“What would you have for your last meal?” is a popular question in fun questionnaires. Apparently it is also a game that chefs have been playing among themselves for decades. What would Ferran Adrià have as his very last meal, if he could choose? Or how about Daniel Boulud and Fergus Henderson? Any guesses what Gordon Ramsay might like for his last meal?
New York-based photographer Melanie Dunea was also curious about what the world’s most famous chefs would answer to this question. So she set about not only finding out, but also photographing the chefs with their last meals. The result is two books: My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals in 2007 and My Last Supper, The Next Course in 2011.
Dunea’s “Vanity Fair-style” portraits are simultaneously gorgeous and insightful, offering the viewer a glimpse of the passions and personalities of those names in the culinary business that are akin to rock stars. Cutting through the veneer of the supposed glamour, Dunea gets to what really makes the temperature rise for these chefs.
Having worked with the foremost culinary creatives in the industry, Dunea likens cooking, the way it’s done in these top kitchens, to a military operation. It’s precise and exact, and chefs really need to be on top of their game, or in control of their kitchen, if they want to be innovative. Dunea reckons: “Everybody can cook but only an exceptional few can really cook.”
Her interest in those “few who can really cook” started as a passion project. Based in New York, Dunea has been photographing chefs for some 10 years now. She decided to photograph famous chefs and their desired last meal as a celebration of their work. “It’s a kind of tribute because I am an admirer of their work,” she explains.
While the final result is very often a beautiful and inspiring artwork, the process leading up to that one perfect moment is a laborious one. Apart from dashing around the world, “catching planes, trains and automobiles”, Dunea spends a lot of time researching her subjects. “I’ll try and learn as much as possible about the chef before I start exploring ways to photograph them.”
Much of the styling of the final photograph is the result of making a judgment about the chef in question. “It’s about capturing the spirit of the person and their chosen meal in the photograph,” Dunea says this is something she managed to do a lot more in the second book.
Working closely with culinary masters, Dunea didn’t find much glamour but she did find that these famous chefs form a rather tight-knit community. “They all go to each other’s restaurants and they really share. Perhaps that is because food is essential to life, so we have to share. It’s like they’re really charitable.”
These charitable actions extend beyond the appreciation of the work of their peers. Dunea found that many of the chefs she interviewed are “involved in food banks, urban gardens and projects that give back to the community in some way.”
This generosity can also be observed in the way that most chefs behave in front of the camera, Dunea says. “I love shooting chefs because they’re willing to do so much more than the average celebrity.” (Dunea also photographs celebrities) Chefs are more natural and more themselves in front in front of the camera, Dunea adds.
While cooking, the celebrity kitchen and the rock star chef may not really be glamorous, being a diner is glamorous. “It’s the ultimate gift and privilege to be a diner,” Dunea concludes.
All photos: My Last Supper and The Next Course by Melanie Dunea / CPi (www.mylastsupper.com).