Art of the plate: Go behind the lens with La Jolla’s Eric Wolfinger, the nation’s most acclaimed food photographer

Eric Wolfinger at a food photo shoot at Addison restaurant on Feb. 10
Eric Wolfinger, a James Beard Award-winning food photographer, visits Addison restaurant in Carmel Valley, Southern California’s only Michelin three-star restaurant, for a shoot Feb. 10.
(Hayne Palmour IV)

These days, you can’t go to a nice restaurant without seeing diners snapping photos of their food to share on social media.

But when America’s top restaurant chefs want photos of their own dishes that will make mouths water and cookbooks fly off the shelves, many of them turn to Eric Wolfinger.

The James Beard Award-winning cookbook photographer lives in San Diego

Feb. 19, 2023

Over the past 15 years, the 41-year-old La Jolla native and current resident has photographed 25 cookbooks. In 2020, he won the James Beard Award for Photography for his work on “American Sfoglino: A Master Class in Handmade Pasta” by Michelin-recommended Los Angeles chef Evan Funke.. And several of his past clients are chefs with multiple Michelin stars, like William Bradley, whose Addison restaurant in Carmel Valley earned its third star in December.

In 2010, The New York Times billed Wolfinger’s first cookbook, “Tartine Bread” with chef Chad Robertson, “the most beautiful bread book published yet.” And in 2017, New York Times food correspondent Kim Severson described Wolfinger as “essentially the Annie Leibovitz of food photography.”

Expressing his love for food through photos is a dream job for Wolfinger, a self-trained photographer who spent much of his 20s as an indie food blogger and restaurant cook. Then in 2008, Robertson, his friend and baking mentor, asked if he would be open to shooting pictures of his bread-baking process at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. The rest is cookbook history.

But Wolfinger said making food into photographic art is just part of his job as a cookbook, restaurant and food product photographer. The other part is making that art a true reflection of the chef’s or client’s vision.

Photos of an oyster dish at Addison restaurant shot by Eric Wolfinger
Eric Wolfinger shares two digital images on his laptop from a shoot Feb. 10 at Addison restaurant of a Kumamoto oyster dish with pickled rose apples and champagne, one alone and one held by Addison chef director William Bradley.
(Hayne Palmour IV)

“When you work with someone like Bradley at Addison, it’s not just my vision as a photographer. I’m trying to channel his intentions and what he’s after. And I’m trying to channel the vibe of the restaurant, too,” Wolfinger said. “We shot Addison when he had two Michelin stars, and I wanted to put him in the league of three Michelin stars.”

“Food photography is like portraiture,” Wolfinger added. “Some photographers have the same look. What I’m after is not putting myself and my style front and center, but really putting the feeling of the place and the person and their vision at the center.”

Eric Wolfinger won a James Beard Award for his photography in Evan Funke's pasta-making cookbook "American Sfoglino."
(Eric Wolfinger)

Funke, the “American Sfoglino” cookbook author and chef, said Wolfinger is in a class of his own as a food photographer.

“I’ve worked with dozens of food photographers at this point, and Eric stands head and shoulders above the rest because he has this energetic calibration that allows him to find the light within whatever he’s looking at,” Funke said. “I think the beauty in Eric’s photography is in part due to his deep love of this craft and his respect for the people behind it.”

The long road

Food photographer Eric Wolfinger adjusts a chicken liver churro dish before shooting it.
Food photographer Eric Wolfinger adjusts a chicken liver churro dish before photographing it at Addison restaurant.
(Hayne Palmour IV)

Wolfinger grew up in an arts-loving, intellectual household in La Jolla, where his mother was a German professor at UC San Diego and his father a public interest lawyer. They were supportive when he gave up soccer in his teens to take Saturday painting classes at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library.

But they weren’t happy when he announced plans to skip traditional college and attend culinary school after he graduated from La Jolla High.

Food was Wolfinger’s “first love” in life. Despite his mom’s teaching schedule, she made home-cooked dinners almost every night, often from Pierre Franey’s “60 Minute Gourmet” recipes that she clipped from The New York Times.

Eric Wolfinger's finished shot of the chicken liver churros with bitter chocolate at Addison restaurant.
(Eric Wolfinger)

“My religion was Sunday dinner,” Wolfinger said. “I loved cooking alongside my mom. And at school I realized the classes I liked best were very project-oriented. I loved making things and I loved to eat everything.”

Nonetheless, he followed his parents’ advice and applied to several universities. He was accepted to Pomona College in Claremont in eastern Los Angeles County, but as the time to leave for college approached, he knew it would be a mistake. So, with his parents’ support, he deferred his admission and took a gap year in Europe to figure things out.

He spent eight months in Germany, then moved to Spain, where his four years of high school Latin helped him quickly pick up the Spanish language, which he said has opened a lot of personal and professional doors for him over the years.

When he returned home and enrolled at Pomona, he discovered something else that would help his future pursuits: improvisational comedy. While performing in the college’s student improv troupe for three years, Wolfinger learned to think fast, follow his instincts and embrace failure as a learning tool. That has been especially helpful in his photography career.

“When Chef Bradley is looking at you and saying ‘Now what do we do?’ you have to think on your feet,” Wolfinger said. “I’m really responding to what I hear and feel and sense. I’m there to take that in and then respond creatively.”

After four years at Pomona College, Wolfinger walked away with a degree in political science and Spanish but no real idea about how to achieve his next goal of becoming a professional food writer. So he moved to the Bay Area to learn how to cook, a skill he believed would be crucial for the job. “I wanted to become a great cook, and I wanted to be a writer I could respect, who could write with authority.”

Finding his light

Food photographer Eric Wolfinger, Addison chef director William Bradley (center) and chef de cuisine Jonathan Brambila
Food photographer Eric Wolfinger shows Addison chef director William Bradley (center) and chef de cuisine Jonathan Brambila pictures he just took of a dish at the restaurant on Feb. 10.
(Hayne Palmour IV)

When Wolfinger arrived in the Bay Area, he looked up fellow La Jolla High School grad Samin Nosrat. Today, she’s a TV show host and the bestselling author of the “Salt Fat Acid Heat” cookbook. But in 2004, she was running a small Berkeley restaurant named Eccolo, and she offered Wolfinger a three-month stage (internship) for minimum wage.

“The first day I was in the kitchen, I had goosebumps all day,” Wolfinger said. “It was insane to me that this was actually something you could do for a living.”

From there, he bounced around to different restaurant kitchens until landing at Tartine, where he was one of Robertson’s three baking apprentices, earning $15 an hour. They became good friends and surfing buddies, and Robertson shared with him the mysteries and science of bread baking.

A finished shot by Eric Wolfinger shows a bite of crispy potato, Iberian ham and black truffle at Addison restaurant.
A finished shot by Eric Wolfinger shows a bite of crispy potato, Iberian ham and black truffle at Addison restaurant in Carmel Valley.
(Eric Wolfinger)

As much as Wolfinger loved the work, he still dreamed of being a food writer. So in 2006, he decided that if nobody was hiring, he would create his own destiny. With his life savings of roughly $5,000, a good single-lens reflex digital camera and some basic coding skills to start his own blog, he moved to South America for a year.

Though he had grand plans to write about the restaurant meals he ate, he instead found his voice photographing and writing about unexpected experiences, like discovering Peruvian farmers roasting potatoes in the earth as he walked through the hills to Machu Picchu.

“Getting off the beaten path, having a bit of adventure, being open to what you come across ... those felt like the stories worth telling,” he said.

Eric Wolfinger photographs food at Addison restaurant in Carmel Valley on Feb. 10.
Eric Wolfinger photographs food at the Michelin three-starred Addison restaurant in Carmel Valley on Feb. 10 with a mix of natural and artificial light.
(Hayne Palmour IV)

Wolfinger hoped his blog would attract the attention of famous food writers like Ruth Reichl at Gourmet magazine. She wasn’t reading it, but Robertson was, and he invited Wolfinger to return to Tartine and bake with him. He also offered the restaurant’s walls for a show of Wolfinger’s photos from South America.

“It was the first time I put myself out there as a photographer and Chad saw that and said, ‘Why do I want to battle with a food photographer who doesn’t understand the bread fundamentally when I’ve got my buddy Eric who knows my bread better than anyone ever will?’” Wolfinger said. “He saw something in me. He knew we’d have a good time doing it. And despite my inexperience, I knew I’d do well by him.”

For the next two years, Wolfinger learned as he shot, melding the artistic skills he’d learned from his painting classes with the technical skills he’d taught himself in South America.

“I found my light,” he said.

King of the cookbooks

Eric Wolfinger took this photo of a sourdough loaf for Chad Robertson's "Tartine Bread" cookbook.
Eric Wolfinger took this photo of a sourdough loaf for Chad Robertson’s “Tartine Bread” cookbook, which launched Wolfinger’s commercial photography career.
(Eric Wolfinger)

The “Tartine Bread” book became a bestseller that not only changed Robertson’s and Wolfinger’s lives but also the art of food photography.

“The real heart of the book is the process shots — hands and dough,” Wolfinger said. “I had battled to learn how to make his bread and shape his dough. I’d looked at it from every angle because I’d been by his side for a year and a half by that point. I knew what an apprentice’s eye would need to see to execute the technique, so I was able to then put the reader by his side and do it in a way that felt really compelling and beautiful. He has beautiful hands and the dough is beautiful, so that helped.”

“People know me as the Tartine cookbook guy, and I’m not upset about that,” he added. “That book changed the face of baking globally, and I look back on those photos and have warm feelings about that project. The photos have stood the test of time.”

Eric Wolfinger shot this photograph for Corey Lee's "Benu" cookbook.
(Eric Wolfinger)

In the years that followed, Wolfinger photographed cookbooks for Michelin-starred chefs Charles Phan, Hubert Keller, David Kinch, Kyle Connaughton and Corey Lee, and he has shot cookbooks on topics ranging from burgers to chocolate to Mexican to Thai food.

Early on, Wolfinger shot mostly in natural light — Kinch’s 2013 Manresa restaurant cookbook was shot in 90 percent natural light — but over the years, he has learned how to use artificial light and other tools to get exactly the look he wants.

“When you shoot digitally, you’re shooting a raw image,” he said. “You’re shaping the light, the framing, the depth — all those in-the-moment decisions. But it’s not done until you edit the photo, manipulate the contrast, the shadows and the color tones to get the right look, feel and vibe. The editing part is as much a part of the creative process as the shooting part.”

One of Wolfinger’s longest-term clients is Jennifer Bushman, a leader of the sustainable seafood, or “blue food,” movement. He has worked with Bushman for more than 10 years, helping her advocate the benefits of aquafarming and other techniques to protect the world’s fisheries. She said she loves viewing the world through Wolfinger’s lens.

“Some of the most sustainable foods on water have been captured through Eric’s keen eye,” Bushman said in an email. “He not only brilliantly captured the foods on the plates in all of their vibrancy but he humanized the hard work of water farmers, fishermen and volunteers, all in service to this important food system. Eric continues to grow and bring that spirit of adventure and passion to everything he touches. He cannot help it. It’s inseparable from who he is, and I am one of the many lucky enough to witness it.”

Returning home

Cookbooks are rewarding to shoot, but Wolfinger said he pays the bills with his commercial photography business, which includes shoots for small companies, consumer product makers, fashion firms, lifestyle brands and travel promoters.

For many years, the job kept him on the road much of the time. But six years ago, he met his wife, Alma, and his priorities shifted. Now he prefers to work in the studio and spend more time with her and their two children, ages 2 and 4.

Eric Wolfinger's finished shot of a caviar and beet tart at Addison restaurant in San Diego.
(Eric Wolfinger)

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic forced another life reassessment.

Last August, the family left the Bay Area and moved to La Jolla, where the children can regularly visit their grandparents nearby.

Besides his national clients, Wolfinger has picked up a handful of local clients, including Wayfarer Bread in La Jolla and The Fishery restaurant in Pacific Beach, which is managed by his childhood friend Annemarie Brown.

When he was invited to shoot Addison’s fall menu items late last summer, he wanted to understand the restaurant and its food before he shot a frame. So he dined there and talked to Bradley about his goals for the menu and the restaurant — which included earning that third Michelin star.

“The food at Addison is incredible and it’s beautifully plated, which is a hard thing to communicate in photography,” Wolfinger said. “So I let the food be the absolute hero and I let everything else melt away around it.”

Food photographer Eric Wolfinger (left) and Addison restaurant chef director William Bradley
Food photographer Eric Wolfinger (left) and Addison restaurant chef director William Bradley discuss what dishes to use for a photo shoot Feb. 10.
(Hayne Palmour IV)

Bradley said Wolfinger’s photos of his food at Addison are beyond compare.

“Eric’s eye is unrivaled — he’s a true artist who has the ability to capture texture and the layers within a dish so it appears almost three-dimensional in a photograph,” Bradley said. “He looks at our cuisine through the perspective of a storyteller, narrating the vision of our California gastronomy ethos through each image.” ◆