This episode was fun to record! This is what happens when you get two food photographers together on a podcast to discuss food culture.
Clay Williams worked in IT and Corporate Media before becoming a Photographer in 2006. Looking for an outlet to communicate with the world, and a way to express himself he discovered his love for Photography. Eventually, he began getting paid for his photos for blog posts and various websites which turned into a full time career.
In this episode, Clay and I talk about making people feel comfortable when you’re photographing them, what it’s like photographing in active kitchens and anticipating what’s available to photograph. The aesthetic Clay is shifting to with his food photography and why digital is the better option for it. What it’s like to be a black Photographer.
Clay Williams is a food photographer who began his photography career in 2006. He captures images of food, drinks, and the people and places that define food culture. Over the last 15 years his adventures have taken him on road trips through Argentina and South Louisiana. They have found him hanging off the back of food trucks from Paris to The Bronx. He has sweat it out in tight kitchens with Michelin-starred chefs and wandered through fields of livestock with butchers and chefs seeking the origins of the meat and produce they purvey.
He’s also the Co-Founder of Black Food Folks, a platform for professionals working in food and food media. The organization has provided a space to connect, collaborate, and share stories within the community.
If Clay isn’t behind the camera, he might be behind the stove cooking at home or out exploring local gems around the world. He lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with his wife, Tammi Williams
[00:00:00] Mica: Welcome to the 15th episode of The Savory Shot. I'm your host, Mika. First things first y'all. Did you listen to the last episode with Elise Sakie? If not, stop what you're doing right now and go check it out. Y'all. She gives the best advice on how to protect your intellectual property and rights. This is an episode you don't wanna miss, so go back and listen to it.
But y'all, I'm excited about this episode Today. I'm joined by Clay Williams, a food photographer who photographs food, drinks, and the people and places that define food culture. He's also the co-founder of Black Food Folks, an organization dedicated to promoting black food professionals in today's world.
y'all [00:01:00] Clay's photos. Oh my God, they are stunningly beautiful. What makes his art so special are the people, the way he connects with them and makes them feel comfortable enough to be themselves in front of the camera. Y'all, this episode, it was fun. This is what happens when you get two food photographers in on the same conversation.
Y'all, we talked so much about the pros and cons of digital versus film, photography, black food folks, and why black food professionals need to create platforms of their own. But before we get into that, Let's start the show. Welcome to the Savory Shot, a biweekly show where we discuss the intersection of two passions, food and photography.
I'm your host, Micka McCook. [00:02:00] Every other Wednesday I sit down to chat with professionals in the industry so that you feast not only the best tips and strategies in the business. All right, y'all. Let's get started.
Thank you for being on the Savory Shot Podcast. I'm super duper, duper, duper excited that you're here. As I was like prepping your questions for the interview, I was like, oh gosh, this is gonna be such a great show. So thank you for being here.
[00:02:36] Clay: It's my pleasure. I'm glad to be here. Thanks.
[00:02:38] Mica: I wanna start by saying how I learned of you.
I was interviewing Meika Ejiasi. She and I were having this great conversation about, you know, black food photographers and organizations that promote people, you know, black people in the food industry, black professionals in the industry. And she's, you [00:03:00] know, mentioned you and she's like, you've got to talk to Clay.
You've gotta talk to him. And so here I am. I was like, okay, I trust Meika. We share a first name. So I'm, I'm following where she leads me to go. You started your food photography career in 2006. Uh, is that correct? That's correct. Right, ?
[00:03:17] Clay: Yeah, it was. It was between oh five and oh seven. It was generally I was doing it as a hobby, but yeah, that's when I started doing photography for different websites and, and whatnot.
I started actually posting things and sharing it on the internet and very cool. Maybe occasionally getting paid for it. I'm not entirely sure, but that, that came later.
[00:03:39] Mica: That came later. So what was happening in your life at that time?
[00:03:42] Clay: So I, I worked in IT and corporate media enjoyed photography when I was in high school.
I enjoyed writing, um, when I, you know, high school and college and I was just looking for something more interesting, some [00:04:00] outlet for communicating with, you know, the world. Right. Blogs had just sort of become a more widespread thing and, and I just wanted something to. Some way to express myself that wasn't fixing somebody's printer.
There was a lot going on in Brooklyn at that time. That's when the modern version of farm to table became a bigger thing. It's when, um, whole animal butchery and whole animal restaurants were popping up everywhere. There were classes, there was, there were events, and I would just always go with whatever camera I had with me.
I would share about it one way or the other. And eventually, blogs that were looking for people to make content for them reached out. And sometimes they were paying like 10 or $20 just to share the stuff I had already photographed and I was already going, going to be sharing about. So it was like, sure, why not?
And I sort of fell down the rabbit [00:05:00] hole. And something like 15 plus years later, I'm, I'm still doing it. For about $15 more. So it's a little better.
[00:05:08] Mica: So 15 years. Wow. So what keeps you showing up 15 years later?
[00:05:15] Clay: The people, more than anything else. Like I'm always iffy at being called a food photographer.
Like I do take pictures of food. It's the, it's the thing, it's the thing that pulls, uh, so many people in. But all of it is really about expression and about the way that people are expressing their art, their culture, their history, their families. I look to who the people are, and I'm not sure when this is gonna be on, but I just came from.
The Bay Haven Food and Wine event hosted by Greg and Sabrina Collier in Charlotte, North Carolina. And that's a, this big black food and drink gathering. Had several events. It brought people in from [00:06:00] all over the area, brought in chefs from all over the country. And I spent that time really talking and, and sort of building with these folks, like just connecting to them.
And, you know, a lot of times it was with, with the camera, but a lot of times it was just hanging out over drinks or over over meals at the hotel bar or set aside somewhere at the event or just in those moments of rushing around while stuff is going out of the kitchen. And that's really what it's about for me.
It's about. Sharing those stories. It's about being able to show that it's not just one thing or another. That it's that our, our food, our culture cuisine are as individual as each and every one of us. And so being able to capture that visually, but also to be able to just be a part of it is, is my main motivation.
[00:06:56] Mica: I think you've raised such a good point about, you know, food photography is [00:07:00] what pays the bills and it's what you do, but you're ultimately in the business of storytelling. It reminds me, so I was, when I was doing my research on you, I listened to an interview that you did on Stay Current, which loved that interview.
But one thing I loved that you said is that you geek out on. and I can definitely see that in your work. And to quote you, you said that's a part of who you are connecting to thinking about food, whether it's when I'm cooking, what we're going to eat, what I wanna go or where I wanna go, so that we can get food or whatever.
Who am I supporting? Who am I connecting with? Who am I talking to on Instagram? Who am I following? Whose recipes am I trying to hone? I mean, gosh, that's just such, that's so deep. Like as a food photographer, you've got to become just as invested in what you're photographing as the person who is making it.
How has this outlook impacted your photography? [00:08:00]
[00:08:00] Clay: It's hard to say because these are all things. are part of the reason that I got into photography. So I was already thinking about a lot of those things from the beginning. From, you know, what's sort of why I started taking the photos is because I wanted to see behind the scenes.
I wanted to see what people were doing, how they were doing it, who they were. Like I said, it's been a bit of a rabbit hole, but some of the first things I was photographing were butchery classes and was as much about like the people and the personalities of the folks who were teaching those classes or who were working in these butcher shops.
The, you know, sort of intensity, the sort of like feeling that like this was, like I said, whole animal butchering, whole animal dining sort of thing. It was at a time when it's like, this is the thing that people are going to, that, that they were excited about for a reason, and they were excited about it because it's like, it's, the idea is to reduce food waste.
The idea is that this is what, this is how we're supposed [00:09:00] to eat, right? It's not just supposed to be. A thousand chicken breasts, right? It's supposed to be that you have the whole animal, and so we should be eating all the parts. You know? Those are the things that motivated me, is to find out who the people are and what their mission is, and the food is a part of that.
I, I don't separate myself from the community I cover. I consider them to be my sort of friends and the folks that I really enjoy being around and understanding what they're, what they're doing, what they're working with. How, why, you know,
[00:09:30] Mica: something that you said just now that I love is that you view the people that you're photographing as your friends and not as model photographer.
How do you approach building that rapport with the people you're photographing so that you get like their authentic selves in front of the camera,
[00:09:51] Clay: talking to 'em for one, right? Mm-hmm. , I photographed for the James Beard Foundation for, for years. I mean, I still do, [00:10:00] but the, the foundation. Used to in the pre pandemic days, host chefs from around the country, something like four or five nights a week doing these big elaborate dinners, multiple chefs.
You'd have like four or five, eight different chefs all doing different courses. In a relatively small kitchen. You get a team of chefs or, uh, a team of, like a chef and their team from a restaurant from the other side of the country, from Canada, from Alaska, from wherever, and they're just sort of dropped in the space.
They've had a day or two to prep, and then I show up and I'm like, Hey, I'm taking pictures and I don't have a lot of time to like, get them a beer and like ask how they're, how, what their story is. Like they're, they're in the middle of this really intense thing. So it's just sort of by being there with them and showing them that.
I know what they're dealing with. I'm familiar with the [00:11:00] environment. Like I'm going to, I'm gonna, I'm not gonna surprise you with something. I'm, I'm here to capture this moment as much for you as for the foundation. And so doing that enough times, you know, if I'm, if I get an assignment and I'm sent to somebody's kitchen somewhere, I, I make sure to sort to let them know that this is not a unfamiliar place to me.
Like, I don't know your kitchen, but I have been in plenty of others and I'm not gonna catch my, my equipment on fire. Or like, bump into something or like, knock over your, your Mason Plus, right? Like, I'm, I'm gonna do my best to respect you, your space and your food. Both in how I interact in this environment, but also in how I, I cover and.
[00:11:48] Mica: by showing the subjects that you're interviewing, that you respect their space and you respect what they do, and you're respecting what they're going to make for you, [00:12:00] I feel like that puts a, a place of trust in you. I see it in your work. I hear it when you do your interviews, just that passion where it's like food is just the chosen medium.
Sure. But ultimately it's the people. It's, it's so interesting how you went from it to photography. What exactly drew you to food?
[00:12:28] Clay: I got into it because I was interested in computers and how they worked, and I liked experimenting and trying new things, and I was in college in the late nineties before like.
things were anything like they are today, social media, yada yada. We had, we had IRC and I C Q and AIM and stuff like that. So I got into computer things as a way to be creative and to [00:13:00] experiment. That is not how one exists in the corporate world, in corporate it. And so you don't have nearly the same way to express yourself way to try new things, way to, to do what you want to do.
So yes, there was a bit of that in why I became, I, I, I started in it, but like really this is what has given me an outlet for creativity way more than I ever could in, in an environment like that. It's so
[00:13:31] Mica: cool that you got into it because you are curious about how things are built. How things work. And it translates into your photography because that's so much of what you do or what I see in your work is that you are studying your, your subject about how they work, how they create this thing.
So in the same interview you mentioned, uh, with stay current, you mentioned [00:14:00] that transitioning from film to to digital, and you said that the beauty of digital, it became less about I have to get this one shot and more just unselfconsciously about getting moments. What I wanna know is, you know, take me to the moment where you came to that realization.
What was that moment?
[00:14:23] Clay: It is interesting about talking about the difference between film and digital because it's something I'm still sort of grappling with. I really do enjoy film and there's something that about being able to slow down and capture scenes in a certain way with film. But it's true that it's harder to catch candid moments with film because you have to slow down.
You only have the 36 frames on a roll and so on digital, I can just point in a certain direction and wait for something to happen. And if I, if I shoot 10 frames and like [00:15:00] the one is where I got it, whether it's like the right flare up or something like that, or somebody looking at someone the right way, it's certainly more, certainly more practical work-wise.
But there is a certain character to to film that I always enjoy and there's something about. Hitting the point where you know what's gonna happen before it happens. And I think maybe that may be the difference between where I was when I said that before and where I am now. As I've been, I've been using more film as a sort of more experimenting experimentation, a little bit more play.
And it's not usually stuff that I'm submitting for work, but maybe stuff that I'm doing because I'm, I'm, I'm interested in it. I spend a lot, spending a lot of time in kitchen, a lot of time in kitchens means that I'm better at anticipating, oh, this thing's on the menu, they're gonna do this next, they're plating this here.
And that's some, some of that is just [00:16:00] knowing by watching and some of it is knowing to ask the questions when I know I need to point in a certain direction, I know I need. position myself in a certain, a certain place. I've been playing with lights, lighting more. And so if I'm in an act, active kitchen, I can't put up a stand.
So like I have my little, I don't know if you geek out to gear, but like I, I have my little Go Docs light that I put up in, I put up on a shelf and you know, I find the right place for the light, and then I have to sort of bounce around the room and try to make it work. And depending on where I am, if I'm in the right place at the right time, like I'm getting the perfect shot of this person doing this thing, or sometimes I'm getting also a nice shot of like a silhouette of somebody if like they're on the other side of the light, right?
And so some of it is just a matter of, of knowing or anticipating or understanding what's going on enough to be able to put yourself in the right place. But all that is to say that digital is still the [00:17:00] primary thing that I use because film is expensive and. You have a lot more leeway to, to make adjustments, to work with, uh, you know, to work with it.
I mean, the color and such alone is, is a reason enough to, to use digital primarily. I sort of went into my more recent experimenting with film thinking like, film isn't really good for food because we have this expectation of food photography now, of being the super crisp, super sharp, beautiful lit situation that only really existed in like these, you know, very specific studio settings if you're doing it on film.
And unfiled and digital allows you to make that happen in a dining room. It makes that happen in a lot of other places. And like the, the, the grain and the texture that you have on film is not necessarily something that we are conditioned [00:18:00] anymore to appreciate on food subjects. That was super nerdy and whatever.
But like, that was my, that's how I went into it. And then I saw Headie McKinnon's book to Asia with Love, and I realized that like the whole book was shot on film and she shot it in her own home in Brooklyn, and she's the writer and where has b developer and she styled it and, and the whole point, uh, and, and she photographed it all, which is all stuff that like, that's, you know, I can't do all that.
Um, that's not my area. But it has a very specific point of view. And I think that like, it is a little dark. It is a little rough. It is a little softer around the edges. It is like all of these things. But like, but it was amazing because it was not like every other cookbook. I've never, I've not found an answer to myself whether I think it's true or not, that food can or cannot be.
[00:19:00] Photographed, I don't wanna say well, but socially acceptably in like, given our current aesthetics. But I still try here and there. Most of my film photography is, is people and portraits and that sort of thing. But every now and again I'll, on a food shoot, I'll have my film camera with me and I'll, I'll take a couple frames and see what comes
[00:19:22] Mica: out.
Something you said earlier that I totally resonate with, with film, I'm a lot more observant than I am with digital. With digital I know that I can fire off a hundred or so frames and, and I can get that one millisecond of a, of a moment and that's really cool. But, Then when I go back and look at these photos and post, I'm like, oh crap.
I had no idea that any of this happened. A prime example of film, I went to Los Angeles for the National Slam Poetry Contest, and it was my first time out of Texas and my [00:20:00] sister-in-law let me take her, her camera. It was, you know, film camera, and I just had to buy all of the, the roles of film. So I took them.
But you know, I, I also was poor, so I could buy the film, but I couldn't develop the film . Right, right. I had all these little rolls, these little canisters of, of film that I just never developed, and I'd tell myself over the years, it's like, oh, I'll, I'll get it developed when I get some money or when I get time, or whatever, whatever.
Whatever. I did not get those roles of film developed literally until two years ago. I took 'em down to to Walgreens. They didn't even have like a development booth anymore. You just stick 'em in a in a box and whatever. So they sent me the photos back and I looked through every single one of those photos and they were all really shitty
But I remember that moment being there. There was one shot of me and a couple of my [00:21:00] teammates, and we were in front of this green bush, and I remember that moment. I remember taking that photo. I remember what we said afterwards. I remember seeing this like stunning woman who looked like her face had been Botox to hell and thinking, wow, LA's a really weird place.
You know, I remember that moment. . And yet I just shot an event for an octoberfest event and there were some moments where I captured some shots and I'm like, this is beautiful, but I don't remember that happening. So I feel like film just kind of makes us take a pause and be more observant with the people we're watching and being a little bit more selfish with the moments that we photograph.
[00:21:44] Clay: There's also the issue of photography for work and photography for play. Mm-hmm. Because I found that I know exactly what you're talking about, shooting more film has been incorporated into it. But really, [00:22:00] a few years ago, this was pre pandemic, I realized that I was only shooting for work and. I was not engaging like with the camera outside of, okay, I'm shooting this event.
Okay, I'm shooting this article. My camera is still in the bag exactly as I left it when I like le when I got home from my last gig and, and that was it. I got into all of this so that I could be creative and I could try new things and whatever, and I realized that, I realized that I was, I was still improving my work and all that, but I was a, I was going on autopilot a little bit and I was working in the sense of like going and like getting the shots that I know my client needs.
And when I started carrying my camera again, when I went out on my own to photograph around my neighborhood, to just have something that's not [00:23:00] just my, my phone, that's when I started thinking again more about the feeling of photography that. Got me interested in it in the first place. So going back to film has been an extension of that for me.
And I'll be really honest that part of the reason I enjoy shooting film is that I don't really edit my film pictures. I mean, I'll adjust my skew or something like that if something's not, um, if something's not straight. But I'm so used to shooting raw that I'm just not gonna try correcting the color on, on like a scan film image.
I'm just not gonna do it. It's just like, this is, there's no reason for me to do that. My final versions of most of them, uh, most of my film shots are gonna be as they were at camera, you know, right in the camera. Because, because it's for fun too, right? Like it's a thing where I'm doing it, not so that I can go and spend another couple hours [00:24:00] in Lightroom going through another couple thousand images because like, and digital, you don't know when to stop.
And so there's always something else. If I'm limited by the size of the role, but then also by like how much work I'm gonna put into it. I think it helps me be a bit more expressive than a whole different way because I'm, I am taking those moments and I'm seeing things, and I'm capturing things, but I'm not like, oh, I have to perfect this because of this, because of that.
Or I have to go and I have to spend like five hours, like downloading all these pictures, adding them to the queue of other things I need to edit. Making it so that either like I end up archiving them before I do any post on them, and then they're gone sort of forever or like just making it another thing to do.
I think it's important to keep in mind that you're doing this because you enjoy doing it and not like, uh, it doesn't become another, another job. A few years ago when I [00:25:00] sort of realized that I wasn't new to the field anymore, I spent my first several years just sort of hustling, taking every gig and like running around and going to everything possible and, and all of that.
And like just making sure I was like doing the work and trying to get new clients and trying to be in front of everybody so that they see the stuff I'm doing, they see my work, they see that I'm present, whatever. And a lot of that is still in me and what I do. But there was a point when I realized that, that like, oh, I don't think I would've said at the time that I feel like I'm established, but I would say, I would've said, I am not new anymore.
This isn't, I'm not just starting out anymore with that. And we can go into it later with that. Like I put myself in a different position where, I realized I wanted to spend more time helping other folks in the industry and [00:26:00] both photography and, and food. But also I had to think of how I was doing the work differently instead of just of the day to day, like, it's Friday night, or it's Tuesday night, Wednesday night, whatever.
Like, I've got another gig. I'm gonna negotiate another dinner. I'm gonna go do this, I'm gonna do that. I gotta edit, I gotta go do these calls, whatever. I started thinking of more expanding how I'm thinking about doing the work too. And I think that like those things sort of coincided me feeling like I'm leveling up on a career level, but also motivating myself again to to improve and to experiment and to take my work to that level as well.
[00:26:44] Mica: a creative, I definitely know what that feels like, and that's where you have to be even more intentional with your curiosity. . Another thing that you mentioned that that I think is really cool where you talk about how film, you [00:27:00] don't do a lot of posts and it makes me wonder with film, are we capturing moments and with digital, are we creating moments?
[00:27:08] Clay: Yeah, I mean that's interesting. I hadn't thought of it like that. I treat them sort of the same, but yes, because you're able to touch things up and like get to every pixel and all of that, whether it's expectations, whether it's habit, whether it's just sort of our own look or style. We have this feeling that, well, we need to get every single thing.
Whereas on film, part of what makes it more real is, I know, I'm sure there are amazing retouchers that can still go out there and take a high red scan of a, of a frame of film and like etch whatever you want to do, but like, but really what's the point? and that I, I guess that's really it. It's, it's, it's the idea that like, I mean, for me, at least at this moment, I'm not shooting film [00:28:00] professionally.
I'm shooting, I'm shooting film because I want to see how things turn out. I want to try things out, I want to experiment, and I might reach a time where I do want that film quality on my professional work, but I think if I get there, then it will be because those things aren't necessary. Yeah. It, it'll, it will be because I wanna have a style using this, this medium that is not, that is more real, that doesn't require those things, that doesn't require, like, heavy editing or retouching.
And, I mean, I don't do that stuff. I spend more time on post than I want to, but I don't really spend a lot of time on Post. I'm not a Photoshop, I'm, I'm. Same. I use Lightroom more than anything else.
[00:28:49] Mica: I switched everything over to Capture one. A friend of mine, I, when I was first getting into Capture one, she's like, if I could describe Capture one, it's, if Lightroom and Photoshop had a [00:29:00] baby capture, one would be that
[00:29:01] Clay: baby.
I've actually been having conversations with some folks about, about using Capture One mostly for tethering. Um, which is not something I do very often or much at all, but that's an interesting way to describe it. I, I, I didn't realize, honestly that Capture One had all that capability.
[00:29:22] Mica: That's why I got into capturing, I was doing a lot more studio work and I, well, I had to use Capture One because I was in school at the time and they make us use Capture one for our assignments.
And so I did not go into Capture one willingly. I did not go as a tribute. I, I went as a sacrifice. I loved Lightroom, still do. And it was so, it was really difficult for me to make that switch. But the tether is just, it's unlike anything
[00:29:52] Clay: ever. It's funny you talk about switching and it being a sacrifice.
My first software for managing my [00:30:00] photos was Aperture, um, which I think people probably haven't even heard of anymore. Um, aperture. Yeah. It was old Apple software, a pre-dated Lightroom, I'm pretty sure. And it was old database and you kept all your images in it and it had all of the tools. And I used that for years, even after they discontinued it.
And it was only because they kept upgrading their OS and each new upgrade. Less and less functional. Then I finally switched to Lightroom. I tolerate Lightroom , um, I, and I use, I use photo mechanic for cuing and internal and tagging all that stuff. And then I use Lightroom just for my edits and organization.
But like, I don't have any, I don't have any huge tie to it outside of like, it's where all my pictures
[00:30:51] Mica: are. I wanted to ask you, what does it mean for you to be an entrepreneur and black food photographer in [00:31:00] this industry right
[00:31:00] Clay: now? I mean, it's a little exhausting, but like, not in a bad way. Well, I don't know.
I go back and forth. I don't love celebrating grind culture, even though like when you're your own boss, like you have to do that, right? I try to also make sure I have time to be a human and time to relax and. Time to do things for fun, which happens to also be what I do for work . Uh, which I have not, I have not figured out how to, how to deal with that yet.
Uh, I've been told multiple times that I should try to find a hobby that is not, that is not directly related to my job, but, you know, the things that I enjoy our cooking, eating, drinking, and shooting photography. So, um, , so it's like , that's, I dunno, I mean, of being as part of the life when you're at your, like at your high points and at the low points, right?[00:32:00]
I'm in a position where, where I kind of have a lot going on and it's great and it's exactly what I've been working towards and that's exciting, but, I'm tired, , um, you know, I need a nap . Um, which I will say is one of the best things about being, uh, being your own boss, is if you can swing it, finding time to take care of yourself and doing things like having an afternoon nap, cuz it's not like you're not gonna be working late or you didn't get up early or something.
Right. Like go for a walk when it's nice out. I mean, you're asking me about business and I'm, I'm thinking about self-care. So, I mean, maybe that says
[00:32:42] Mica: something that is a form of business. It has to be. I mean, I think that's a form of Yeah, it has to be. If you, you are not taking care of yourself, you can't take care of other things.
I'm also not a fan of that grind culture. I was at first and I nearly grinded myself into the ground. [00:33:00] Came to a point where, I found it really hard to relax. Like I felt guilty for sitting on the couch and watching an episode of TV and say to myself, oh my gosh, I'm watching tv. Should I be doing something else at this moment?
Am I wasting my time right now? It just got to be so much that I, I felt so burned out from it all and it's ing that you're putting on yourself all the time. Yeah, it's, it's really bad. It's really bad. You gotta take care of yourself.
[00:33:29] Clay: The grind got me where I am, but like, and I, I want, I have places I want to go past this, but I don't want it to be my defining the defining feature of my career.
Right. It's a, it's a vehicle to get you where you want to go, but like you can't stay on it
[00:33:49] Mica: forever. And I think there should be a grind to an extent. Like Sure, grind. Yeah, hustle. Do that. Right. Work hard, but also rest. , I, [00:34:00] I used to work in the medical field and there was never any moment where we were allowed to just sit there like we always had to be doing something.
From the moment we clocked in to the moment we clocked out and went home. And I kind of carried that energy into freelancing where I'm like, if the sun is up, then I'm gonna be working. I can watch TV later. I need to be working. But then if you're just constantly pounding and pitting the pavement that way, it's only a matter of time be before it, you know, you're not producing your best work.
If you're not rested, your, your mind isn't rested, your body isn't rested. And so, I mean, that's kind of the problem that I had with a lot of that hustle culture.
[00:34:39] Clay: So one of the things that I did early on when, and this was as much because I was getting used to. Having this odd schedule of shooting dinners like on a Saturday night and like never really knowing what day of the week it was and, and all of that.
I would, every [00:35:00] now and again, I would declare a Saturday, it would be like a Tuesday afternoon, and I'm like, you know what? I worked all weekend. I was editing, I was shooting, I was doing all this stuff. I had calls, I did whatever. I don't have anything going on today, today's Saturday. And I would reach out to a couple of my friends who were also freelancers, see who was around and like, Hey, you want to go and hang out this afternoon?
Do you want to go like, grab a drink? Do you want to like go chill outside? Like do whatever. And I don't do that often enough anymore, but like I do. But I do try to make sure I'm finding the time and not being sort of stuck in the feeling that like, oh, It's this day, it's this time, it's whatever it is. I should be working on something.
[00:35:53] Mica: I love that. Today's Saturday it's like, but it's Wednesday. No, it's Saturday. Saturday for me. I [00:36:00] worked hard the last few days, so today is my Saturday. Uh, I'm gonna start doing that. I love that. Highly recommend. I love that. I, I had a coworker, the clinic I used to work at, she would take personal days and she'd be like, Hey, I'm not gonna be here on this day.
And my boss would ask her, you know, why? Like, where are you going? And she'd say something like, she's gonna go do something fun. She's like, oh, I'm gonna go get a facial. I'm gonna get my nails done. And she's like, uh, you're using p t O for that. She goes, yeah, it's called Personal Time Off. She's like, yeah, I could do whatever I want.
And I remember at that time, Just guzzling down that haterade cuz I was like, I have to come into work so that you can go get your facial . But I mean, hate the game, not the players. She knew what she needed to do to take care of herself. I really wanna talk about black food folks and Sure. How that came to be.
Um, what do you think makes it so [00:37:00] successful?
[00:37:01] Clay: I don't know. Well, no, I, that's not true. Uh, that's not true. I mean, , I guess I'm going to, I'm going back still to the premise just because like I love that black food folks is there and that I love the stuff we've done with it. I think we got a lot of attention because of what we were doing during the pandemic.
We haven't been super active because, because I've been busy cuz Colleen's been busy. And so I guess there's just the question of the definitions of success and when and how long and all of that stuff. So that's a whole. Other question, but I think that what makes black food folks appealing to people is, is that there's not another space like it.
There's not another space where black professionals in the food and drink related industries can connect with each other and have those conversations, both in personal, in person and online. We had reached our first anniversary about three weeks before the pandemic was [00:38:00] announced or was whatever declared.
And so we had already been doing in person gatherings and people were very into the, into it. Just based on that, based on the original concept of putting a bunch of people in the room, meeting each other and connecting and, and forming bonds and community. And I don't love the term networking because like, I don't think that networking as the term is used really reflects community.
I think it's, it's usually very one-sided. It's. What can you do for me? Whereas community is what can we do for each other? Our first gathering, we asked the question of everybody like, what are the things that you could use from the community and what are the things that like you can offer to the community?
All of my gigs had dried up. I don't really do or hadn't really done a whole ton of studio related things. I don't have a studio space. Most of my things are on location. Like everything I had had [00:39:00] booked basically indefinitely for was canceled or postponed. And so as discussed my, all of the things that I do or based around the things related to to this career, and so I basically spent a lot of time.
cooking and planning meals, , um, and trying not to think about whether I was ever gonna work again. And so I knew I wasn't. I I was in the same boat I was, uh, as a lot of other people. I wasn't just me. So many people working in restaurants had been furloughed or laid off or whatever. And so I reached out to folks and I said, Hey, people seem to be doing this Instagram Live thing.
If you can talk to anybody in a conversation for an audience of whoever shows up, like who would you be interested in talking to? And so folks gave me their wishlist and I worked the community. I reached out and I was like, Hey, so do you [00:40:00] mind spending half hour or an hour talking to this, this person who is by the way, also really smart and curious and really wanted to talk to you?
And, and it was that they were conversations. They were real engagement among people. It wasn't, I mean, sometimes it was a writer talking to a chef, but often it was a chef talking to a chef. I did a lot of pairing up with people who were related in or who did similar things, who were, who did connected things.
And there Nelson, who's just brilliant talking about the politics of food. Omar Tate, Loretta Yar, who's now Chef de Cuisine, the Grammarcy Tavern is just so brilliant and well read and curious and people loved being in the middle of that conversation. Right. Seeing like what, you know, it's like people talk about the, [00:41:00] and I don't have an answer to this, so don't, don't ask, but like the whole like your dream dinner party.
Like who do you want there from like all time, like dead or alive or whatever, right? And like being able to sit and watch as like, Smart, talented, curious people in the industry have a conversation talking about their lives, their work, their, the state of things, the, the future, the past culture, community.
That was one of the few things that made that moment bearable. Going all the way back to the quest, the original question, which is what, why is it successful? I think we've had different phases of what black food folks is, and, and in that phase, I think that was what made that super successful. In the time since then, we've, we've done a few different things.
We have had one, um, sort of under the radar in-person gathering that we did the night before the James Beard Awards [00:42:00] in Chicago at virtue. It was the, it was just a few hours. Well, uh, I mean about 20 hours before Eric Williams won his Beard Award for, uh, best Chef and Great Lakes, and it was amazing. It was another great time where all the, we had so many people from the community who were in town because we had, because there were so many nominees of color, so many black nominees in particular, that that was a busy weekend for me.
I photographed every event that happened and I decided like, well, Colleen and I decided that like, yeah, but you know, someone has to have this party and I guess that's gonna be us. And Eric very, very kindly offered the space and his people were amazing. And we, we just had a full house of people who were so excited to be together.
And I think that's really what it's about. It's just being able to be a, a place physically or virtually where [00:43:00] people can come together. One
[00:43:01] Mica: thing you've mentioned, uh, and this is from our conversation, when we first, uh, talked on Zoom, you mentioned that that black food folks showed that there are a ton of black people in the food industry and the struggle that black food professionals face is to be seen and heard.
How can we navigate through that challenge?
[00:43:23] Clay: There are a couple answers. I mean, the one I gravitate towards is we just gonna make our own shit. And that doesn't mean we shouldn't participate in other things. It doesn't mean we shouldn't be honored when you win you an award from the Beards or I A C P or whoever else.
It just means that we need our own institutions so that we're not constantly depending on someone else to remember that we. It shouldn't take somebody being murdered in the streets by police to, to have people remember that, [00:44:00] oh yeah, we cook food, we do this, we do that. Right? When we started doing our stuff on black food folks, on Instagram, on whatever, it was not in response to tragedy.
It was because, because we have shit to say. We want to talk to each other about it. Right. And that's it. Right? I mean, if I have to wait for somebody else to invite me in so that I can say what I need to say, then not that that's on me exactly, but like, that's not me. Right. Like I. . If I have stuff to say, then like I can go find people to talk to who will appreciate that voice.
I think that both need to be done, and I know that people are out there doing, it's part of what, and I, I will add in that the thing I haven't mentioned, which is probably our most in fact, impactful, but one of the things that we've done is through the years in partnership with tel, we have [00:45:00] awarded grants to a number of organizations.
You know, some are businesses, some are farms, some are nonprofits, but to groups that are doing work in the community that we wanted to honor and represent and, and, and thought represented the best of the community. I don't honestly remember the exact number, but we're somewhere in the area between one fifty, a hundred fifty and $180,000 we've been given away in the last three.
That's incredible. Being able to do things like that, like the whole reason we do it is because, , we want to see more of our own things being built and if that means supporting, supporting an upcoming bakery or a donut shop, or one of our first ones was while Entertaining Magazine by Amber Mayfield, who's been a, a friend of black food folks for, for years.
Honeysuckle Provisions is, they are [00:46:00] days away from having their official opening event and I'm gonna be there in Philadelphia for it and I can't wait. And the, we gave 'em five grand like two years ago. I guarantee you that five grand is only a small, small part of, of what went into all of the work that Omar and Civil had been doing.
But like we are glad to have been just even that those guys put their lives into creating. You know, something for their community. Omar is from West, west Philly, and he wanted to gr, they wanted to create a grocery store, a place to serve like fresh food and produce from black farmers to like this community that doesn't have grocery stores.
It's amazing. I love it. Right? I love to see it. I think that that's what's important is that idea of continuing to build whether somebody else [00:47:00] wants to be a part of it or not.
[00:47:01] Mica: It's like I, I'm not gonna stand here and wait for your permission. Right. To exist in this space feeds into the idea of what you said earlier, that networking is what can you do?
For me community is what can we do for each other? How do you think the food industry needs to change in order for more people of color to
[00:47:24] Clay: succeed? I don't know that it's just the food industry that needs to change. because so much of what's wrong with the industry, or at least what holds black folks back in the industry is just access to capital.
And that is not specific to food. It's been, I think, fairly well documented. So in, in recent years, how much harder it is for black folks to get loans for black folks, to get investors, [00:48:00] for black chefs to, to rise through the ranks in the industry in general. And if they have, they manage to get through and present themselves, uh, as they are, they may be questioned, uh, their either their skills or their competence or their style.
and so in, in ways that others are, I mean, that's not just the industry and the industry has all a, a whole bunch of its own problems that need to be fixed, but like the stuff that, the intrinsic stuff that like make it harder to be black in, in the industry, there's a whole bunch of other stuff there before you even get to it.
Nevermind things like tipping and conscious and unconscious bias in, in considering who's able to do what. Food issues of appropriation, pigeonholing, you know, those are all, that's [00:49:00] all a part of the industry, but it's also to some degree a part of society. We should build our own shit, but it's not always that easy.
Talking about Honeysuckle, I, I've known Omar, I think I may even have met Omar. Our first gathering, our first black food folks gathering in February of 2019, and for the entirety of the time I've known him, he is been working on Honeysuckle in one form or another. He's been pursuing this and it is almost November of 2022, and they're about to open the door.
And so I mean, that's a process. And I mean, he is the first one to tell you that like he's been fortunate to get attention. I mean, I think that the attention is entirely well deserved. It's amazing how talented he is and how inspiring he is and, and civil as well. I'd known them both before they got together as like super talented chefs doing good things and now they, they've, they've brought it together [00:50:00] and incorporated CILs sort of background in Haitian cuisine in their own.
Cultural food and the way, the way that Omar, or in a similar way that Omar has always done with his work and his background, but it's, it takes time when time and a lot of effort and a lot of work, even when everything goes right. So when you've got bad credit, when you've got like family issues when you've got like mouse to feed, right?
Like there are all sorts of, way of ways that the playing field is not level. It's what
[00:50:36] Mica: you said, that there are so many cracks in this wall that we can't ca them all. Like it. It's gonna take a lot of different resolutions. I was talking to this about, I was talking to my husband, I was explaining to him what the black tax was,
I was explaining it to him and he at first was really confused. [00:51:00] He's like, I feel like that's what you just described is what everybody has to do. and I told him, mm, normally yes. Like if in a fair world the idea is you bring A and B together, naturally, C what happened? But for, you know, black people, people of color, there's, there's little bullet points under A and bullet points under B.
And it takes a long time before C happens. And it feels like, you know, you have to work twice as hard. You have to show up twice as much. You just have to do everything twice, twice, twice before you get the first result of something. And it's, it's frustrating. It can be really frustrating. I don't want to be given a job over, you know, the fact that I'm black and they're white.
There's so many different layers that need to be attended to [00:52:00] before we get to. The meat of the issue.
[00:52:05] Clay: There are much smarter voices than mine that have discussed some of what you're talking about. Tunde Way has spent a lot of time dealing with exactly this and he, he's very outspoken on the subject and I won't try to condense his various actions and writings, but sometimes, yeah, you should get that job because you're representing things in a way that are not otherwise gonna be understood or represented.
It's complicated, but like sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's like, hey, you have an agency, a restaurant, a whatever that has that is doing this sort of thing and supposed to be talking to these people and like everybody's the same. Like, okay, you all look like you could be at the same family [00:53:00] reunion.
right? Maybe, maybe think about that. You know, it's like, oh, well this is the company culture, this is the this and that, right? Like, I worked at a company that was, I, I, I've spoken ill of them before and I try not to, but like, but they were very much one of those places that's like, oh, we're all about, this is our mission.
We're all about this. Like, this is our, this is our culture here. But then we're like, we don't understand why we can't get any diverse hires. And it's like, well, first of all, you're calling 'em diverse hires when really you mean people of color? Diverse is not a label. Second, you're in, like deep in suburban Connecticut in a place that I know I don't wanna live.
I mean, I ended up leaving my job there because they wanted my, they moved my position. There and I was like, no, I'm not doing that. And then I'm sure they're scratching their heads. Why wouldn't [00:54:00] Clay want to come and live here? It's because everybody looks like you and nobody looks like me.
[00:54:05] Mica: There's not a
[00:54:06] Clay: community out there.
And that's, that's in the physical community, that's in like their little suburban enclaves that's in the offices, that's in leadership, that's everywhere. They covered a subject matter that was very full of black and brown faces, but nobody making decisions represented that I may not be full Sunday on some things where like he's literally out there telling people to quit their jobs.
But at the same time, I don't disagree with the idea that if like you are representing this, if you are, you are running an organization that is supposed to be speaking to and about. Black and brown people that like the people there sh who are making the decisions and not just onscreen talent or whatever should represent some of [00:55:00] those people.
[00:55:01] Mica: The kind of company that you worked for, you know, reminds me a lot of the last company that I ever worked for, and I remember the day I realized that it wasn't fair how they were treating me and how much that changed everything that I did up until that point. I found out like that I was the lowest paid person out of the, there were three positions and I was in one of the three positions, and I found out that I was being paid the least out of the three.
and I thought, we all do the same work. No one is the manager here, no one is the leader here. We all have the same position. Why am I getting paid the least? It was, it was a very stinging thing. Yeah. And so when it came time for my, my one-on-one, I brought it up to my, my boss and I said, I, I wanna raise.
And she [00:56:00] said that it was against Pol company policy to give raises to people who hadn't been with the company for a year or more. And up until that point, I'd been there for about nine months. And so I just accepted it and I was like, okay, . So my, my year one year comes around. and I get the raise that I asked for several months ago.
And right around that time we actually had a new hire come in, and she had been there for maybe three months. And I found out during our staff meeting, she had gotten a raise three months after starting, I scrunched my face up and I knew, my boss knew that she fucked up because she saw the look on my face.
And we locked eyes for a second. And I think my boss knew in that moment that it was only a matter of time that I was gonna be quitting. Oh yeah, for sure. , you know, and that day, any [00:57:00] respect that I had for this boss went away. At the time I was really, really pissed off and I thought, I held down this whole, um, clinic by myself while this person is being trained.
And I didn't get so much as a thank you. I didn't get a shout out. I didn't get shit. And this person gets a raise three months later. Tell me how this is fair. There's not a single thing on this planet that you could tell me other than the fact that she put on a Wonder Woman costume and saved a bus full of people.
That would make me go, okay, I get why she got a raise over after three months of, of starting. And that just really changed the way I operate now as, as a freelancer. You know, I think about that experience where, you know, I found out I was the least paid. And when I asked for the raise, I wish in that moment that I had the balls then to say, okay, well then I [00:58:00] quit and then walk away because months later realizing that I.
that even though I got a raise, this person unfairly got a raise. Three months that I should have walked out at that moment. I wanna close out, uh, today's interview. We talked a lot in our, in our phone call about the term foodie and how , black foodies are not the same thing as black professionals. And I, I wanna talk a little bit more about that.
Do you consider yourself a black foodie?
[00:58:35] Clay: I make the distinction between like why we went with black sweet folks over to say black foodies like most people I know. In and around the industry, crase a little bit at the word right? In the context of the conversation we're talking, uh, that we, we had, we're talking about the difference between calling it black food folks versus black foodies.
And what I said at the time was that a foodie [00:59:00] is a hobbyist. A foodie is somebody who does this for fun and can go around chasing whatever the latest trend is. And I don't know if diante is the right word, but somebody who's not necessarily invested in it professionally is just doing it for a laugh, right?
And there's nothing wrong with that, but black food folks in particular is specifically focused on black professionals in food and drink and farming and photography and food writing and all of that stuff we're, I consider us a, a, a professional community and. To me, the big distinction is that things that we're talking about are not like, you know, we never had, I think we actually did have a cook along once or twice, but black food folks is not about recipes.
It's not about like, you know, there's, there are tons of places to find content for that sort of thing. The [01:00:00] conversations that I wanted us to have, and that I think that we did our best with were when we were talking about the impact of the industry, the world, the history, politics, whatever, on our everyday professional and personal lives that are all sort of surrounding food, but it's not necessarily about food.
It's very seldom that like food and cooking were the focus of what we're talking about. We all. Are connected through food, and the thing that we're doing is food and drink related. But like, but like in the context of the conversation that we had, my point was that the, was that like, I don't consider us to be about foodies because we're, we're not consumers, we are professionals.
It is a, it is more of a professional space or a space for professionals where they can, we can sort of let our hair down and, and, and talk amongst ourselves and, [01:01:00] and connect. It is not, it is not a place for people who are fans, people who are foodies or welcome if they want to hear those conversations.
To engage and to follow and to listen and to see what's happening. But the point and the focus is always on serving the people who are actually within the community. The people who are actually doing the work, the people who are actually like out there growing the food or, or cooking the food or, or making the cocktails or studying and, and sipping the wine and like doing the som thing and mixing drinks and, and the whole thing.
And so we're, or photographing it all or writing about it or, I mean, it's a big industry and there's a lot, a lot there and there's a difference between doing it because it's something that, there's a difference between being a part of that because you eat the, you eat all the food [01:02:00] and being in there because you actually work with it.
and we all have different sort of sides of it. And I'm not, I've never worked a line, I've never had to serve a table in my life, but I spend a lot of time with the people who do I work with? The people who do just like potentially a, a server or a GM or a, a host hasn't necessarily ever grown produce themselves, but they work with the team that is serving that food and, and that sort of thing.
Like we have a, we have all this interconnect connectedness in that. And so that's, I guess that's, that's all I meant is that, that that is not described by the word foodie. . Something
[01:02:41] Mica: that I think that sticks out is that it's black food folks is is a professional community and it's a community of creators, not a community of consumers.
That I think that nails it right. That right there. Well, there's
[01:02:55] Clay: nothing wrong with being a consumer, but that's not, yeah. Who we're serving. [01:03:00] You're welcome to be part of that, but there are so many other outlets that serve consumers. We wanna be a space that serves the creators.
[01:03:11] Mica: Last, last, final question.
What do you hope that the listeners learn from today's episode?
[01:03:19] Clay: I know probably something about the black food folks stuff about like, we have to build our own things and we have to understand that we have to be a part of creating our own institutions so that we're not beholden to somebody else for attention.
And our, our, our, our wellbeing and our. And the story is being told about us. I think that that encompasses the work I do, the work I, uh, you know, we do with black food folks and some of the rest of the conversation is that we have to make it happen for ourselves. And that's individually and together as a, as a group, as a community.
[01:03:57] Mica: talked about today has just been wonderful and I [01:04:00] enjoyed it so much. I enjoyed it so much.
[01:04:02] Clay: This was wonderful. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.
[01:04:06] Mica: Thank you. Well, I hope everyone who listened to today's episode that you enjoyed the show, cuz I did. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode.
This episode is written and produced by me, your host, Micka McCook, show notes and transcripts, written and organized by Jasmine Baptist Audio mixed and edited by Russ Tanner. Like this episode, give us a five star review on Apple Podcast and subscribe to the Savory Shot wherever you get your podcasts.
Or follow me your host, Micka McCook on Instagram, Austin Food Guide, or you can follow the podcast on Instagram at the Savory Shot. If you have any questions, comments, or would like to be featured on the show, email us at podcast the savory shot.com.[01:05:00]