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April 23, 2018
By Matia Burnett
How a food photographer and indie author is forging his own path and building community.

"I’m not a foodie,” insists Alan Batt, or Battman, as he is known in culinary circles. However, anyone looking at his oeuvre of food photography might be surprised that he counts a Quarter Pounder with cheese and fries as one of his favorite meals.

Batt, who began taking photographs professionally in 1981, boasts a varied career, with stints at his father’s sweater manufacturing company in Brooklyn and as a toy salesman in California. However, that line of work wasn’t a good fit: “I didn’t have a standardized approach.”

It’s a description that might apply to other aspects of Batt’s life. After moving back to New York City in the 1980s, he wasn’t sure what professional path to take, but felt drawn to photography. He began capturing the city’s sights and selling the images as greeting cards.

From 1987 until 2004, 35 of Batt’s photos of the city were on display at the Empire State Building. Batt then went on to work as the lead photographer at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and is the photographer behind the charitable New York City Firefighters Calendar.

In 2001, Batt reached out to New York chefs, asking to photograph their dishes. Then, in 2004, he hatched a new concept: he challenged 85 chefs to put their own spin on a classic dish. The result of this first project was The Great Bagel & Lox Book.

Batt has gone on to self-publish 12 additional collections of food photography and recipes. Among his titles are: New York Sweets, Summer in New York, Sandwiches of the World, and Soup. Releasing this spring is Master Chefs of France, a collection of recipes from renowned members of the Maîtres Cuisiniers de France culinary organization. Batt’s book of sweet and savory recipes, Crossing Borders/Sweet Crossings, also publishes this spring.

"Get lots of honest feedback. You don’t need to hear the good stuff. You need the real, bad stuff."
As Batt meets chefs from restaurants and kitchens around the world, he makes a point to be nonintrusive; his photography equipment is modest in size and easily transportable. “I don’t bother them. I just tell them, I want to take a picture of your best dish,” Batt says. Other than that, “I schmooze with them.”

After the shoot, Batt works with a small team of graphic designers and editors to finalize the recipes, many of which are appearing for the first time in print. Batt says he appreciates the low-tech aspect of cooking: “I really like working with chefs because it’s all from them working with their hands. No computer. It’s just all their creations.”

Four years ago, Batt launched the website the Chef’s Connection. In addition to serving as a showroom for Batt’s food photography and a virtual bookstore for his titles, the site provides a number of services for the cooking community, including chef profiles, a calendar of New York food events, and job listings. The site currently gets between 18,000 and 20,000 hits per month.

Sales of Batt’s recent books have averaged 7,000–12,000 copies. He has also reached out to the New York community in a big way: each year, Batt launches a new book at the Great Gathering of Chefs. Profits from the event go to children’s charities. Batt has also started a line-cook training school, which is held at the Food and Finance High School in Manhattan. The free program trains unemployed individuals from low-income backgrounds to work in New York’s kitchens.

For a self-described nonfoodie who runs a cookbook publishing enterprise and photography business, Batt has an enviable recipe for success. And he has straightforward advice for individuals looking to self-publish: “Get lots of honest feedback. You don’t need to hear the good stuff. You need the real, bad stuff. You also need a way to sell it. Social media is very successful if you have enough followers. Start working on it before you even have the book.” 

But, as anyone following a recipe knows, a cook can get all the ingredients right and still end up with a dish that’s missing a certain je ne sais quoi. Along with people skills and entrepreneurism, the secret of Batt’s success may boil down to his nonstandard approach to life, and what can be found when the path forward isn’t entirely clear. As Batt puts it, “You never know where you’ll end up.”