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Food is art for Kuwait-based blogger
April 30, 2017, 5:47 pm

Kuwait has built a reputation for itself as a hub of sorts for trendy food and beverage concepts in the GCC. It started with the burger craze a few short years ago, dominated by the likes of Slider Station and Burger Boutique, hybrid lounge-restaurants that have successfully expanded outside of the country to other Gulf states.

Now, Kuwaitis are obsessed with coffee — expensive, artisanal coffee that can be consumed at 40-odd speciality shops scattered across the capital, frequented by college students with deep pockets, young professionals in their early 30s, and overpaid Snapchat celebrities. With franchises having become a thing of the past, and a social scene that leaves much to be desired, a night out is often spent at the next new ‘it place’: the latest speciality coffee house that will satiate your caffeine addiction while also serving you Greek yoghurt parfait, or a fusion restaurant that offers street food on community tables and moonlights as an art gallery. People in Kuwait are always on the prowl for a tailor-made experience when they go out to eat, and often, a small business’ Instagram account serves as the first touch point.

That’s why restaurateurs flood their accounts with pristine photography, transforming their menus into captivating digital imagery that could just as easily grace the pages of Saveur or Vogue Living. But this increasing demand for stunning imagery has given rise to an unlikely talent.

Kulsum Kunwa, a finance graduate and ex-business consultant, never received any formal training in photography. In fact, she was 23 years’ old when she held a professional camera in her hands for the first time. Born and bred in Kuwait, Kulsum left for her native India after finishing high school, with no intention of returning to the country where she had been raised. After graduating from college, and subsequently marrying, she ended up moving back with her husband to start a family.

She spent the first six months back looking for full-time work and focusing on her two favourite pastimes: watching the food network and cooking. She even started a blog, Journey Kitchen, to keep track of her recipes and took photographs to accompany them. “When I first started Journey Kitchen, I would post awful photographs,” Kulsum admitted while digging in to a quinoa and feta salad at Cucina, a small Italian bistro nestled in the corner of a busy downtown street where this interview took place.

“I’ve deleted most of them since,” she added with a grin. What she described next was a period of obsessive self-study. She spent months connecting with international food bloggers — mostly from the United States — and pouring over their recipes, which she described as “short stories with beautiful pictures”.

Even after landing a consulting job at an SME advisory, she continued to blog and her photography steadily improved (she hasn’t deleted any photos recently). Her breakthrough came in 2013 after she was discovered online. She was asked to do a photo shoot for GIA, a hugely popular Mediterranean cafe whose homestyle cooking cemented Kuwait’s love for quinoa and avocado toast.

She quit her job soon after that first shoot, and has maintained regular work since as a full-time, freelance food photographer. “Ice cream is one of the more challenging foods to shoot,” Kulsum said casually.

“You could fake it by using mashed potatoes and colouring, but there are actually international standards against that kind of thing,” her eyes lit up behind her horn-rimmed glasses as she discussed the ethical implications of the industry. Clearly, she’s found her passion.

In fact, Kulsum’s obsession for all things food spills into her work. Her style alludes to the still-life paintings of old Dutch masters. Each photograph is a cross-section of colour skilfully woven with gentle interplays of light and shadow. Her compositions are carefully crafted to evoke a strong sense of movement and noise while at the same time not appearing too staged.

And like a still-life painter, Kulsum is aware that the right design is imperative to the success of each photo. “If I haven’t shot a certain dish before, I’ll ask for the recipe in advance to know what foods are involved,” she explained. “Then I’ll do my research and explore different ways to shoot the food, what colours work best with the plating, and what props I need to bring.”

She has a lot of props — a junkyard of them, as she described, crammed into a small makeshift studio in her home. A collection of one-of-a-kind ceramics, pots, pans, and plates acquired online and from flea markets across Europe and Australia. “I go in to every shoot with a visual plan in my head but absolutely nothing in writing,” she added brightly.

While word of mouth was all she needed to secure work initially, her popularity rose exponentially when she started posting her photographs on Instagram. Perhaps due to Kuwait’s unrivalled affinity for food, her account now boasts over 26,000 followers. Her roster of clients is just as impressive as her large online following. She’s shot for Basil Al Salem, a prominent Kuwaiti entrepreneur who runs award-winning restaurants like Open Flame Kitchen and Cocoa Room, international coffee chains like Costa Coffee and Arabica, and an array of local restaurants including Jar, Upper Crust Pizzeria, and The November Company.

Additionally, her work has been featured across regional and international publications including The Guardian (UK), Brownbook (UAE) and BBC India, among others. The success Kulsum has realised in three years’ time is nothing short of impressive.

But with her talent, why focus only on food? “I think I have a strong understanding of what looks good on a table,” she said confidently while waving her hand over the small table now crowded with several empty plates. “That’s why I recently started table top consulting.”

From tablecloths and bread baskets to forks, knives, and salt and pepper shakers, a ‘table top consultant’ works with restaurant owners to determine what should go on their tables and plates, and how best to present them. Her current project is an upcoming, contemporary Indian restaurant, where she’s been invited to collaborate with the owners and chef on menu development, styling and photography.

True to form, Kulsum took things a step further. She dug into the history of Indian ceramics first, to determine how to authentically present each dish in line with the restaurant’s interiors and branding. “But now that I’ve been in photography for three or four years, I would love to try different things,” Kulsum continued. “Maybe start a company that incorporates videography with social media management.”

Currently, Kulsum operates as a one-woman team consisting of a photographer, editor, food stylist, lighting assistant and now, consultant. And with 18-hour work days filled with client meetings, photo shoots, and editing sessions in her home studio, it would be both sensible and lucrative to hire people and diversify her services further.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bored of photography,” she confirmed almost apologetically. “Unless it’s burgers,” Kulsum laughed. “There’s not much left I can do with burgers.”

Source: Gulf News

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