shot, move it! Wealth can get you far but manners are invaluable. If you want a particular shot, it's best to ask the manager/owner because after all, you are in their "house". Be respectful of people and understand body language when you're trying to take a photo. Sometimes a friendly smile and hello will get you your shot with no problems.
As well as writing about food, you both write about travel which of course is connected to more food. What have been your favorite places so far? Is there a place you want to visit but haven’t yet and why?
Vietnam and Japan will always be one of my favorite places to be. I feel my mom’s heartbeat in Vietnam. I understand the reasons why she is the way she is when I visit Vietnam, especially Saigon. It’s very humbling. Japan is where I “grew up”. It’s where I became an adult and learned to be on my own. It’s where I learned how to elbow men who were standing to close to me on the train. (Haha. My mom would be proud. ) I can spend forever in Luang Prabang, Laos. It’s timeless there. I also wouldn’t mind getting lost in the medina in Fez, Morocco again.
Dylan and I love looking at a world map and saying, “Where to next?” It’s been a blessing to travel with him. We’ve been traveling at least once a month for almost year. It’s pretty crazy. We never thought we’d actually live our dream. Next stop, I think I’m going to take him to New Orleans. It’s been a while since I’ve been back. I was there in July, the month before Katrina hit. It will be very humbling. It will be great to see my Uncle Loi again. We’re hoping to travel the Silk Road one day. I’d love to collect spices along the way.
I know you have told me Memphis is on your destination list. May I ask what you look forward to on that future visit?
You’ve done an awesome job representing your city Sophorn. Memphis seems to have a great style and some tasty looking places to eat.
Memphis... BBQ! We're fans of Portland and Austin and know that every American city has a piece of culture that we want to experience. To be honest, your site has solely inspired our interest in a possible Memphis visit. You make us see Memphis the way we like to see things.
You visit and blog about many food trucks in LA. Memphis will soon start the food truck trend. What are your suggestions on what food trucks we should have?
Good food. There are a lot of tasty food trucks here in LA, but not all are tasty. I think a lot of trucks are riding the novelty train and are compromising the food.
Memphis BBQ trucks. Your trucks should collectively represent your good city. In Los Angeles, we have over 500 food trucks, at least. There is a truck for almost anything you can think of. Although a truck is mobile, the owners have to be sensitive to people's demands. Are Japanese grilled offal skewers going to fit the target? Or would a bacon wrapped hot dog be more appealing? I'm interested in the type of food trucks that will debut in Memphis!
Thanks again Jeni and Dylan. / If you want to sort of meet them, watch the video below to understand their love of food.
Place To Be from Joel Kuwahara on Vimeo.