Editor’s note: The magazine magic behind the March cover story

Just like there’s “movie magic,” there’s also “magazine magic.”
Photo by Nikki Hansen
Fairchild's Meyer lemon tart with blackberry ice cream and blackberry sauce

Just like there’s “movie magic,” there’s also “magazine magic.”

I can tell you from first-person experience, magazine magic is just as spectacular from this side of the curtain.

Creative Director Tim Burton invited me to this month’s photoshoot with Itaru Nagano at Fairchild, and I jumped at the invitation. I hadn’t popped into a cover shoot since before the pandemic — the last one was at The Old Fashioned for the March 2020 “Eat Like a Madisonian” story. I watched as photographer Nikki Hansen snapped action shots of Chef Nagano, and it reminded me of all the things the reader doesn’t get to see in the final product.

What the reader does see is a striking portrait of Nagano against a black background, him shaving bottarga, or cured fish roe, onto a pork trotter dish.

What the reader didn’t see was Hansen’s white background set up in Fairchild’s kitchen to get that shot. She unrolled a big sheet of paper and clipped it to a stand, setting it between the ovens and the prep station. Nagano helped her get it into place before standing in front of it for a few action shots.

Nikki Hansen

Left: The March cover; Right: The edited photo by Nikki Hansen

Burton and I watched as Hansen’s photos appeared on her connected laptop. As usual, Burton used his incredible eye for detail and design to suggest the slightest of changes to the camera’s focus, Nagano’s position and the dishes in front of him.

I, also as usual, just stood there in awe as each gorgeous photo replaced the last with every click of Hansen’s camera. Picking up on my excitement, Hansen turned to me and said, “Just wait ’til you see the edited versions.”

You’d think I’d get used to it after a few years on the job, but I’m still absolutely stunned when I see the art for a piece come in. It tells a part of the story that words can’t. It’s often the puzzle piece you didn’t know was missing. Not just from the Nagano shoot — many photos in this issue help tell so much more of the story, like Charles Edward Payne’s portrait, The Harvey House shot in the food section and presidential photos shared by hall-of-fame photographer Pete Souza.

And it’s a special treat when the writer gets to see how the photos are created. I proudly held Hansen’s bi-fold bounce board as she confidently stepped on a chair to get an overhead shot. I applauded Nagano’s steady hand as he avoided spilling a single drop of truffle vinaigrette on the paper backdrop. I pretended like I knew how to make the napkin look intentionally haphazard. And I didn’t say no when Nagano asked if I wanted to box up the second round of dishes he made for the shoot. (Did I mention this job has perks?)

It was interesting to watch Hansen and Burton’s decision-making in action. She took so many photos — I would have gotten analysis paralysis looking through that final gallery. But it did remind me a bit of the writing process. I used more than six hours of interviews, which resulted in 22 pages of transcriptions, to carve out a cover story.

For both the words and photos, it’s a process. And then what is created when the two come together — I can’t call it anything else — it’s magic.

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