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This Surreal Cookbook Turns Food Into Works of Art

A collaboration between a self-taught chef and a self-taught photographer, <i>Papalosophy</i> is a stunning, 210-page cookbook of 80 recipes and a collection of whimsical, bizarre imagery.

Sometimes it's what you don't know that makes all the difference.

In August 2012, Joel Serra Bevin was the Barcelona community manager of EatWith, a then-startup platform connecting people to local dining experiences. The 28-year-old self-taught chef was also running his own private dinner parties, cooking classes, and pop-up events as his culinary alter-ego Papa Serra. Meanwhile, self-taught photographer Aldo Chacon was shooting for fashion magazines based in Barcelona, New York, and Germany while looking for new outlets to better express his creativity. Food photography made sense to Chacon, who was 25 at the time and had grown up in a family of cooks, including a mother who worked as a professional chef in both Mexico and the US.

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The two met in January 2013 and soon began discussing a collaboration, despite their relatively limited professional experience with cooking, photographing food, and book publishing—and a tricky schedule, considering that both men now live on different continents. The result of their efforts is Papalosophy, a stunning, 210-page cookbook of 80 recipes and a collection of whimsical, wacky photography. Set to publish next month, the cookbook came to pass following a successful Kickstarter campaign launched this past November.

I sat down with Joel and Aldo to learn more about their process for capturing creative culinary experiences and their quest to inspire people to cook.

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MUNCHIES: How did you two first meet? And was your synergy instant? Joel Serra Bevin: I had this cookbook idea in the back of my head for years, by the time we met at the launch of EatWith. Aldo had written to me saying he wanted to be our photographer. We were a startup and had no money, so I said, "OK, shoot this as a test," which was our sneaky way of getting free photography. The [resulting] photos were unreal. I realized that he was a disaster for that project because he wanted to do all these crazy things and the company needed a pre-formatted thing. But he had a raw style that I thought fit well with my own.

Aldo Chacon: Even though Joel was the one who hired me, I never felt like I was taking orders from a chef who would later put his signature on the finished product. The experience was really free creatively and as I didn't [formally] study photography, we just went with the flow. We soon found it impossible to just shoot in the kitchen. In the end, we improvised all of the photo shoots.

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What was the most challenging part of the shooting process, from concept to implementation? Aldo: It became a really long process—over two years—because we were both working freelance gigs and found it tough to find the time to get together. Also, there were the recipes to think about. We wanted to do something really cool and had to find interesting locations and things like that, which also took a lot of time. Plus Joel had like, 400 recipes, you know.

In terms of the photos, it was challenging because often we were not getting what we needed. It sometimes took us a really long time to shoot just one recipe, so it was impossible to finish it by a certain deadline. But in the end this chaos is what created unique moments, where everything just came together and somehow we were able to pull it off.

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Joel: We thought it would be easier. I mean, we figured we'd finish the shots, find the publisher, they'd do their thing and then send us the money. But truthfully, the most difficulty we had was crowdfunding the book. We'd never done this type of thing before and it was really intense.

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Many of the photos look surreal. Was that your intent? Aldo: I think a mix of things like fashion, imagination, and childhood curiosity created that surreal effect. It's like a kid going to a fish market wanting to see the insides of a fish. Or the photo we have with the jamon leg; kids like to dress like superheroes as if it were their normal clothes. It's these kinds of food memories that made it interesting to play with the ingredients as adults.

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Joel: I kept people in mind like Dalí, Gaudí, and Magritte. They are my favorite Surrealist artists, the ones I'm most influenced by. We tried to communicate this influence, but a lot of it happened by accident, too. The tomatoes on the beach, for instance— we just decided to lay them out and, at the perfect time, this old lady walks by and this totally made the photo.

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What were your favorite series of shots, and why? Joel: My favorite shots were the salmon series on the beach. We did the tie shots first and then went to the metro to shoot the one with the fish tail sticking out. What was great was that we were so inspired. I mean, we had this huge salmon, so we just kept going. At the beach, we set up a Baywatch lifeguard situation, with me saving the salmon. Aldo shot me sprinting—this was for a video—and all these tourists were basically there relaxing and I come running along, jump all over them, dive into the water and come up with the salmon. We had to keep changing spots every time we got threatened with violence. It was amazing.

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Aldo: One of my favorites, now that I think back, was the cover. Joel had bought these baby squids and I thought they looked like fingers so we wanted to do something with his hands on his face, but it wasn't working visually because of the location of the lights. When we got stuck, or any time really, I liked to put Joel on the spot, so I told him to just rub his face with the squids. He started doing that but then continued on to his hair, then his head.

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How would you like people to interpret Papalosophy? Aldo: We want to make people open their fridge and wonder, What can I make today? It should remind them of those college days when they only have, like, four ingredients and a box of pasta, but want to make something nice because they have a date. This book is a visual interpretation of Joel's cooking style mixed in with memories of my own cooking adventures.

Joel: Ultimately, we wanted a to create a book for people that love photography, art, Barcelona, and food. But not just [for people] to sit around in their kitchens cooking recipes, but to actually flick through the book and laugh, be disgusted, be amazed, everything. And we may be pretty self-deprecating, but there are actually some strong cooking elements there. Twenty percent of the recipes are traditional Spanish cuisine and we hope to connect with a food audience that has the imagination to take these recipes and do something really creative.

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Aldo: Yeah, because in the end, it is a cookbook.

Thanks for speaking to me, Joel and Aldo.