We all know that Cleveland is home to some killer cuisine, but it’s hard for a mid-sized city to stand out on a national stage. With cities like New York and Chicago stealing the spotlight, our culinary prowess has long gone unnoticed.
But word is spreading.
First, it was Iron Chef Michael Symon who stole the hearts and mouths of Americans, helping to bring Cleveland some well-deserved notoriety. It didn’t stop there. This past March, Time Magazine ranked Cleveland #7 on its list of “Best Food Cities in America,” beating out Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, to name a few. Not only have Fodor’s, Travel + Leisure, The New York Times, and the LA Times included Cleveland in similar lists, but the James Beard Foundation just awarded Jonathon Sawyer the title of Best Chef in the Great Lakes region.
Enter Andrew Burkle and David Hagen, the next step in the story of Cleveland’s culinary progression. Their food photography studio is now celebrating its one-year anniversary. Burkle, who is originally from Northeastern Ohio, moved to Chicago to pursue a career in portrait photography. He was contacted by Hagen, who had over twenty years experience in the photography business, with a proposal that would ultimately bring back to the north shore.
Both leaders in food photography, it is now their job to convince clients to come to Cleveland, rather than the standard New York and Chicago experience. Hagen says, “We want to show people that Cleveland is a pretty cool place. There’s a lot of cool stuff going on here.
We also take them into the neighborhoods. We stay away from the big chains. We’ll take them to the Tap House and other local places, so we’re going to where they will feel like they’re in their own home, the neighborhood-type spots. And they love it.”
Their rented space on the second floor of a warehouse at the corner of E. 36th street and Payne is now a full-scale studio. BurkleHagen’s main selling point to future clients is that they are not an all-purpose studio. They are the only studio in Cleveland that shoots food exclusively; it is their specialty. “We usually eat everything we shoot,” Burkle says. “I’d say 95% of the time we take it outside and eat it.”
The studio itself was designed with input by food stylists, the people who prepare the food the photographers shoot. It looks like an actual kitchen with working ovens, microwaves, a sink and two large islands (made from the wood panels of what once were bowling lanes at a local alley) with wheels so they can be shifted around to create space as needed. A separate space with shelving up to the ceiling holds props of every style imaginable: silverware, multi-colored plates colors, tea and china sets, designer cookware, dessert dishes. The majority of the items were randomly accumulated by BurkleHagen through donation or purchased at local rummage sales. The warehouse space itself is decorated with random designs by local artists; even the bathroom and shower area. It is an artist’s haven.
So what about that age-old advertising complaint, about how the food never actually looks as good as it does in pictures? Hagen admits, “A little of what we do is a lie. We build up things to look perfect but there are laws in place for commercial photography. If we’re shooting a Big Mac, we have to have the same amount of ingredients that McDonald’s is selling that Big Mac for, so we can’t add a bunch of lettuce to make it look better or add extra meat or anything. It has to be what their specs are. But there are tricks to make that item look more appetizing. But I think the trend is and has been for a while now making food look real. Even if you look at some of McDonald’s current ads, the food is a little more realistic, it has a real lifestyle to it instead of that plastic, fake looking food.”
“It is real,” Burkle adds. “I think it’s no different than any other commercial advertising photography medium. If you’re dealing with fashion, you’re going to have a tailor and a stylist. You look at a clothing catalog — all those clothes are custom fit to the body, a model flown in from New York and all that. Food photography is the same kind of thing. If the shot is featuring a burger, it’s custom built and the best ingredients are used. Right now there’s a nice bridge that’s happening between the commercial advertising side where everything looks perfect and the natural side where everything looks approachable enough that you can make it at home. It’s the bridging of the two in between where you have the imperfections; the crumbling, the drips, the melting, all those little features that make it seem like we didn’t fake it. A lot of times we’ll get to where it’s perfect and it looks too perfect, so we wait for it to melt or mess it up a little bit to make it look more approachable because it’s more appetizing when it seems like something you can make yourself.”
The guys take their craft very seriously, but themselves less so. Burkle has a tattoo of camera aperture numbers on his chest in tribute to his chosen profession. “It’s just the 1 through 64 aperture rings. I got that when I was in Chicago. It’s fun, I like it. People think it looks like a prison number on my chest because the numbers are all really close together and there’s no spaces in between, so it gives me a little more cred. And there’s all these decimal points, people are like, ‘That’s a really weird prison number you got there.’” Hagen quips, “If Andrew ever gets in trouble he just rips off his shirt and shows his numbers.”
Looking toward the future, Hagen and Burkle are developing ideas for their rooftop space. A 500-square-foot herb garden is being considered, as well as a deck and area to host private parties and charity fundraisers, the latter of which recently resulted in a successful Yoga Night with an after-party inside the studio. Support of the local community and charitable causes is important to BurkleHagen, and they see the rooftop space with its fantastic view of the downtown skyline as an opportunity to do more.
BurkleHagen’s photography studio is just one of many up-and-coming food-related businesses currently placing Cleveland on the culinary map. The city’s rich history of ethnic cuisine and long-standing traditions like Gallucci’s and the West Side Market are now receiving more attention thanks to the modern stylings of popular master chefs like Michael Symon and Zack Bruell, as well as the eccentric neighborhood spots Andrew Burkle and David Hagen are exposing. As more and more foodies choose Cleveland as a travel destination for fine culinary experiences, our reputation will continue to grow and word will continue to spread.