Meet Christian Seel, The Man Who Brings Chef Grant Achatz's Video Visions To Life
By Paul Leddy in Food on May 17, 2013 4:20PM
We sat down with Christian Seel, the person behind these amazing videos to find out how he got into making the videos and how the technology has helped to tell their stories
Chicagoist: How would you describe your role to people?
CS: My position with the company that owns Alinea, Aviary and Next is that I work full time as a photographer and videographer/digital film-maker. I will regularly document food and cocktails, and take still photos for press and our social media pages like Facebook. In the summer of 2011 I started to design small electronic cookbooks for Next—one for each menu. We have released Paris 1906 (Next’s first menu) in the fall of 2011. The program has slowed down but it still continues behind the scenes.
C: Tell us about your background.
CS: I was born in the Twin Cities and lived there until I was 18 when I went to Evergreen State College, a small liberal arts school in Washington State. I studied film production and took a couple classes on photography and Japanese language.
C: How did you decide to go to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America)?
CS: I graduated from Evergreen in 2005 and I really didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a really concrete major. You can’t just go out and get a job directing movies. You really have to know somebody. All the guys in school that ended up working on commercial projects was through a relative or a very close friend and I really didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have anywhere to go with that. While I was getting my undergrad, I had been getting more and more into food and cooking. It was something that I am obviously passionate about and was something where I could be happier in a career if I pursued doing something more practical like cooking rather than film or show business. You can just go get a job in cooking and that will put you on a track.
When I graduated, I had a lot of trouble getting a job and the whole time I am thinking if I had gone to a good school like everyone told me I was supposed to I could be making $60K at some entry-level job. It made me appreciate what prestige in an institution can do. I figured (on going to the CIA) for no other reason then why not?
C: For the challenge?
CS: I took that approach through my culinary career as well. I should try to work at the best place that will take me because I can always work my way down to an easier job but if I at least know what it’s like to work at the hardest and the best that is going to give me an edge at some point.
C: After school, did you work anywhere or did you just send applications everywhere?
CS: I think I sent applications to about a dozen places and I had the opportunity to go back to Daniel (Ed. Note: Seel externed at the New York City restaurant.) and I ended up doing a couple months of unpaid post-graduate intern work at the Fat Duck (Heston Blumethal’s restaurant in London).
C: How did you end up at Alinea?
C: How was that night of doing the first stage?
CS: It was a two-night stage. I flew into Chicago for two and a half days. It was extremely hard; I knew it was going to be.
C: The funny thing is that you had worked already at places like Daniel and Fat Duck which weren’t exactly “mom and pop” places..The level at those places was pretty intense. What was it like walking in?
CS: What struck me immediately at Alinea was how interesting the stuff they were doing was. I knew Chef Achatz's background so I knew what to expect. I knew it was going to be classically structured and incredibly rigorous. I was surprised at how whimsical and fun some of the food was. When I was at the Fat Duck, I was looking for that playful, interesting, creative stuff but what I found was a lot more focus on method. I didn’t find what I was looking for. I wasn’t looking for glass beakers and lab coats (laughs). At the Fat Duck, I was shucking oysters and turning artichokes, which are two of the most classical (cooking) things you can do. When I came to Alinea, I was seeing popcorn stock, duck cereal and bubble gum in a tube. Just really interesting, playful and incredibly delicious, that was another thing that struck me. The food was genuinely tasty; there was never a preparation that was excessively powder-laden. It was always something delicious and there were new techniques and ingredients that were being used to achieve that goal.
C: What station did you start on?
CS: I started working on the pastry station with Craig Schoettler training me.
C: Did you stay on the pastry side?
CS:I was on pastry for a few months. They rotate the kitchen pretty regularly, or they did at the time, and they moved me to the meat station. I became the Chef de Partie of the meat station. At the time, it was really under the spotlight because it was right in front of where (Chef de Cusine) Dave Beran and the sous chef worked. You are directly across the counter from Grant Achatz for 15 hours a day. So, he is watching your habits, your movements, everything. On top of that, it was an incredibly hard cooking job.
C: How did you move from the kitchen to being the photographer and digital film-maker?
CS: Going back to the kitchen, I was on the meat station. I knew I didn’t want to be a cook, I wanted to be a chef; someone in a management position. Being a cook is incredibly rewarding but you are on the labor side. I wanted to be on the management side. I spoke with Chef and eventually transitioned into a more administrative position. A lot of it in the beginning was just documenting recipes, even retroactively documenting recipes. We went back over a three-month period and did an archive of probably 130 Alinea dishes. Knowing Alinea, some of these dishes have 50 components that have individual recipes. There were probably 3,000 recipes that we were able to log. I was firmly rooted in this detective work and sourcing. I was doing the prototypical work of what became the role of the Culinary Liaison.
One day, I was sitting at my desk and Chef Achatz comes in and says, “I hear you have a nice camera and you know how to use it.” I had a background in photography and had a Canon Rebel at the time. Chef was doing an article for The Atlantic and needed a photo. That is how it all began.
C: What year was that?
C: So, you take your first picture. Does Chef Achatz then say, “I love what you just did, can you take pictures of other things?” How did it progress from there?
CS: It was much more gradual. At the time, Laura Kastner was doing the photography. She had just done the cookbook—her work is incredible. There wasn’t really a need for somebody to be doing high-level work. For the sake of internal documentation, it was necessary. I aggressively pursued it, but it was gradual. It wasn’t until we hired Eric Rivera as the first Culinary Liaison, that I moved into a position where I was strictly media oriented.
C: How did the use of video come about? Was it an idea that you brought to Chef? Or, did they bring the idea to you?
CS: Chef Achatz was interested in video right from the beginning. A month before we released the first video I produced, he did a live webcast from the kitchen with Gizmodo. He was really interested in showing people the restaurant and the food. Obviously, when you are creating something that people find impressive, it behooves you to have some kind of infrastructure to get that out.
C: In the beginning, the videos seemed to be really pulling back the curtain to show what a four or five star restaurant does. A kind of way to say “this is what we do on a daily basis”. Was your first video the Crucial Detail video?
C: What did you learn from that first video? Compared to what you are doing now, they seem pretty straight-forward.
CS: The Crucial Detail video was about a dish. It is something we still do. We still stick to standard formats but the obviously the production value has gone up.
C: What is his background?
CS: Gary works in film and media and does consulting for tech and post workflows. He is really on the bleeding edge of technology all the time. If you have something that is really crazy and special from a technical standpoint, you bring him in and he knows how to do it.
C: How did you guys connect?
CS: Well, he’s a huge foodie. He met Nick at Aviary when it opened and the two had a conversation and I ended up going to (see him on) a shoot he was doing.
C: And your mind was blown?
CS: Yes, he has shown us a lot. He really introduced me to the legitimate industry side of what I do. I am just a guy who works in a restaurant. I know how film is made from school, but I don’t know people or technology in our industry. I didn’t have a leg to stand on until he came around. He inspired me to really take it seriously.
C: You continued doing more videos about menu development, etc. When did it become more formal? Like the 86 Lamb dish video —it became more visually compelling. When did it shift for you?
CS:I should say that both Nick and Grant are totally brilliant in just marketing and seeing the potential for for video to forward the brand enormously. I owe my entire career to those two because I was very interested in still work but very reluctant to get into video. At the time we shot the first 3 videos (2D/3D, Expeditor Station, and Absolut Acahatz) those were filmed on a standard definition 3-chip Sony camera. It looks horrible! Chromo subsampling, the low sampling, the fact it is interlaced. I can take a still image and make it look absolutely beautiful, but I am looking at this video and it looks like garbage to me in comparison.
C: The technology has changed a bit, though, in the three years since you started these.
CS: It was hard for me to put this much time staring at images that I was totally unhappy with. They really wanted video. I was asking, “why don’t we just take a still?” Because I can put up a strobe and put up a totally beautiful image whereas doing a video is so laborious and takes days and weeks to complete. I would experiment with different techniques to get the quality to that I was happy with. The “24 Hours at Alinea” video is comprised completely of still images.
C: Do you bring the concepts for videos to Chef Achatz and Nick, or do they bring the ideas to you?
CS: It completely depends on the project. There are times where someone will have a clear idea and it will be something that I find works. We will pursue that very actively. The video for the Childhood menu was decided the same way as anything else for Next: At the kitchen table with Dave Beran, Grant Achatz, and myself discussing it. There are a lot of times where I have my own ideas.
C: With the Next videos, and the “24 Hour” video, there seems to be a role for music that seems just as important as the video or the images. You seem to found that importance and it got you into trouble with copyright on the Childhood video and a couple others. What is the role of music?
CS: It is totally important. It is as important as the images. I am focusing a lot more on it because it is an easy way to add emotional content. When you are very limited on what you can stage, light and film, it becomes an invaluable tool for that kind of thing. When you edit video, you have to have a sense of rhythm. You watch these movies and you see movie clichés and you don’t realize how critical the timing is on those edits where if a cut is a few frames different, the entire impact of the bit or the joke or the emotional content is completely lost. So you fall into a rhythm when you are creating a piece and you need to have an idea of what that rhythm is in the first place and then I have to find a song that I am allowed to use that will convey that.
C: When the Childhood video was released, I recall everyone commenting on watching it. They said how beautiful the video was and that it brought tears to their eyes. Then you had issues with the music in the video and had to take it down, right?
CS: Yeah, we didn’t have permission to use that music. A record company and a film production company owned the song on the video so it became very complicated very fast. Those are people with legal teams at their disposal.
C: Why couldn’t there be an approval with you paying a fee or use a different song?
CS: Music is so important to the video. To take out the song and to re-edit the video, it would be a completely different project. In the Next opening video, we also didn’t have permission, but we put a link to the song on iTunes. I think they sold something because of that.
C How much of your background in cooking helps you to tell the story? Or, is it the technology that drives the story now?
CS: It’s different now, but for a long time when I would come into a place like Alinea it was just “oh, that’s Christian” and no one pays attention to you. Then, you see camera crews that come in and they have a big camera on their shoulder, and someone is holding a LED (light) and there is a guy 5 feet away with a boom mike on a pole. It is very intrusive. From my cooking background, I was able to blend in a little and it allowed me to get some footage and some shots that I wouldn’t have been able to.
C: With the Next videos, it seems like the videos went from breaking down a dish to being a bit more conceptual. How did that come about?
CS: Next is so conceptual to begin with, it would be silly to do a “here is how you peel a carrot, here is how you cook a carrot ” There is so much thought that goes into those menu-themes. Beran, the service team, Nick, and the Culinary Liaison will have countless meetings on serviceware and aesthetic concepts. There are so many creative people working on this already, with the Next videos I see what they are going for in their discussions and base video concepts on that. Like in the Hunt video, I felt Beran’s aesthetic was very gothic, Victorian luxury. I wanted to play on that a little.
C: Tell me about the Kyoto videos. You had two teasers and a main video instead of just one.
CS: I couldn’t really get a sense of where Dave Beran was taking that menu and I was not familiar with traditional Kaiseki. My study of Japanese is more cultural and film oriented. So I tried to bring something I knew into it. I loved Japanese gangster films from the 1970’s and 80’s and even the Seijun Suzuki’s “Branded to Kill” which I think was 1969, and that was the direction I wanted to go in. The two shorts were meant to be silly and funny and I feel like people took them so seriously.
C: So, it was meant to be more tongue-in-cheek?
CS: Yes, very tongue-in-cheek. The black and white film was kind of like Jim Jarmusch meets Seijun Suzuki; just kind of bizarre. When I watch it, I laugh because I think it is hilarious to me. There isn’t really great meaning behind it because it was meant to be a joke.
C: The other videos have been more straightforward about the concept like Sicily, there is an homage to the theme and area.
CS: The Sicily video was probably the most important one when it came to sound. That was a just conversation with Fabrizia Lanza, (owner of the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School in Sicily) that Beran happened to record on his iPhone next to the computer as he "Skyped" with her. That kind of degraded audio quality was so beautiful, the way the iPhone captured it, it sounded like an audio tape.
C: You didn’t edit the sound at all?
CS: Oh yeah, it was heavily edited. It took about a week. I wanted it to sound like an old analog audio recording. But, when you don’t know anything about audio, as I don’t, and you are not dealing with the highest level of software and hardware, there is a very fine line between aesthetically pleasing distortion and inaudibility. I was wrestling the two back and forth. There was a lot of trial and error.
C: The latest Next video (Vegan), seems to have been a fun shoot, how was that different than the other videos?
C: You are starting to get into technology that is new and exciting and the quality level is something that, before, cost tens of thousand’s of dollars and is now cheaper.
CS: Well, the word I would use is accessible. Technology has become accessible to us.
C: Does that help you? Like the slow motion, where it is beautiful but the quality is superb, that technology wasn’t there when you first did it, but now it is.
CS: The technology was there; it just wasn’t accessible to us. Slow motion is something that came as a huge surprise to me in that it is extremely inaccessible or has been. There is only one camera (Sony FS700) on market that “over-cranks” and it retails for $8,000. I think every video with high-speed has some FS700 footage in it.
There are two things that we get from slow motion: the ability to perceive something that is normally imperceptible, which is where you see 1,000 frames per second. Off the top of my head, the chainsaw with the ice particulate (in the Aviary ice video), it just sort of floats there at that speed. Another example is the shots of the components of the chocolate dessert (in the Aviary video) where they just (appear) to float away. There is also the aesthetic, emotional side of it where an easy way to heighten the dramatic content. When you look at the Alinea intro video, you will see examples of both of those. I should add a third one to that list and that is liquid. Whenever you see liquid pouring, it is always at high-speed. Whenever you see liquid pouring in a commercial, it is always 120 or 240 frames a second. You are so used to seeing it, that you don’t even think of it as slow motion. There are so many cliché’s like that. An example of emotional content would be shots in the Alinea kitchen where people are walking down the pass in slow motion. I use it for technical and emotional reasons.
C: Do you have a lot of creative control?
CS: I have enormous creative control and that is due to the generosity of my employers. One thing I really like about this company is that, in my experience, if you take ownership of something, you will be given it. What I came to realize was that the people that are successful took it upon themselves. I am literally the person who is doing all the technical work. I am mixing the sound, cataloging the footage, I am operating the camera, recording the audio, and editing. Editing audio is often more time consuming than editing the images. You will finish cutting the piece and spend 3 days editing the sound.
Chicagoist: Do you storyboard anything?
CS: We do storyboard most of the stuff. I can’t draw to save my life. So, some of the more simple stuff will be shot lists. For more complicated stuff, there is full storyboard’s. There just is no other way to get everybody on the same page on what you are trying to achieve. With the Alinea video, we had so much equipment. Probably $750,000 worth of equipment in the restaurant and it was basically Gary Adcock and myself moving the stuff back and forth. You have to be organized.
Chicagoist: You mentioned the electronic cookbooks earlier; do you think they will be released?
CS: They have been talking about a couple different things that I can’t really share at this time, but yes, I am still photographing and we are still producing content. When and how they are released publicly, I don’t honestly know.