Jeff Scott: Notes From a Kitchen
5.19.15 | Issue #17
The striking thing about Jeff scott's hefty tomes is how tireless they are in capturing every step of the creative process.
Within the hundreds of pages is a world where every chef can drop the facade that tires them—the press releases and social media, the questions of relevance that dog them—and face the expansive landscape of their own mind. Jeff Scott is a lifelong artist, someone who is more comfortable on the phone than over email, and a veritable chameleon of life: he disappears into these kitchens, these woods, and in doing so, shows their overwhelming power.
I don’t think there’s a great awareness out there, and there’s such a bullshit view of celebrity. People get so infatuated with the idea of the icon, or the image, and the depth of conversation just ceases to happen. There’s a need for so much content to fill all this space, and no one is stopping to create unique content.
If I don’t make something truly beautiful, I can’t spend any time doing it. It has to be uncommonly fucking beautiful. And my stories are quiet. It’s so subtle, and I feel like the larger network of people don’t want that subtlety. They want things that are fast, high-profile, easy to read, easy to digest, and they don’t have to bring a lot of themselves to it. I’m the opposite. The only way you’re going to enjoy my work is if you let go of your preconceived ideas, if you open yourself up to time.
I can’t appeal to the masses, and I don’t want to. I think that’s where I’ve come down. I have to make all of these different compromises if I want people to get it, but ultimately, I don’t want to. To be an artist, you have to really embrace that large amounts of people are going to push against you. A rebellious spirit is a pretty important thing.
It’s taken Scott 30 years to become the artist he is. 30 years of hard work and hustle. At this stage in his life, in his career, in his existence, the one thing he stresses the importance of again and again is reduction. Simplifying, and distilling his vision down so its impact is amplified. Sure, his latest book may weigh 12 pounds, he jokes, but it’s a process.
Everything beautiful takes time. Everybody wants to be famous now! Everyone wants something in two minutes, but there’s no value there. There’s no love, there’s no affection, there’s no foreplay.
Scott’s notoriety outside of the restaurant world came mostly from his involvement with the estate of Elvis Presley, whose personal artifacts and mementos he photographed for close to ten years. The work culminated in a book, Elvis: The Personal Archives, published in 2005. It was this exhaustive portrait that prompted a well-known chef (who shall remain nameless) to ask Scott to document his life in the same way. The artist, who had always regarded chefs and their domains with a curious eye from afar, said yes.
I think, at my core, I’m a junkie for process, not for completion. How does everything work, how do people think about ideas, how do human beings interact, and how do you capture creativity? So I started to hang out in his kitchen as like a line cook with a camera. Just kind of flowing.
Scott is also what you might call an adrenaline hound—he races motorcycles and sinks down into a bottomless calm in intense situations. His blood pressure drops, time slows, and life becomes an underwater ballet. This was what a kitchen—a very busy kitchen cranking out 300 covers a night—felt like.
It was interesting to watch the slow burn up. It wasn’t like things went crazy. It was just this control knob of things going higher, and then slower. I got into it. The problem was the chef was kissing babies and shaking hands on the floor the entire fucking time. He was never in the kitchen, didn’t cook anything. And I was like, “Chef! It’s kind of important to have you in the kitchen if we’re doing this book,” and he’s like, “I gotta shake hands!” It didn’t make sense to me.
The collision of sensibilities led to a falling out between the two. It’s a crucial event in a long chain of things that had to happen, all leading to a chance encounter with a young culinary student with many “resources,” who, after hearing Scott’s true vision for his immersive portrait of kitchens and the people within them, provided the funding for him to make the book he wanted to make. Scott came up with a list of all the people he’d like to hang out with in a world of unlimited access. Little by little, through introductions and mutual friends, he began to cross names off. His first-ever foraging trip was at the elbow of Sean Brock. After three intensive years of constant documentation on the road, and three years of wading through edits and publishing volumes one, two, and now three, he’s documented anywhere from 25 to 30 chefs and foragers and creators.
I never have anyone ‘do’ anything for me, ever. Just live your life and I’ll follow you around for a few weeks. I don’t like to make things false. I don’t want to tell the audience how they should feel. They don’t need to be told. My books are very unedited—it’s the act of showing something in its natural state that I think gives it its humanity. At their core, they’re about curiosity and documenting the unknown. What it tastes like when you eat a stem or a flower in a forest when there’s nobody else around.
How do you measure it? I think that’s the perfect question. Now we’re talking about legacy. I like that question a lot, because you can’t. You don’t know who you’re going to influence and that’s the beauty of all this, right? It’s not about how many did you sell and how much did you make, because who gives a shit. It’s about what one fucking person did you affect? That, to me, is the value of making art. That is the value of these books. That they’re there. That they exist.