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For book, photographer followed noted chefs around kitchen

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

It's a two-volume, nearly 1,000-page cookbook with nary a recipe a food photography book chock full of chaotic kitchen shots, double-page spreads of hog farms and vellum pages bearing the scribbled writings found in chefs' notebooks. And weighing in at a cumbersome 18 pounds, the sheer heft of "Notes From a Kitchen: A Journey Inside Culinary Obsession" is intentional on the part of the books' creator, Austin-based photographer Jeff Scott.

The self-published, hyper-designed, lushly printed tome was also recently nominated for a tony James Beard Foundation Award for best food photography. The Beard awards will be announced May 4 in New York.

"Notes From a Kitchen" is Scott's own obsessive, personal attempt to visually document the obsessions of several noted chefs: Georges Mendes, Johnny Iuzzini, Sean Brock, among others.

"It's not that I'm down on recipes," Scott says. "This is more about understanding a chef's philosophy of food and what goes into that. It's meant to inspire the home cook. I think of chefs as artists."

And in the era of celebrity chefs with rock star status, overly staged cooking competition shows and legions of food bloggers and tweeters, Scott wanted something weighty and real that deliberately, and literally, slowed down the chatter.

"I love objects for their objectness and (with these books) I'm kind of forcing a physical object into someone's space," he says.

Among his work as a commercial and fine art photographer and filmmaker, Scott, 48, spent ten years documenting the personal belongings of Elvis Presley, including the singer's gold bedside telephone, for his 2005 book, "Elvis: The Personal Archives."

Then a few years ago, a private commission from a chef to document his life and work in the kitchen inspired Scott to embark on a similar project of his own — a layered, visual close-up of chefs and how they spend their work time, where they find their inspiration and how they work out their ideas on paper.

Scott first began to track the life of South Carolina chef Sean Brock, whose culinary practice extends far beyond the kitchen to include reintroducing heirloom Southern greens and grains. Scott spent six weeks trailing Brock from the fields to the kitchen, photographing, interviewing and filming along the way. Scott also shot hundreds of pages of Brock's private notebooks. "We need a beet salad" reads one notation. A double-page spread reveals the lined notebook page on which Brock makes a most important list: "chefs to research" tops a neatly alphabetized roster of world-famous culinary masters.

Working with Brock led Scott to other chefs. In all, he included 10 in "Notes From a Kitchen." (The only Texas chef is Joel Harrington of Stephen Pyles Restaurant in Dallas.)

Scott teamed up with Dallas chef and writer Blake Beshore to form a publishing company, Tatroux.

"There was no way a regular publisher would have taken a chance with a project like this," says Scott. "And no (publisher) was going to let me spend this much time or print a book this massive."

Partly through a Kickstarter campaign, Beshore and Scott marshalled $500,000 to finance a print run of 3,000 copies, which they began to sell last fall. The books sell for $85; a special signed edition in cloth slipcovers costs $150.

A website (notes fromakitchen.com), Twitter feed, Facebook page and lots of personal pavement-pounding have been the marketing methods.

"It's not just independent or specialized bookstores we've gotten the book in," says Scott. "We've also placed in speciality food shops."

In Austin, "Notes From a Kitchen" can be found in BookPeople and Domy Books, among other places.

To date, Scott reports that about 2,000 copies have sold. But he's uncertain if he'll print another edition.

For one thing, the project is hardly over. He's currently working at editing down his footage into a feature-length documentary. And with his lenses he's following around more chefs including Ned Elliott of Foreign & Domestic here in Austin.

Scott says "Notes From a Kitchen" is an open-end project, one he has no intention of finishing in the near future.

"I'm inspired by people who are passionate about risk," says Scott. "And I respect chefs who are changing their menus again and again and again. It's the chef's creative process that's the most interesting to me."

Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at 445-3699

Correction: In an earlier version of this story chef Georges Mendes was misidentified. And the book's author Jeff Scott spent ten years working on "Elvis: The Personal Archives."