France, as we know, is a country fiercely attached to its many traditions. Every January, Lyon — that cradle of haute cuisine spanning the vine-endowed banks of the Rhône River, home to world-famous chef Paul Bocuse — welcomes the nation’s top gastronomy fair, internationally known by its French acronym, Sirha. This past January, the city papered itself in posters displaying a fetching young woman in a blond bob, thoughtfully sucking on a chocolate-covered cherry while gazing forthrightly at all passersby. Kitschy but probably effective, the image was even embossed onto small chocolate rectangles given to guests upon arrival.
Trying to get into the fair’s VIP viewing stands for a look at the chefs laboring at the Bocuse d’Or, France’s premier chef’s competition, was no small feat. Lines of pleading cuisine pilgrims snaked beyond the intransigent guard’s station, leading uninitiated observers to wonder what treasure lay beyond. Those hoping to enter were meticulously examined for falsified or borrowed tags.
And what lay beyond? Slate-gray walls studded with large-format, painterly studies of chefs in every possible state: chefs alone and in groups, chefs hard at work or posing in a studio, chefs exhausted, chefs exulting after a competition, chefs slumped, chefs preening, chefs wielding knives, chefs in chiaroscuro, in sepia, even in bright color — in short, chefs. Clearly a serious obsession, and the aesthetic opposite of the enticing girl on the poster, the works are completely entrancing.
Meet the oeuvre of Jeff Nalin, photographer of chefs extraordinaire. What Annie Leibovitz is to celebrities and Marion Ettlinger is to writers, Nalin is to French chefs. His work graces book covers and will be exhibited, this coming June, in a one-man show called Scenes of Chefs, to be displayed at the Paris Match gallery in Paris. An original Nalin goes for upward of 5,000 euros; an impressionistic image of a group of chefs around a table, evocative of the Last Supper, recently was sold for several times that amount. His work, some of which can be viewed at jeff-nalin-studio.com, graces the walls of Le Cirque and Daniel Boulud in New York.
Nalin, 43, small of stature and round of build, clad in work pants and a white T-shirt, neck laden with cameras, was most often found in the press platform facing the competing chefs, clicking away as France not surprisingly made off with the 20th annual Bocuse d’Or. He is proudly and unabashedly Jewish, a graduate of Lyon’s ORT technical high school who still joyfully retrieves an occasional Hebrew word from distant classroom memories, and intensely Gallic. Whereas some of us stumble onto a career, Nalin seems to have admired his way into a niche that has blossomed not so much into livelihood as into a way of life. He started out simply asking chefs if he could take their pictures, almost always on film rather than digital, “for its mystery,” and almost always in black and white (“It doesn’t lie”). His mentor and father figure is none less than Bocuse, who is as well known for the pleasure he takes in being photographed as he is for his prowess in the kitchen. Bocuse bestowed the nickname “Jeff” upon the young Jean-François Nalin, and went on to invite him to record the lives of chefs.
Like many photographers, Nalin is a man of few words. Why chefs? “I always wanted to be in gastronomy… people say it’s hardest to photograph a still life — the classic plate of vegetables — but I find it too easy. I’m drawn by personalities more than objects. To render people well, that’s the challenge.”
It is a challenge and a professional path all but impossible to imagine anywhere outside of France, and it fits Nalin, like a glove. In his eyes, the chef is self-evidently a cultural and national emblem, the idealized everyman, a masculine counterpart of France’s iconic female embodiment, the Marianne.
His photographs propose the chef as a metaphor for almost every human situation. One, a picture of a clearly exhausted chef, Patrick Henriroux, finishing a plate alongside a white-hatted young assistant, could be a metaphor for every craft or science taught by a practitioner of many years. It could, in fact, be a late 19th-century painting of medical Grand Rounds, if only the two were leaning over a patient and not what appears to be a serving of osso buco. The intriguing profundity of many of his images is enhanced by a technique in which the image is developed directly onto silk canvas.
His goal, Nalin says, is to transmit “the soul of the chef.” Perhaps it is to bring the force of art and imagination to the contemporary king of the kitchen, a figure that still hovers in our minds midpoint between service-provider and creator, and thus imbue his subjects with the dignity that Vermeer bestowed upon his legendary servant girls. It is, one almost has to add, a task, and a goal, conceivable only in France.
Noga Tarnopolsky is a cultural correspondent living in Israel.