Over the past few years, staff photographer Steve Klise has traveled thousands of miles around the country with food editor Bryan Roof in search of great meals and great characters. Here are 14 of his favorite moments.
1. Jimmy Sunseri, Jimmy and Nino Sunseri Co., Pittsburgh, PA (April, 2015)
The Strip District neighborhood in Pittsburgh has attracted entrepreneurial immigrants for over a century; today, the neighborhood is home to a United Nations of grocers, wholesalers, and restaurateurs. We ate well: buttery pierogi and sauerkraut-smothered kielbasa at S&D Polish Deli, handmade prosciutto at Parma Sausage, Syrian hummus at Labad’s, mystery meat sandwiches stacked high with French fries at Primanti Brothers.
Our most interesting encounter, however, was with Jimmy Sunseri, who operates an Italian grocery and sandwich counter at the corner of Penn and 19th. His lips clamped around an unlit cigar, Sunseri walked us through his wares, from square slices of pan pizza to “greens and beans”, an Italian-American toss of broccoli rabe and white beans. Sunseri will tell you he’s the only one to put slices of potato in his beans and greens, perhaps as he’s spooning out meatballs for a sub.
Jimmy & Nino Sunseri Co. Strip DistrictWe were after Polish dumplings in the Steel City, but ended up finding so much more.
2. Alice Matthews, Mom’s Grill, Washington, NC (March 2016)
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A North Carolina-style cheese biscuit is exactly what the name suggests—a fist full of grated cheese stuffed into a ball of buttery dough and baked until golden—but we found a range of variety within that simple concept. How flaky is the biscuit? How molten is the cheese? We spent a morning driving from town to town across the region looking for the best ones.
At Mom’s Grill in Washington, NC, located in a former gas station, you can still buy lottery tickets and cheap packs of Winstons even though the pumps have long since been shut off. But around the corner from the register is a small sandwich counter where we found Alice Matthews hard at work on a new batch of cheese biscuits. With the breakfast rush behind her, we asked Matthews to walk us through the precise, focused biscuit-making process, and she agreed.
Mom’s Grill in Washington, North CarolinaIn North Carolina, you can get cheese-stuffed biscuits without ever getting out of your car. It doesn't get better than that.
3. Crawfishing Outfit, Breaux Bridge, LA (May 2017)
When you’re in Louisiana’s Cajun Country, you’re never far from a restaurant serving crawfish. People love them in quantity: I’ve split a two-pound order of boiled crawfish two ways just outside Lafayette, LA only to receive a strange look for not just ordering a five-pound platter just for myself. Where in the world are all these crawfish coming from?
On our way out of Lafayette Parish, we visited a crawfish farm in Breaux Bridge owned and operated by Damian and Andy Simon. There, narrow strips of grassy land separated shallow ponds pocked with the bobbing red tops of wire crawfish traps. We watched as the Simon brothers pulled up trap after trap, shuffling their angry red quarry from a metal table to a blue mesh bag. It’s not tidy work—Andy and Damian both wore waders and aprons onto the boat to guard against the constant spray of pond water—but supplying Cajun country’s demand for crawfish is a big business. Neither brother would talk specific figures, but I couldn’t help but notice as we talked shop on the shore that Damien was sporting a Citizen timepiece on his left wrist, which had been hidden by the blue rubber gloves he wore as he sorted crustaceans on the boat.
4. Hite’s Bar-B-Que, Columbia, SC (February 2015)
When we arrived at Hite’s Bar-B-Que for a pre-dawn meeting (the best time to interview owner David Hite) to discuss smoked fresh ham, the temperature inside the tiny smokehouse behind his family restaurant was under twenty degrees. I headed out to the yard where Hite and company stack logs, broken pallets, and other wood that feeds their pits.
About thirty feet from the door, I turned to look back at the smokehouse. Oak smoke drifted from underneath the rafters of an overhang, a single bare tungsten bulb bathed the clutter of the yard in a pool of warm light and illuminated the heavy clouds. While the inside of the building was all sparking coals and insomniac energy, the yard was still and silent. I rested my camera on the bed of an old Chevrolet pickup, set a slow shutter speed, and made this shot. Sometimes you have to get out in the cold and the dark to get the picture you want.
5. Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco, CA (July 2015)
We arrived in San Francisco after a five-day road trip up from Los Angeles via Bakersfield, San Luis Obispo, Cayucos, Moss Landing, and Oakland. A surprising number of restaurants we visited pin their history to counter service; haunts where managers spin yarns about spontaneous late-night orders from inebriated customers that end up staying on the menu for decades, places where the best seat in the house is right in front of the action.
Our final meal before heading to the airport was at such a spot: the Swan Oyster Depot, a cash-only seafood counter where hopefuls line up down the block for their chance at being one of the lucky twenty at a time to snag a stool to watch staff in white aprons shuck oysters and hammer crab legs. The hustle made for some fun wide-angle shooting, even if there was barely room at the counter to turn sideways.
6. Fish Stew at Sunset, Deep Run, NC (March 2016)
In rural eastern North Carolina, “fish stew” has two definitions. One is exactly what you’d think: a hearty mix of white fish, onions, bacon, potatoes, and eggs poached tomato-laced broth–a fish stew. But a “fish stew” is also an occasion, a celebration, an experience to be shared. We joined the Smith family of Deep Run, NC and a dozen of their friends and neighbors on the patio of the old tobacco pack house one early spring evening. Patriarch Emmett Smith, who estimated he’s made over five hundred stews, oversaw the operation. His son Greg prepared ingredients, managed the burner under the pot, and delegated stew-related tasks to the guests.
It’s rare that I have this much space (and light) to work with while making pictures of people cooking, so I wanted to use every available ounce. As the sun started to set, I kicked things into high gear, trying to pack as much information as possible into each frame during this “golden hour.” Eventually, I found this moment just as Emmett gave the go-ahead to Greg to add liquid to pot. Between the pouring water, the packhouse decor, the sunset, and the moment of father-son bonding in pursuit of feeding loved ones, I knew I had my shot.
7. Barbecue Heaven, Killen’s BBQ, Pearland, TX (March 2016)
When we arrived at Killen’s BBQ two hours before the doors opened, there was already a line down the block, but that didn’t matter—we were there to see owner Ronnie Killen, a juggernaut in the Texas barbecue scene. But Killen was running late that day, and after a tour of the smokers from right-hand man Manny Torres, we still had an hour to kill before our interview.
We did what any reasonable people would do and ordered the entire menu: a Flintstones-sized smoked beef rib, competition barbecue-style pork ribs, smoked hot sausage, bone-in pork belly, pulled pork, smoked turkey breast, and impossibly juicy brisket. I had never seen a more beautiful tray of barbecue in my life, and the natural light from the windows made the moment. Standing on a chair to get the best angle drew might have drawn some attention from other diners, but I’m used to that by now.
Killen’s BBQ in Pearland, TexasExecutive food editor Bryan Roof and I traveled to Pearland, Texas, to try some of the most popular barbecue food the Lone Star State has to offer.
8. Closing Up, Chef Greg’s Soul 'n' the Wall, Detroit, MI (June 2016)
After more than a few customers came into Chef Greg's Soul ‘n’ the Wall on the corner of Curtis and Wyoming in Detroit asking for a Boogaloo sandwich—a popular menu item served by the restaurant that previously occupied this space–he decided to revive the sandwich, which hadn’t been served since the mid-nineties. Beard tweaked the original recipe and changed the name to Boogaloo Wonderland Sandwich, a nod to the Earth, Wind & Fire song “Boogie Wonderland.”
The day we visited, Greg Beard was a one-man hurricane in his kitchen, firing off lunch orders and shouting prices through the bulletproof glass window that separated the back-of-house operations from the front room. At one point, Beard took a delivery order over the phone, and because there is no Soul ‘n’ the Wall without Chef Greg, he had to shut the whole place down to drop off three mini meatloaves at a bank down the street. I went with Beard into the vestibule as he locked up, pulling a metal gate across the front door. I made a few frames as the light from the doorway grew dimmer.
9. Antoinette Crimi, Cappuccio’s Meats, Philadelphia, PA (January 2017)
There’s a stretch of 9th Street in South Philadelphia known as the Italian Market: produce stalls under awnings and red sauce restaurants. After visiting various shops, we came to Cappuccio’s Meats, a family-owned butcher since 1920. As soon as we walked in the door, we spied Antoinette Crimi, the daughter of original owner Domenico Cappuccio, in a padded wooden chair at the end of the display case. Antoinette kept an eye on the room as her son Domenick Crimi and his staff went about cutting steaks and grinding meat for sausage. A staff member placed a bus tub of stuffed sausage casings on a metal stool in front of Antoinette, along with a ball of twine and a pair of scissors.
Without a word of hesitation, she proceeded to tie the sausage into immaculate links, looping them back into the tub as she went. I knelt down next to her to make this image, trying to keep the sausage links drying behind the counter, the hand-painted lettering on the enameled steel back wall, and the handle of her walker in the frame.
10. B&H Dairy, East Village, Manhattan, NYC (March 2017)
Our quarry in New York City’s East Village neighborhood was blintzes, the cheese-filled crepes ubiquitous in the neighborhood’s array of Eastern European restaurants. At B&H Dairy, a diner on 2nd Avenue, there is only about a foot of clearance between the backs of the folks sitting at the counter and the shoulders of the people at the two-tops pushed up against the wall. I must have clipped every single diner with my camera bag as I looked for opportunities to capture the vibe of the place.
Reaching the very back corner of the room, I changed to a wide-angle lens and stood up, focusing on the guy running the show behind the counter, Mike Tarabih. He addressed each customer as “boss,” “friend,” “big guy,” or any number of other improvised honorifics. I held still and waited for Tarabih to swing the platter over the counter, hoping the rest of the scene would fall into place around him. When he turned around, he looked up, locked eyes with my camera, and instantly hoisted a platter of matzoh brei into the air. Everyone else in the room remained fixed on their lunch; I particularly like the man entranced by his bowl of borscht in the bottom right of the frame.
B&H Dairy in New York, New YorkBefore we developed our own blintz recipe we could make at home, we had to taste the best. So we hopped a train to New York City to dine at the city's most reputable blintz joints.
11. Quashon Campbell, Hot Sauce Williams BBQ, Cleveland, OH (April 2018)
One afternoon, passing through Cleveland, we noticed a sign outside a yellow cinder block building emblazoned with promising sign: Hot Sauce Williams BBQ. A telltale column of smoke rose from the parking lot behind the building. We knew we had to pull over and check this place out, even though we had already eaten two lunches.
After putting in a to-go order—we wanted to keep it low-key—I walked around the side of the building, where I found Quashon Campbell, dressed in a soot-covered yellow canvas jumpsuit, using a long-handled carving fork to poke, prod, and flip racks of ribs cooking on a trailer-style charcoal grill. The method was simple: no added wood for smoke, no sauce, no rub, just meat over coals. I stuck around for a few minutes to watch Campbell work, wanting to take advantage of the even, overcast daylight on a scene comprised entirely of different shades of gray and yellow.
12. Cochon de Lait, Mansura, LA (May 2017)
People come from miles around to this tiny municipality in Avoyelles Parish to partake in an annual weekend of hog calling, beer drinking, and fierce cooking competition. The festival culminates in the Cochon de Lait, when dozens of butterflied suckling pigs are roasted in rotating cages by a roaring hardwood fire.
After spending the early part of the day sweating through our shirts in the thick humidity, we caught a whiff of smoke on the air. Sprinting toward the pavilion, we arrived to find the hogs suspended in their cages and a team of a dozen men throwing logs onto the fire. I’d positioned myself to shoot the fire when Cochon de Lait organizer Zack St. Romain strode into the lane between the pigs and the flames brandishing a cordless leaf blower. As nonchalant as could be, he flipped a pair of wraparound sunglasses down from the bill of his camo-print cap, switched on his machine, and blew a steady stream of oxygen into the heart of the wood pile, turning what had been a relatively modest fire into a blazing inferno.
Cochon de Lait Festival in Mansura, LouisianaWe crashed the event of the year in the slow-cooked pork capital of the world. It didn't disappoint.
13. Toasted Ravioli, Mama Toscano’s, St. Louis, MO (September 2017)
There’s too much to eat in St. Louis: the gooey butter cake, the St. Paul Sandwich, the cracker-thin St. Louis-style pizza. Our mission this day, though, was toasted ravioli: deep-fried pillows of stuffed pasta. We headed to The Hill, St. Louis’ post-war-suburbia-looking Little Italy, where we begged the staff at Mama Toscano’s to let us into their kitchen. Nick and Patty Toscano happened to be on site packing up boxes of toasted ravioli to send out to mail-order customers, and they extended us an offer: come back first thing the next morning.
We arrived just before sunrise, and entered the side door to the kitchen, where we found Nick preparing the braised beef and pork filling for the morning’s batch of ravioli. A team of cooks spread the filling out onto large sheets of pasta laid out on a well-floured marble table, then folded the excess dough over the filling and rolled over the whole assemblage with a specialized rolling pin to form individual pockets. Finally, a worker ran a fluted pastry wheel between each mound to cut hundreds of individual ravioli. I’m drawn to repetition and patterns, and the tiny imperfections in each hand-cut ravioli were calling out to be shot. The team at Mama Toscano’s works quickly and there wasn’t much light in the room, so I had to settle for a longer exposure than I would have liked—but I came away with an image that tells the story of a shop that does things the old-fashioned way.
14. Like Family, Johnny’s Restaurant, Homewood, AL (February 2018)
A network of Greek restaurants operated by an intertwining set of families creates an undercurrent running through the dining scene of greater Birmingham, Alabama. The families came over in generational stages over the course of the 20th century, adapting their own cooking to suit Southern tastes. Today, spots like Johnny’s Restaurant and Niki’s West serve up so-called “Greek-and-three” specials, offering Mediterranean dishes like chicken souvlaki and lamb keftedes alongside fried green tomatoes and braised turnip greens.
We scheduled an interview with Tim Hontzas, owner and operator of Johnny’s Restaurant, named for his grandfather Johnny Hontzopolous, an immigrant restaurateur who opened his first spot back in the 1950s. We caught Hontzas at the end of a Sunday post-church lunch rush when one of his cooks no-showed, so his talking points alternated between his admiration for his grandfather’s hustle and a string of creative profanities. Abruptly, a bearded man at a table behind us shouted something towards Hontzas, who turned around and yelled, “Can I HELP you?” A hush fell over our table as we watched the man stand up and walk toward us, and when Hontzas rose to his feet, I was sure that something crazy was about to happen. I lifted my camera from my lap and fired the shutter, afraid that I was going to catch some shots of Tim catching a right hook to the jaw . . . until the man grabbed Hontzas in a big bear hug and laid a comically large smooch on his face. Tim’s cousin Teddy Hontzas, owner of Niki’s West, had come to grab a bite and give his kin a friendly ribbing.