It was nearing midnight on Day 8 of a two-week photo shoot when I rolled out dough for a sheet of graham crackers. Using a long ruler as a guide, I cut perfect rectangles, then pressed straight lines of dots with a fork. Going into the oven, it looked flawless. Coming out, it had buckled over the parchment paper and creased like a shirt crammed in a drawer.
Disappointed, I figured I’d make a new batch the next morning. When the photographer, Romulo Yanes, arrived, I showed him the ruined crackers and told him I’d get another tray ready.
He stopped me and told me — scolded me, really — that those wrinkles are what made the baked dough beautiful. I thought he was just saying that to be nice since the shoot was for my first solo cookbook, but he took the pan and set it under his camera. Even before his monitors were set up, he snapped a shot. He motioned me over and chuckled while showing me the image on the viewfinder.
“See? It’s gorgeous,” he said. “Come on, let’s eat.”
In a world where anything short of ideal seems unacceptable, Romulo helped me to find the beauty in imperfections, to see how mistakes can lead to something surprising and possibly even better. It was a master class in grace, as was his practice of taking time to share a meal with those around him. With these years marred by grief and in this season of feeling loss more acutely, I think often of Romulo, who died from cancer in June. I remember him and especially those two lessons that he taught me that day, and again on every shoot.
Romulo’s food photography is often recognized for his clear love of what’s on the other side of the lens. But those who have been on set with him know that his images also convey how he valued the people around the food — how he worked with us, flaws and all, and turned our dishes into beautiful things, then gathered us around the table to share in them.
On most photo shoots, breakfast is sips of coffee and bites of muffin taken while setting up. But Romulo would cajole us to begin each day with a hot meal together, even if we just wanted to get to work. One morning, he walked into the kitchen to cook us breakfast. He craved a poached egg on a buttered English muffin and wanted to make each of us one. The stylists, assistants and I gathered around the stove, where Romulo put a skillet of water over the flame.
He carefully lowered half a dozen eggs into the boiling water and rolled them back and forth for 20 seconds or so, then scooped them back out, one by one. When asked why he first put the eggs into the pan while they were still in their shells, Romulo explained that the brief glide in bubbling water prevented the whites from later spreading into a lacy fringe. He confessed that he had no idea whether there was any scientific merit to this, then tipped a splash of vinegar into the pan, which definitely does help the whites set. He cracked the eggs in, spacing them apart as if on a sundial, and cheered when they didn’t spread.
The eggs immediately ballooned, staying nice and tight, and going from clear to white, then they began to bob as they firmed up. After a few minutes, Romulo nudged the yolks to make sure they wobbled only a bit and spooned the eggs out onto paper towels.
They weren’t five-star-hotel Benedict eggs, round as globes after spinning in a whirlpool of boiling water or being coddled in a ladle. They were shaped like friendly ghosts — no frilly rim but curved edges and the slope of diner-poached eggs. Because all six were ready at the same time, we got to sit together and eat them hot, the yolks running into the toasted crags of our English muffins.
It didn’t matter that the eggs weren’t picture-perfect. What did matter was the time we took to stop hustling and to connect with one another.
Recipe: Skillet Poached Eggs