The off-cuts of food culture have never looked this good…
The first story I heard about Steve Ryan involved him setting up the Irish Embassy in Afghanistan during the war and subsequently working for VICE. This turned out to be almost true, but not quite the cigar. The second story involved my friend walking into Steve’s studio to find him concentrating on an arrangement of chunks of beef and sex toys for a photoshoot he was doing for a company that sold adult toys. Whilst the second story remains unconfirmed, the first one carries some semblance of truth. Steve, in fact, went to Kosovo and set up The Unofficial Embassy of Ireland and (rumour has it) a hurling team too.
An Irish photographer representing the banished brains abroad in the bosom of East London, Steve has been a regular contributor to CARA, as well as working for the Jamie Oliver Magazine, The Financial Times, Totally Dublin, VICE and many more. Having never met him, I can’t say for certain whether one should believe all the stories one hears about him – I just know that I have chosen to.
Wheeling and dealing in food photography and portraiture, Steve grew into a food photographer through the love of the community and culture that surrounded the food industry in London. He holds true to the belief that any story that deserves telling can be told through the spectrum of food – it is a common vocabulary that yields universal appeal. So, along with two designers and a chef he set up an independent magazine that would bring tears to every print junkie’s eyes. Root + Bone is a smooth operation that sees illustrators, photographers and writers come together to put forward a magazine of a high standard for no money at all – the guys do it in the evenings and on weekends. A self-described magazine about ‘the off-cuts’ of food culture, Root + Bone reads like a mixture of a working chef’s best friend and a grunge mag from the early 90’s. It’s full of the grit and glory of the behind-the-scenes moments in the preparation and production of food. It’s a beautiful read. We caught up with Steve Ryan to talk food culture and independent magazine publishing, but chickened out of asking him about the sex toy episode…
How did Root + Bone come about? There’s four of us in it and we met on a job making a cookbook for another client. We got on well and then ended up doing three more cookbooks. That was four years ago, and I’d just turned my hand to doing food photography – I’ve been a photographer for eight years, but had never done much stuff like this. So after that we started to work on more of these food stories – pitching them to magazines I used to work for like The Financial Times, VICE, and Totally Dublin. But a lot of the magazines thought the images were too ‘rough.’ No one would print them, so we just thought “ok let’s print our own thing.” We thought we’d do a zine, then why not just do a magazine, and so Root + Bone came about. We printed 2,000 copies for the first issue and they were gone in three weeks! For the second issue we decided we’d do 10,000 copies. It came out in December and it was gone by February. For Issue 3 we already have 10,000 copies promised to stockists.
Who are your stockists and how do you pick them? We’re kind of selective. We wanted to drop stuff off in places we liked, and those are mainly independent places. That’s actually been one of the duties I’m particular about. In East London it’s fine because I know a lot of the places here, but I’ve had to research a few places that have been contacting us in order to stock it in West London. The Ace Hotel that recently opened in Shoreditch contacted us to stock Root + Bone and they keep a copy of the mag in every bedroom, which is nice as it’s a cool spot. Most places will take ten and then ring us and ask for more. Each issue we seem to double our stockists – we’ve got places in Bristol and Manchester, there’s one place in Paris, and for this next issue there’s a place in New York that’s stocking us.
Why the stress on independent places? I’d be really mad to see one in a Costa Coffee – it’s snobby but I think it’s a healthy snobbery. We’re independent, we’re paying for this ourselves, and we’re mainly doing this to champion the people in the magazine, who are also independent and grassroots. We don’t want you to find the magazines in a commercial place because that’s not what we’re about, it’s not really on brand. And since we’re small, it makes sense for us to be specific.
How do you work full-time and run a magazine separately? Well I work mainly as a food and portrait photographer, so there’s a good cross-over there. I hang out with a lot of chefs, taking photographs of restaurants etc. Since I’m working in that world it’s not like I have to put on my ‘Root + Bone cap’ – I’m always thinking and talking about these ideas. Logistically we meet up once every two weeks and talk about the next issue and we’re on email the whole time. We’ve been stocking everything ourselves also, which means we’re running around on bikes and zip cars, which is crazy, doing everything ourselves. Thankfully for Issue 3 we’ve finally managed to get a distributor and we’re really happy to pass on that responsibility.
If you’re putting your own money into it and it’s free, what are the financial implications for you guys? And how does it work with contributors? We’ve got no hidden agenda – I’ve been contributing to magazines for the past eight years, so I’ve been working for magazines like Cara, VICE, IMAGE, Totally Dublin, so I had that inside knowledge and experience. I know there’s not a lot of money to be made in magazines. But I do think they’re having a second birth, print is back and getting exciting again. I would definitely like the magazine to cover itself as we’re putting in a lot of time and hard work into it. When we first started we thought we’d just shop it out to friends, so it’d be free – also my experience has mostly been in free magazines. I had never thought about selling it. We thought we’d do it for free, especially since the printing costs were fairly minimal. I would like to partner with some advertising in the future – not a ton of advertising, but two or three ads with people who we think make sense to partner with. At the same time, we like to think Root + Bone is a little different because it’s ‘the offcuts’ of food culture – things that other magazines won’t publish because they’re too crass or vulgar or offensive, we’ll give them a shot. We’ve got some great contributors. We mostly come up with the content for the pieces ourselves and then approach friends or people we know and like, and ask them to do a piece. I do most of the photography myself though, as I don’t like to ask people to do stuff for free. Illustrators, and writers are all contributing for free at the moment. And there’s only so long that can last. We’re doing it for fun, but we want to make sure that our contributors have fun too, so our briefs are fairly open, we want people to make something they really want to make. Once we make money we’d like to cover printing costs and pay our contributors. But you know, for now it’s our third magazine in six months, and if that’s as many as we do that’s ok, it’s been a really fun trip. We’re doing it because we enjoy it – we’ve had a lot support and the interest in it is growing. We’ve got subscribers from all over the world now. Other people put extra pressure on things, but we don’t because this isn’t actually our full-time job. But we’ve got quicker at things and a lot of the initial complications have sorted themselves out. For instance, a palette came to my house with 10,000 magazines last issue, and it was insane – now we’ve got a distributor and don’t have to worry about that aspect of things.
About the content – the offcuts of food culture – how did you settle on this as a theme and what does it entail? How do you come up with your content? We wanted this to be a magazine for people who are interested in food, but who also work with food. If the staff and chefs are the first people to grab it and there’s none left, that’s a success to us. We wanted it to be a magazine for people who work in the industry. I work for a lot of food magazines in the UK, like Olive and the Jamie Oliver Magazine, which are really nice food magazines, but they’re all kind of geared to middle-aged women and families. And on the other end of the spectrum you’ve got The Gourmande and Lucky Peach, which are geared towards the expensive end of things and are like the ‘Monocle of food culture’ But myself and the chef work in the industry and none of those magazines appeal to us. Our magazine is on that middle-ground. We wanted to do a magazine for us. The way we develop ideas is by sitting around, having a couple of drinks and talking about stuff we’d like to read about in a magazine. Like when we tattooed meat with squid ink to see if you could eat it – we were just curious to see if it could work! And now with Issue 3 we took the idea of the ‘roast royale’ where you roast a partridge with a pheasant inside it, with a pigeon inside it. We wanted to see if you could do it with fish, so we spent a Saturday at my house doing that. We’re experimenting and having fun with food.
I also brew beer at home, so we have a 14 page beer piece in Issue 3, which means I get to meet other brewers and taste beer, which is great. In terms of contributors though, people have started to pitch stuff which is great, but we like to go with people we previously knew and liked at the moment.
Do you remember how you first got into food photography? I used to do a lot of the photography for Totally Dublin. I always used to hate the food section, found it so boring. I was also briefly working with a food photographer and found that boring too. But then I did this cookbook when I moved to London, and I realised there were a lot of cool, passionate people doing stuff with food over here. And I was learning how to cook, I was eating my way through some fantastic adventures. I decided that I’d give it a shot and become a food photographer. I don’t talk cameras, I’m not a ‘photography’ photographer. I like photography because it opens doors to you. And everyone has an interest in food. You can tie anything to food. Any story you want to do, you can make it a food story.
Highlights from Issue 3? We’re doing a Root + Bone Beer for the next issue – very self-indulgent. So we teamed up with one of the head brewers from one of the big breweries here, and had a big brew up at my house one weekend. We put roots we’d foraged into it, as well as a goat leg bone, so it actually contains roots and bones! We made 250 bottles of that, which are currently at my house. After the mag is out a couple of weeks we’ll have a launch party and give it to all the guests.
Root + Bone is available from NEXT WEEK in most independent cafes, bars, food halls and establishments across London. It’s free. There will be 150 copies in Dublin in Indigo & Cloth, Coppinger Row, and Ukiyo. You can also subscribe at email@example.com
All above photography from Steve Ryan
Roisin Agnew @Roxeenna