Fifty Chefs exhibition: Photographer Katie Wilson documents the injuries sustained on the culinary front line

The scars and burns that disfigure their hands and arms of London's top chefs are worn as proud emblems of their duty - evidence of steaks seared, vegetables diced and oysters shucked

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When Katie Wilson started photographing London chefs 10 years ago, she was immediately drawn to their arms. "They had these amazing cuts and burns and it sparked my interest," she says. "What were they getting up to in the kitchen?" Wilson's resulting photographs of chefs and their arms feature in an exhibition called Fifty Chefs – the Hands that Feed London at the Londonewcastle gallery in Shoreditch.

Wilson admits that she "always notices hands, nails, whether the hand is rough or smooth; the difference between a surgeon's hand and a builder's. It tells a story as much as a face." She finds chefs' arms interesting not just for their colourful scars – some of those pictured are freshly wounded, one with a cut wrapped in cling film – but also for what they represent. "I'm fascinated by the emotional incentive of these people who want to nourish you," she says. "It's a simple but very powerful idea, this intent to make something with your hands for a stranger. It's such a nice thing to do, to feed you and send you on your way."

Conversely, many of the chefs spoke of their kitchen in military terms. "Michel Roux Jr talked about the organisation, dedication and passion being like that of an army," says Wilson. "There's also a pride in the scars they've picked up. Nobody said, 'Don't look at my arms, they're scarred.'" Marcus Wareing explained that one of his first jobs was preparing shellfish at the Savoy. "He'd do a long shift and get nicked from the shellfish, and the bacteria would get inside the cuts. You could poison yourself and see it travelling up your arms."

 

Although the project is entitled "Fifty Chefs", Wilson photographed around 65, driven by the recommendations of the people she was photographing. "I asked everybody I photographed where they liked to eat," she says. "Not as a treat, but on a normal Thursday night. That drove the project in surprising ways – Mark Hix recommended Mangal [a Turkish restaurant in Dalston]. It's not about the best, it's about the best-loved. That could be bacon and eggs at E Pellicci or it could be pig's trotter at Koffmann's."

Every chef was photographed in the same manner. "It was between services, so the chef would walk out of the kitchen with whatever they had on their hands," says Wilson. "If they'd been touching beetroot, it was all over their fingers. It is raw documentary, and unforgiving in some ways."

In keeping with the "giving" theme, Wilson will donate proceeds from sales of her prints to the food charity FareShare. She now wants to take the project abroad, to New York, Paris or Sydney. "These pictures are a social documentary of the London scene of the past 10 years. You can see how trends have changed, and you see so much about the people who work in the kitchen, the changing immigrant make-up of the porters and potato-peelers. You'd get a very different picture again in other cities."

Fifty Chefs – the Hands that Feed London is exhibiting at Londonewcastle Project Space, London E2 (londonewcastle.com), from Tuesday to 16 April

Comments