Heath Robbins makes his living as a photographer. He is the man we turn to (as do many national magazines) when we need to capture people and food in natural settings. So when we asked him to turn his camera on his own family and the meals they prepare, he headed straight to his parents’ Vermont home for a winter feast.
“Geez, I remember they had us up in trees, up and down all day, on this and that hill,” laughs Heath, remembering when his parents, Ken and Judie, surveyed their 23 acres in Dorset to find the spot with the best view on which to build their home. “And it was worth all that hiking and climbing.” Windwood, the house they designed and built, faces south with an unobstructed view of the Vermont Valley. On a clear day, the family can see all the way to Williamstown, Massachusetts. But the view, not to mention the impeccable design and furnishings of this home, is not what draws Heath, brothers Tom and Chris, and their wives and children to Dorset. It’s about together time, the outdoors, laughter, and food. A lot of food.
“This house makes it easy for us to be outside all day, then in the kitchen, then at the big table, and then to relax and hang out afterward,” says Heath. A winter day starts early with a big breakfast. Then, it’s a well-orchestrated symphony as he and his wife, Lisa, bundle up their kids — Spencer, 6; Isabella, 4; and Trinity, 3 — in various layers of snow pants, parkas, mittens, and hats. Tom and Chris, with three children each, know the routine all too well.
“Sometimes it’s a project, like splitting wood, and that’s something Tom, Chris, and I do while the kids are building a snowman,” says Heath. “Other times, it’s teaching the kids to ski using the Windwood Â‘chairlift.’ That’s when the kids strap on their skis and schuss down the hill, then we, the dads, toss them over our shoulders and walk back up the hill.” The kids also ice-skate, sled, and invent their own winter games. “They’ve made many a snow angel in freshly fallen snow — it’s very cute.”
The time spent outdoors leads to good appetites. “All day long, we talk about what the evening meal will be,” Heath says. And by the time the grandparents, parents, and nine grandchildren are back inside the warmth of the living room, which boasts a 15-by-15-foot stone fireplace, food is not far off.
“We’ll make hot chocolate for the kids; the women make good use of Dad’s wine cellar, and I crave a martini,” says Heath. “I love that muffled shake, shake, shake sound.” He and his father are gin men. Tom prefers vodka, while Chris often opts for a warming glass of bourbon.
Dinner is rarely a fancy, multicourse effort but rather a group activity, with everyone pitching in. Dishes are made with seasonal ingredients — without a lot of pomp and circumstance. “We like the kids to be in the kitchen, too. It gives them a chance to understand how to cook and to be part of the process, but more importantly, we want them around us — not separated from the adults.
“We eat healthy,” says Heath, who currently is working on a cookbook incorporating favorite recipes from family and friends. “In the summer it’s much lighter, but with all that outside activity in the winter, we want food that will satisfy us and that everyone will eat. There is always a salad and, if we’re lucky, one of Mom’s pies. Mom is definitely in charge, but everyone can have a role if they want.”
And with so many mouths to feed, there is indeed a job for everyone big and small.
When it comes to photographing children and food, Heath suggests:
- Let your spouse take the shots. “Lisa takes much better photos of our children. She has more patience and she spends more time with them on most days. She’ll follow them around all day and snap, snap, snap until she gets what she wants — rather than trying to get them to do something. That never works. That’s when you get the cheesy, dramatic smiles. If you have a digital camera, take as many shots as your memory card will hold, then delete what you don’t want. It’s a great way to spend time with your children.”
- Again referring to the advantages of digital photography, Heath points out that you can look at what you just shot in seconds, giving you time to adjust the light or angle.
- Food has so much detail and texture, so get close: “You gotta get right in there.” If you are serious about food photography, invest in a lens that allows for more up-close detail.
- Use natural light whenever possible. If you are not outside, move the plate or bowl next to an open window.
- “Be ready and work quickly. If the food you’re shooting is hot, it will start to wilt and sauces will separate. If the food is frozen, it will start to melt. And things change color — lamb often turns gray. In the studio or on location, we set up a shot with a stand-in plate — then, when we have our lighting right, we swap it with the real plate and snap as fast as possible. But there’s no reason for that at home or if you are in a restaurant.”
- Take as many shots as you can — one usually comes out.