Richard Nigro

The distances between food, photography and stories can be measured in a breath. There is no separation .......Food comes with a story; a story with a photograph. I tell stories, with words, with photos, with food.

Here’s the thing, I am in part, a cook, a photographer and a storyteller. Maybe I’m best known as a cook and least known as a storyteller; however, I’ve been listening to, reading and telling stories for as long as I can remember. I first told stories as a kid: kids’ stories, stories that I imagined were real, stories which tried to explain the world all around, stories that first took me out of my home, my neighbourhood and out of my mind. In the time that I suffered through high school and the little bit of university that I attended, I wrote short stories, almost, but never finished, novels and poetry. Before leaving university early – what was going on outside the classroom window was more interesting than what was going on inside - I took a writing seminar with Mordecai Richler; which is about all of my formal training as a writer. When I dropped out of university, influenced by This Rock Within the Sea, words by Farley Mowat, photographs by John de Visser, I travelled to Newfoundland with a plan to travel to and live in the romance of an outport and while there, to write the great Canadian novel. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, plans of romantic young men are infrequently best laid: in the end outports were hard, winter came early and froze fingers and toes. I suppose if I’m anything professional, it is a cook: an accidental cook, who found a working life in restaurant kitchens. Before I came to professional kitchens I was a home cook: I began to cook as a teenager: the first dinner I made was from the Time-Life Foods of the World Library, a Shrimp Sofrito: it appealed to me because in the photograph accompanying the recipe it was served with crusty Italian bread. I made that when I was 15 and have been cooking sofrito, in one variation or another for about 50 years. It’s strange to say that, to imagine cooking anything for 50 years. Here’s the truth, I came to cooking in a restaurant environment by chance: I took part in a fundraiser for the arts and was the only artist who was able to produce a dish without falling back into the safety blanket of the kitchen staff and who remembered the kitchen’s rules. Looking back, I don’t think that I would have hired me and I don’t think any other commercial kitchen would have. But Domus, in those days, was almost magical: caught up in the new flavours, foods and styles of the American Food Revolution. It was a kitchen which worked in a way more different than any commercial kitchen that I have experienced. Anyhow, they were looking for part time help and I was only looking to work on a part time basis, to allow me the time to continue to pursue my photography. While working in Domus’ kitchen I began to learn to cook as a professional, to expand my palate and to indulge in a great variety of flavours. Never a great traveller, I learned of other cultures through their stories, their foods; I studied the cuisine of peoples who had immigrated to Canada, tasting foods made in restaurants, in home kitchens, at church and community bazaars. I started to collect cookbooks, first making recipes from those books and then transforming them, as I later would note in my own restaurant, “….my cooking was based in the many cuisine that had come to be a part of Canada, interpreting them for a contemporary Canadian kitchen, for my time, season and place….” I opened and for 15 years was the principle chef at Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar, a relationship that ended in what seems to be a long long time ago. As of this writing, I continue to cook: I am currently developing delivered to your table meals for Bryson Farm; I continue to travel the world in it’s foods; reading, studying and interpreting the world’s flavours, developing new recipes and cooking at home. One of the great joys is that I – we, my wife and I – have passed some of our passion for food to our son, who cooks mostly from scratch in his own kitchen. Finally some notes on photography: I came to photography as someone who drew – with pencil, chalk, pastel whatever – and as a printmaker. Photography was an almost magical process: I was taken into the darkroom by a woman whom I knew; working under red and yellow safe lights she drew with light and shadows. My understanding of making photographs was, at least in part, drawn from reading Eugen Herrigel’s book Zen in the Art of Archery, a philosopher writing about studying archery in Japan. His writings extrapolating the lessons of archery as an almost spiritual understanding of consciousness: through repetition and practice the body learns the process of archery/of photography and carried these out without conscious control of the mind over the body. And I came to understand photography as a poetic process: photographs aren’t the thing pictured, rather they are a representation, a suggestion, maybe standing for that which is photographed, maybe not. Maybe photographs are like words, phrases, metaphors: this is a picture of a child, this picture is a (re)construction of a memory, this picture is the beginning, or the middle or (almost never) the end of a story. I understand photography as a poetic, narrative language. Photography became a form of storytelling: elements of narrative and theatre/stage are critical to my photographic practice. Drawing on narrative elements, sometimes extended, sometimes fragmented, sometimes poetic, I make extended sequences/series of photographs. My photographs are almost always staged: the sets may have been hand drawn, painted, reconstructions of what might be real, or constructed entirely from my imagination. In making photographs I almost always use extended exposure times, allowing for random elements to soak into the film, recording the space of a breath, allowing chaos to become an aspect of the process. Time goes by. Things change. Time passes. Things change again. I worked for a long time in restaurant kitchens, drew from others’ stories and traditions to create flavours, to continue the story, to be a part of the story. I continue to cook, if not publicly, then at least with as much passion for the kitchen as I had in those work and serve everyday kitchens. For a long time I made photographs, told stories and fragments of stories. For a while I stopped making photographs, I was silent; then I began to find my voice, to make new works. Photographs that reference earlier works and that reflected a point of view that had changed with age, with time. In all the time that I made photographs, in all the time that I worked in the kitchen, I continued to write, mostly fragments of stories, remembering, imagining. These are some of the things that I have done, that I continue to do: storytelling, cooking, photography. Odd beginnings, odd endings. The story goes on, life goes on until it doesn’t.

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© Richard Nigro 2016