Local photographer and server at The National, Emily Hall, has a unique perspective of the restaurant. She’s seen it all, from the beginning and from almost every role, and fortunately for us, she’s documented it all with a talented eye and a camera lens.
What brought you to Athens?
It was actually photography that brought me here. In my junior year of college I took my first art class, an introduction to photography. I instantly knew I would love it, but at that point it was too late to turn back on my history degree. I was interested in photojournalism then because, I mean, journalism is just history 50 years before; it seemed like the perfect blend of my two interests. I was accepted into the program at UGA and moved to Athens. Of course, the program wasn’t for me and I decided to take the long way to a career in photography instead. It’s been slow and gradual. With photography I’m a little formal and a little self-taught.
How has this city influenced your photography?
It’s amazing to live in a place with so many talented people, and I’m lucky to have awesome friends who also take great pictures.
I’ve been fortunate to have Jim Fiscus as a friend and mentor. Working with him as a production assistant, and just having access to his brain is worth the price of art school to me. My friend Catie Adams loves food styling and we collaborate on projects together. I love to shoot food almost as much as I love to eat food!
Hugh (Acheson) was actually the first person to ask me to do any food photography, about 2 or 3 years ago for the Phaidon Press book Coco. That was huge for me, and for Hugh, Mario Batali was basically introducing him to the world as a chef to seriously watch. If I had done that shoot today it would look so different, but it’s a learning curve. And it was a honor to be a part of it.
There are so many people here in Athens doing really thoughtful things and it is inspiring.
Is it a challenge to photograph food?
Peter Dale makes the most beautiful and delicious food in the world. When I’m travelling I am often bummed when a sandwich is not a Peter-Dale-sandwich, when any dining experience is not a Peter-Dale-experience. I believe in him and love to shoot his food. It’s easy when the ingredients are fresh. It doesn’t need any work because it’s fresh. I also value shooting really simply. I want the food to speak and stand on its own.
How did you start at The National?
I actually started out at The National in the kitchen when it first opened. I was the first pastry chef. Then I worked on the line with Patrick (Stubbers) and Lily (Kaplan) my dream kitchen team. Then I moved to the floor for early coffee and pastries, then to lunch bar, then night bar, and now to serving. I’d never want to work anywhere else in Athens, unless I start solely working for myself. I am grateful for my time at the National and believe it is a privilege to be here and a part of this.
What makes The National different?
There are a million reasons. The majority of us are pursuing other things outside of the restaurant; we’re all unique, doing different things and talented in different ways. However, even though a career in photography is my main focus, there’s part of me that always believes it’s exciting here at The National, too. We all believe in Peter and what he’s doing; we all have faith in what’s happening and we’re proud to work here. I love working for Peter and Chris (Luken). They give the staff a long leash because they know we all have the same goal when we get there. We know it’s not just about making money, but rather about giving our guests a thoughtful dining experience. The National manages to be cutting edge without being pretentious, cool without being cool.
My time in Athens, here at The National, has been my graduate degree in the finer things. And I wouldn’t want that degree from anywhere else. Ultimately, the customers appreciate that the staff is so knowledgeable. And that knowledge largely comes from Peter…Professor Peter Dale. It all trickles down from him.
Since you’ve been here from the beginning, and truly seen it all, what’s your favorite all-time dish at The National?
Can I make it 14 favorites? No? I guess I’d go with the steak tartare…and the quail egg pizzette with potato chips and truffle oil. And of course the cucumber gazpacho. I make that soup for myself at home, even in the winter. I drink a quart a day it’s so good! And I’m a white wine girl, so I’d have a glass of Sancerre or a nice Arneis to pair…which are not good pairings of course, but I believe it’s all subjective, whatever you want to eat or drink.
I’d finish my perfect meal with the Portuguese Custard Tart, the first dessert I ever made at The National. I was the most excited to get that recipe from Peter because when I studied at Oxford I worked at Tailor’s Café where we sold custard tarts about 3 times the size of ours here. People would line up, wrapped around the building, every morning for a cappuccino and tarts. That was my first experience with fancy coffee. I never could recreate that experience until Peter handed me that recipe; it was like a big Christmas gift. And they’re never better than fresh right out of the oven when they’re literally scalding your mouth. I LOVE them. Of course, I wasn’t a good baker. It’s a science and there’s no room for error. Whereas, all bets are off when making soup…you don’t even need a recipe. That’s how I like to cook.
Much of your work life revolves around food, what about at home?
Working for one year in the kitchen at The National made me a million times better cook at home. And for the women in my family, every social gathering revolves around food. As a young girl, every Saturday night we’d go to my maternal grandmother’s house for dinner, and on Sunday lunch to my paternal grandmother’s. Watching them cook was so edifying. We’d eat, hang out and go home. That hasn’t really changed in my life now with them or my friends.
Plus, knowing how to cook helps everything make sense when I’m shooting food. For instance, if you’re taking a photo of the mise en place, you need to know how that would actually be set up. You know what naturally pairs together.
To see more of Emily’s work visit her website here. And to support her latest creative endeavor in the antique method of tintype photography, donate here!