THE TWO SIDES of Eric Wolfinger’s profession, photography and food, took years to converge, but when they did, something very special happened, like flour and water morphing into bread—an apt metaphor for a man who once spent years learning to bake a perfect loaf.
A political science major at Pomona, Wolfinger ’04 traces the first step in his journey to becoming one of the world’s leading photographers of fine cuisine to his work as a food columnist for the student newspaper, The Student Life.
“When I wrote that food column,” he recalls, “I had my first vision of what I actually could see myself doing post-college. Up until then, I had no clue what direction I was going. I was like, oh my God, food writing—that’s something that people do and get paid for.”
By that time, many of his classmates had already punched their tickets into graduate school or had jobs lined up. Wolfinger had nothing waiting for him and liked it that way. He dreamed vaguely of buying a pickup truck and driving around Mexico working on a cookbook. Moving to the Bay area, he ran into a high school friend who was working at a restaurant, having already worked her way up from kitchen apprentice to sous chef.
“I realized right then and there—I don’t want to write any more, for now,” he says. “I want to cook. If I ever do write I want to write from the perspective of somebody that I would respect. I don’t want to just have an opinion. I want to have a skill and an expertise in this field.”
Starting as an apprentice at an Italian restaurant, Wolfinger quickly discovered what it felt like to be clueless. “I came from Pomona where adults treated me like I was smart and like I had something to say, and it was worthwhile. I started working in a kitchen, where I was the village idiot.”
He learned fast, but after a couple of years, he was convinced the life of a chef wasn’t for him. Writing still beckoned, but there was one more thing he wanted to accomplish before moving on. “Before I leave San Francisco and leave cooking,” he told himself, “I want to learn how to make the Tartine croissant, which was the most amazing thing I’d ever tasted and the most amazing thing I could afford, working on a cook’s salary of $8.25 an hour.”
So in 2005, Wolfinger took a job at Tartine Bakery, a place where bread sells out within an hour of opening. In master baker Chad Robertson, he found both a mentor and a surfing buddy, and he quickly fell in love with the deceptive simplicity of baking. If restaurant cooking is a science of efficiencies—“How do you set up your station so that when an order comes in, you can bang out that salad in 25 seconds instead of 30?”—baking, he says, is an art—“What is my dough doing today, how is it behaving, and what small tweaks to my process do I need to do to bring this amorphous dough to the bread that I have in the back of my head, that I know is the ideal loaf?”
At Tartine, he practiced the art of baking for five years. But the memory of his original plan—driving around Mexico seeking recipes for a cookbook—occasionally made him restless. All through college, he’d spent his summers traveling in Latin America, exploring cultures and polishing his Spanish. But working life had left him with little time or money for travel. He told his mentor he needed some time off. Robertson agreed, and Wolfinger made plans to head for South America, where his brother was living at the time.
“Days before leaving, it occurred to me that nobody was going to give me my dream job of a travelling food journalist,” he says. “I was going to have to give it to myself first and kind of prove that I could do it.”
So he bought a digital camera and started a traveling food blog.
“I was like, I’m just going to do a blog and tell stories of the people that I meet, the recipes that I find, and the experiences that I have,” he says. “Obviously, I wasn’t trained as a photographer at all. I knew that to tell a decent story, you needed pictures. So I got a digital camera, and I thought, ‘I’ll teach myself along the way, and I’ll figure it out.’”
He followed his taste buds from Chile to Columbia to Peru to Bolivia, taking pictures of the food he found and posting them in his blog. As time went on, however, his blog didn’t seem to be opening any doors. “Gourmet magazine did not call me and tell me they wanted me to write a feature for them.” But when he got back to the States, the opportunity he’d been waiting for came from an unexpected source.
It seemed that his mentor and surfing buddy at Tartine Bakery had followed his blog with interest. Impressed by his food photography, Robertson, who was preparing to write a cookbook of his own, had an epiphany. “Coming off of an experience of a previous cookbook that he did with his wife,” Wolfinger recalls, “he realized that rather than having a professional photographer come in and shoot for two weeks, why not have his buddy—who takes beautiful pictures, who knows his bread better than anybody else in the world—do the pictures while we’re baking?”
Before that, Wolfinger had never allowed himself to take photography seriously, but after two years of shooting at the bakery and “making every mistake in the book,” he began to think of himself as a real photographer. “Just the process of making this book from start to finish really gave me a clear sense of how publishing works, how you tell a visual story, how to be really ruthless with yourself and with your own work so that you are putting your best foot forward,” he says. “While I was doing that book, I was doing little side projects. The next thing I knew, I was working as a photographer.”
But it wasn’t until the book came out that his career really took off. “The photography u in that book was nominated for a James Beard Award, which is kind of like the Oscars of food,” he says. “It was a huge deal. Since that first year, things have gone gangbusters, really—beyond my wildest dreams.”
Since then, he’s worked with celebrity chefs like Hubert Keller and David Kinch. He’s done mass-market cookbooks, like Williams-Sonoma’s Home Baked Comfort, and classy, one-restaurant books like Corey Lee’s Benu. He and his camera have circled the globe, from Vietnam to Uruguay, from Italy—where he spent 12 days with chef Thomas McNaughton, taking pictures of pasta—to Thailand, where he ate some of the most interesting food of his life, including a delicacy called ant’s egg salad. (“Ant eggs taste like lemongrass, and ants themselves taste like fresh lime. So we ate this salad, and it only had ant eggs, salt and mint, but it tasted as if there were lime juice and lemongrass in the salad. It was surprisingly delicious.”)
He attributes his meteoric success not only to his hard-earned skills behind a lens, but also to the fact that he understands the dynamics of the kitchen as only an experienced cook and baker can. “For me, food has a feeling,” he explains. “There’s a story behind it. There’s a person who made it. I see food a little differently—not as an object to be photographed but as a story to be told. Chefs call me because they’ve cooked something and they want a pretty photo of it. I think they sense in me an understanding of where they’ve come from and what they’ve put into it.”
Looking back, he also believes Pomona played a huge role in preparing him for the unique challenges of his chosen profession. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing and it wouldn’t be going as well if I hadn’t had that rigorous, yet very open-ended education at Pomona. You learn not to put anything out but your best. Even if that means I’m shy a few photos, I’m not interested in putting out anything but my best.”
But when he remembers his college years, what he thinks back to most often isn’t the classroom—it’s his three years as a member of the improvisational comedy group, Without a Box, which he spent, he says, in a constant state of terror.
“What you learn in improvisation is not necessarily how to be funny on the spot but how to think creatively under enormous amounts of pressure. And how to trust that instinct of where you think a scene should go. So many times I’m on set and a problem arises, and if you listen for that inner voice—what if I did this?—it’s helped countless times as I’ve moved forward as a photographer. I’m always improvising in this business.”