Dining With Denise Neil

When restaurants need food porn, they call this photographer

When Gavin Peters was a kid, his favorite restaurant was Denny’s.

Sure, he loved the Grand Slam breakfast – who doesn’t? But what Peters really loved was the menu.

It was huge, and every page was covered with giant, colorful, mouth-watering pictures of bacon and pancakes and burgers and steaks.

“Everything was a photograph,” he said. “It was a work of art.”

Today, Peters understands why he was so infatuated with that menu. At 43, he is one of the food industry’s most established and sought-after food photographers, and his resume is filled with an impressive list of clients.

When you’re gazing hungrily at photos on the menu board at Freddy’s Frozen Custard, wondering whether to order the cheeseburger or the juicy hotdog, you can thank Peters: He took those pictures.

If you’re flipping through the Carlos O’ Kelly’s menu, salivating over pictures of creamy queso and crunchy tostadas – well, Peters took those, too.

The mouth-watering steaks that greet you at the airport, the colorful pies on Spear’s Pie Shop’s website, the plump lobster tail in Scotch & Sirloin’s advertisements – all of those are Peters’ shots.

Peters, the owner of Gavin Peters Photo, is a lifelong Wichitan and a Southeast High School graduate who is well-known for his commercial photography. These days, he said, about 50 percent of his business consists of shooting pictures of food for restaurant websites, social media sites, ad campaigns and menus.

He loves photographing food, and not just because he often gets to eat it when he’s done. Getting just the right light hitting a piece of steak or finding just the right angle to capture the full glory of a gooey cheeseburger is a challenge he happily accepts.

“It’s just a blast to catch it at the most beautiful, makes-you-want-to-eat-it moment,” he said.

Peters is admired in restaurant circles for his talent and his amiable attitude, said Scott Redler, who has been hiring Peters for years – and who has some of his photos, including an extreme close-up of a container of French fries, hanging in places of prominence on his office wall. Redler even had Peters autograph the shot, which he playfully refers to as “food porn.”

Redler, whose Wichita-based restaurant chain now has hundreds of restaurants across the country, said he’s lucky his photographer of preference lives in Wichita.

“The advantage of Gavin really is that he can look at a picture, look at food and make sure it looks genuine and authentic and that everything is perfect about it,” Redler said. “Wichita has a great talent pool, and we think his talent matches national photographers.”

His inner photographer

Peters detected his inner photographer at a young age.

He remembers accumulating enough points with his Weekly Reader subscription to qualify to get his first camera – a 110 that came with one roll of film.

His parents weren’t on board yet. They never even developed the film, he said, and they told Peters to forget about ordering more. He’d probably just waste it. (They’ve since apologized.)

In high school at Southeast, Peters decided to sign up for a photo class. It sounded like an easy A. His teacher was Ken Engquist, a well-regarded art photographer who now lives in Las Vegas. (An Engquist show is currently hanging at the Mid-America All Indian Center.)

On the first day of class, Engquist passed out the photo textbooks. Peters read the entire volume that night and came back the next day asking for Volume 2. “That’s the only book for the whole semester,” he remembers a surprised Engquist saying. But he got Peters more books.

Peters joined both the yearbook staff and newspaper staff and found they suited him perfectly. One foggy morning, he was walking near Price-Harris Elementary School when he noticed beautiful lighting behind a twisty playground slide.

He snapped a picture.

“I thought, ‘I hope this turns out,’ ” Peters remembers. “Engquist looked at it and said, ‘Yeah, this is good.’ It ended up winning a national Gold Key award.”

A framed copy of that photo now hangs on the wall at The Monarch, the Delano bar and restaurant owned by Jen Ray, Peters’ girlfriend of six years. (No, they didn’t meet on a food shoot.)

Peters knew he wanted a career in photography. He enrolled at the University of Kansas and was told he couldn’t join the newspaper staff until he was a junior. Frustrated, he returned to Wichita State, where he hooked up with a commercial photographer looking for an assistant.

Peters worked with him for a few years, learning what to do (and what not to do) by observing him shoot for big clients like Sheplers. His first big break came when he was hired by Intrust Bank to shoot a photo for an ad. Peters remembers it was a picture of a chess board.

Word spread, and he got more clients, then more. For years, he was the main photographer for Dean & DeLuca, which then was owned by Wichita native Leslie Rudd. Peters’ photos filled the pages of the chain’s popular catalogs.

He also worked for Big Dog Motorcycles, and one of his specialties is fashion photography.

But shooting food over the years has become his thing. Peters thinks his success is due in part to the passion for food he’s had throughout his life, dating back to when he’d watch his grandmother cook on her Marion County farm.

“We were picking peas and I was helping her in the kitchen,” he said. “My mom was a caterer, and my dad’s mom was an amazing baker and an amazing cook. It’s just being around food and know what it is that makes it special. It’s knowing how much heart and love really goes into good food.”

Menu boards make him cringe

On a recent weekday, a room in the center of the Freddy’s Frozen Custard home offices on Rock Road was packed with employees, and the smell of sizzling steakburgers was wafting into the hallways. The entire Freddy’s marketing team was assembled for the first of a two-day-long shoot that would provide a year’s worth of photos to be used on social media, menus and menu boards.

At the center of the room was Peters, stationed behind an expensive camera attached to a tripod. His lens was pointed at a table that was surrounded on all sides by lighting soft boxes. In the center of the table was a Freddy’s steakburger with a side of onion rings, both of which had just been prepared on a makeshift grill to Peters’ right.

As Peters’ shutter clicked, his photos immediately popped up on the iPads of members of the marketing team. Often, they’d note a slight imperfection – the onion rings were piled too far away from the burger or the cheese on the burger wasn’t melted quite enough. A food stylist would rush over to rearrange the food, and Peters would resume the shoot.

By the end of the day, his clothes and all his gear smelled like frying steakburgers.

But that’s one of the few downsides of the job – if you consider that a downside, Peters said. Another is that Peters, a perfectionist, has trouble visiting the restaurants he shoots for and seeing his work on the menu or hanging on a wall. He always sees a small flaw he wishes he could change.

The challenge of making food look so beautiful that it causes a hunger pang is something Peters says he thrives on.

“The thing about food is you have to be fast,” he said. “The second it’s out of the pan, it’s starting to die. So I love that thrill of having to catch it within the first few minutes and knowing ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ ”

Denise Neil: 316-268-6327, @deniseneil