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Frankie Gaw, founder of Little Fat Boy
Issue 3: On taking a design-led approach to food blogging and photography.
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Frankie Gaw is a Seattle-based designer who has turned his love of food into the award-winning blog, Little Fat Boy. He leans on his Taiwanese-American roots and a very design-minded aesthetic to showcase meticulously-crafted dishes inspired by the meals he grew up eating with his grandmother. Frankie and I are both Saveur Blog of the Year award winners and we connected virtually to talk cooking, branding, and his process.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me How you found your way to food?
Frankie Gaw: My parents are immigrants from Taiwan, so I grew up with a lot of Taiwanese food. My grandma used to live with us as well so she'd make me all these traditional home-cooked Taiwanese dishes like dumplings and noodles from scratch. It wasn't until I was probably in my early twenties when I realized, "Oh wow, I have this really special heritage of food in my background that I've experienced that I've always just taken for granted."
I decided to start documenting my grandma's recipes just for myself. I would video tape her making food, and I would take notes and write down the recipes. I started to photograph them in my own style, and then I started posting to Instagram, and eventually, people started following. A lot of the food is stuff my grandma taught me, or the stuff I ate as a kid, mixed with my own tastes. I lived in California for six years, so I was into the produce out there. I mix in a lot of Californian cuisine with the Taiwanese cuisine — kind of this hodgepodge of my heritage, and my background, and my interests.
Brianna Plaza: How does being children of immigrants, growing up in the Midwest, and living in California influence what you cook and how you think about what you want to cook?
Frankie Gaw: I started, and I still do it, because I just want to cook the food that I love to eat. I feel I'm an eater first, and a cook second. I don't see myself as a professional cook by any means, but I did pick up things from my grandma. In terms of food, I've always just been drawn to the home cooked food that I grew up eating. From there, I think about seasonality. It sparks my creative juices of how I can turn this recipe that I've always had into something new.
Brianna Plaza: Your background is in design, how does that affect how you think about what you cook, how you photograph it, and how you pick your aesthetic?
Frankie Gaw: I would say the design background definitely has a huge part in the way I craft everything. Anytime I do a project, I honestly look at it as a brand. So, when I started this I was like, "Oh, I really want to just highlight the food. And what are creative ways to do that?" I decided I'm only going to do top-down photography for the images and then the food can shine.
The colors are there to highlight the food itself. It's either a complimentary color or a color within the food itself, so there’s a cohesive color story within the photo. Because of my design background, I am cognizant of color and composition. I very much look at the photography, and the food I'm creating, and the posts I'm making, they're all very much one cohesive brand to me.
Brianna Plaza: Do you think about the “brand” first? Or do you really go recipe first and then figure out how you're going to fit it into your brand?
Frankie Gaw: I definitely start with the food, first. I always start by sketching out a bunch of different recipes that I'm just in the mood to eat. I'll be like, "Oh, I haven't had dumplings in a while, I haven't had steamed buns in a while," And I'll just suss out different recipes based on my mood, or what I'm craving, or what's in season. And then from there, I'll be like, "Okay, I haven't posted this kind of food in a while, so maybe let's do that first.” The food drives it, and then I put the design lens on it afterwards.
Brianna Plaza: Can you walk through a process from start to finish?
Frankie Gaw: At the start of the week, I'll think what I am craving or I will talk to my grandma and we'll talk about all food we used to eat and I will sketch it out — I'll even draw out how I want to photograph. I have an iPad, so I'll sketch out a couple of dishes, and from those dishes, I'll iterate and finalize all the way down to how it will look on Instagram.
From there I do a lot of food prep in term of grocery shopping. I think about the garnish, seasoning, or what goes on top of the dish and that goes into the grocery list.
Once I finalize exactly what foods I'll be making that week, I go grocery shopping, buy all the things, and then I'll usually food prep either that day or the next day. I'll prep all the ingredients and start with things that will last a few days like fillings or pickles. That next day, I'll make all the doughs.
On shoot day I start cooking ingredients and start assembling, and by three or four in the afternoon, I have to get ready to shoot. I don't have an actual photo studio set up, I use my bedroom windows. I have to plan everything to the hour, because the light goes down at a certain time. If I have to go to the office, I'll cook in the mornings, or I'll come back at noon, eat lunch, and cook, and then go back to the office.
I Photoshop the background so that there's a color to it. I used to do paper, but was just too expensive to constantly buy colored paper. I usually spend some time after I photograph everything in Photoshop, and I'll do all the backgrounds, and I do a bunch of color options, and then usually just choose one.
Brianna Plaza: So where, other than your grandmother and your background, do you get inspiration from?
Frankie Gaw: I love going to restaurants and seeing what other people are doing. For me, it's less about fancy restaurants, and more just good food. I’m inspired by eating at places that people in the community recommend. I'm not the biggest Yelp person, but I like using the internet to a certain extent. I like finding places that people who've lived in the city for a long time know about.
I love looking at at other people who are doing similar things in food, other people who do dumplings, or other people who do Taiwanese food. As well as people who aren't just in my cuisine. I have so many food Instagrams saved on my phone that I look at all the time that are really cool and inspiring.
I love cookbooks, I'm obsessed with them. Recently, I’ve been really in to looking at vintage Chinese cook books. It’s interesting to see techniques and how they’ve changed or haven’t changed.
One cook book I've been reading a lot is this cook book called Pei Mei's Chinese Cook Book, and she's basically the Chinese Julia Child. Her cook book was the first Chinese cook book that also had English translations and she's local to Taiwan. It was one of the first books that made Chinese food accessible to a lot of Chinese and Taiwanese families back in the seventies and eighties.
Brianna Plaza: How has winning a Saveur Award changed how you work?
Frankie Gaw: I did not think I could even get nominated, let alone win the whole thing. So, to me it was definitely a shock, but I think for me, it's taught me that I can reach higher or dream a little bit bigger. It’s made me think, "What if you could do this full time?" Those are things that in my head felt ambiguous. And now, after winning the award, definitely made them more concrete.
Brianna Plaza: Besides the stuff you make for the site, what do you normally like to cook?
Frankie Gaw: When I'm not cooking for the blog, I love making chicken. I just love chicken. Just really simple roast chicken. I grew up watching Ina Garten. It's my dream to just meet her, go to her house, and eat dinner there.
Brianna Plaza: What's your favorite tool that you have in your kitchen?
Frankie Gaw: Probably the pasta machine. It's made my life so much easier. I used to palm roll every single dumpling wrapper that I would make. I'd be sweating afterwards. And then, I saw someone making ravioli with a pasta maker, I was like, "Oh my gosh. I could totally do that with dumpling wraps, too." It's made my process so much faster and I'm way less sweaty.
Other things ~
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that we’re getting a new president today! Jesus H. Christ we made it (barely). I have to imagine your first day as President includes some sort of onboarding (where’s the closest coffee machine to the oval office? does someone bring him coffee any time he wants it? what if he wants to go for a walk? does he even drink coffee?) But on his first full day Thursday, there is a lot to get started on. I like this summary from the NYTimes on what Biden plans to do in his first 100 days in office.
I recently made this roasted chicken with preserved lemons from Ottolenghi’s Simple and I suggest you make it asap. I have 4 of Ottolenghi’s cookbooks and cook quite a bit from them. Do you have any favorite recipes I should check out?
I roasted a chicken on Sunday, but don’t let that fool you into thinking I have my life together when it comes to meal prep. I roasted a chicken, made some red sauce, and make a snack cake in one day (which is the most I’ve done in a while) and it took me a day and multiple rounds of dishwashing to get out of that mess (my dishwasher is also OOO) so now I don’t want to cook ever again. I read this article about doing meal prep all at once from Eater. I can’t decide if I would find this helpful or daunting. Are you team meal prep or team wing it?