Before he was designing grills for the world's best chefs—like Dan Barber, Jose Andres, and Missy Robbins—Grillworks' owner Ben Eisendrath (@grillworksben) was taking apart his father's Pentax to see how it worked. As part of our series on creativity at the intersection of food and photography, we spoke to Ben about his lifelong, intertwined pursuits of photography and fire.
Name: Ben Eisendrath
Hometown: Washington DC by way of Ann Arbor, MI
Most recent project you worked on: The largest freestanding grill in the world, our new Infierno 240 Tigre™, soon to be lit up in Toronto (below).
Go-to gear: In my Bond Street bag (Field Tan): a Leica M10 with 50 mm Zeiss-Opton f1.5, Canon F.95 “Dream” lens or Voigtlander Nokton Classic 35 mm (most food shots on this one). In my Bowery bag (Field Tan): ’71 Hasselblad 500 c., 60mm Zeiss.
Describe your aesthetic in five words or less: Incidental drama in motion.
"I first picked up a camera…” I first picked up my father’s Pentax and promptly took it apart to see how it worked. After which it most definitely did not.
How (and why) did you start down your current career path? I had a very rewarding career in online product design before deciding corporate dot-com was no longer for me. I didn’t want to be a cog in a large machine that squelched most of the fun out of design. So I turned to something that had been— forgive me—smoldering in the back of my brain for a long time.
My family lived in Argentina when I was a boy so I was exposed to the culinary use of fire at a formative time. My education continued at our farm in northern Michigan which was wood-heated and very outdoor-cooking centric. Dad was a foreign correspondent for TIME, which was the reason for our South America stay and for our family’s adventurous menu. When we settled in the states he designed an American version of the traditional Argentine Parrilla, which friends and foodies fell in love with, including the now-immortal James Beard. But making grills was his hobby only. In 2007 I revived his original design and launched a full line of live-fire grills that now power restaurants all over the world.
How did you learn your craft? I’ve always been a compulsive photographer, no matter what the camera in my hand. But as I dive further and further into product design and the intersection of aesthetics and function I’ve come to study this in both classic and new cameras. Since my grills are built to make best possible use of a primal phenomenon—fire—I use photography to illustrate to customers just what can be achieved when a chef masters the flame.
Biggest creative influence(s): Truly - fire. I’m a professional pyromaniac, so my life is spent finding inspiration in how people all over the world harness it differently.
A peer you most admire and why: I’d be presumptuous to call him a peer, but Chef Dan Barber’s early interest in what I was doing to launch Grillworks played a key part in where I am now. His influence in the culinary world (both policy and dining) can only be described as a force of nature. Burned in my brain was the day in his kitchen at Blue Hill at Stone Barns when he took me aside and said “Ben - I want to know everything about fire. Make me better.” This coming from the man who was on the TIME Magazine 100 most influential people list that year AND had just won the James Beard Best Chef award. Humbling, and inspiring.
Your favorite photo you’ve taken this year, and the story behind it: One of the most wrenching is one I took at the March For Our Lives in DC (below). This was taken during the 17 minutes Emma González stood at the mic in silence to commemorate how long it took for her friends to lose their lives. This was with the Hasselblad.
One piece of advice that stuck with you: "Look for the life you want and when you see it, go get it. In the words, if not you, WHO?" - Dad on how he realized he wanted to be a journalist.
Advice you would give to someone looking to get into food and/or photography: Which camera is in your hand doesn’t matter, only that there is one. Find inspiration rather than emulation in those whose work you admire in any discipline, including photography or food. And there IS originality out there - don’t listen to the voices that would suggest “everything has been done”. Nothing has been done exactly like YOU would do it.
One thing most people wouldn’t expect about you? At night I was an Industrial music promoter, booker and DJ through the ‘90s and early 2000s.
Mistake you’ve learned from: Don’t promote yourself past the things you love to do. In my corporate past, I advanced past the level where I found the most reward (working directly on design).
Biggest challenge: Starting an utterly weird company from zero! The looks I got from my corporate peers when I told them “I’m going to make grills” are still burned in my brain.
Work you are most proud of: Our new line of Infierno professional grills. In particular the Infierno X100 has my favorite balance of function, proportions and beauty so far.
Dream project: Co-designing a special edition camera keying off photographing far-flung fire and food. Are you listening, Leica?
Food you can’t live without: Eggs!
Dish you cook for yourself the most: When I’m home - bone-on rib steaks on one of the last grills my Dad made.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I attempted to make a tuna melt pizza once. ONCE.
Favorite restaurant: Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
Bucket list restaurant: Extebarri.
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