Lights! Camera! Sous Vide! Cooking and Shooting with John Samora
So I really have to admit that I didn’t know who John Samora was when the publisher suggested he might make an interesting subject for an article. “He’s a photographer for The Arizona Republic and a very interesting guy,” she said. OK.
I Googled but honestly didn’t find that much to intrigue me. I friended him on Facebook and was instantly captivated, because the photos of food he was posting were unlike anything I’d ever seen. I was pretty certain the recipes he was using weren’t in any cookbooks on my shelf.
John Samora was a conjurer for sure and I wanted to know more.
Soon after, I was fortunate to spend an afternoon with him in his studio in Phoenix. Samora has a well-equipped photography studio in a converted garage at his home. There he works on video and still photography for his many clients.
The day I visited, Samora was working on a drink recipe for a 60-second video he was producing. I watched on the monitor as he mixed up soda and spirits in a scrupulously clean glass filled with fake ice cubes. Although the liquids were “true,” he explained that real ice would melt too quickly under the lights so he uses plastic ice cubes. The bubbles from the soda sprayed up into the air as if dancing as he slowly poured cassis into the glass. The two liquids, soda and spirits, stayed separated and the result was striking and artful.
“I’m a one-man band when it comes to these videos. I work completely alone in my studio. I do the recipe development, I shop for the food, I prep the food, do the camera work and editing. I do everything,” says Samora.
The very short videos demonstrate cooking skills useful to novice and experienced home cooks: things like preparing an avocado or making simple steamed white rice or, in this case, mixing a cocktail. Short and sweet, the videos appeal to people who don’t have much time but want to learn some cooking basics.
John Samora is in many ways a jack of all trades and a master of many. His college majors were English and fine arts. He thought he was preparing to be a potter, but life took him in a different direction. Out of college, he worked as a cabinet maker with his brother before moving on to other ventures—many other ventures.
No longer with The Arizona Republic, Samora continues to service commercial clients with photography and video production. “I’ve been making my living with a camera for over 30 years and I love it.” The thing is, though, that his days are filled with a lot more than just photography because this man’s curiosity is unquenchable.
Samora’s mother brought him into the kitchen at an early age. She wanted her son to be able to take care of himself when he got older. “The best way for me to learn something is to do it,” he says. At his mother’s side, he learned to cook. Not from cookbooks but from watching and doing.
“I’m not a cookbook reader but a by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of cook.” He doesn’t collect cookbooks the way many of us who love food do. In fact, the shelf in his kitchen has only a few cookbooks, one of which was given to him by a friend who found it on a “free” table at a book sale: Jams, Jellies and other Sweet Preserves. It’s one of his favorites and one that he’s used over and over making jams and preserves from his own home-grown produce.
According to Samora, “photographers are technology chameleons.” His fascination with technology extends into the kitchen. When Samora gets a new gadget and wants to learn how to use it, he might teach it to himself through trial and error, or he may go to a master for advice.
“Kevin Binkley taught me sous vide. It’s a very complex process and I’ve been working with lots of different foods,” Samora says.
He loves his sous vide gadget so much that he’s started giving them as gifts to friends. “In some ways it’s so much easier to use than a CrockPot and the food that you can make with it is so much better.”
Samora’s kitchen skills are to be admired. He has no formal training except for his forays into the kitchens of some well-known local chefs such as Binkley, yet he easily cooked most of the food for his recent wedding (120 people) using produce from his own garden and local meats from which he made charcuterie, one of his kitchen passions right now.
Karen Fernau, Samora’s colleague when they previously worked for The Arizona Republic as a food writer-photographer team says, “His expertise went far beyond the lighting and camera. John knows food as well as any of the top-name chefs we worked closely with. His passion for growing, smoking, fermenting and cooking food matched theirs as well.”
Samora has two homes, one in Phoenix with his studio that will soon be on the market, and one in Pinetop where he will be relocating full time. An avid gardener, he has fruit trees and a vegetable garden at both homes. The Pinetop home sits on three acres and was once a specimen garden for a nursery. The land is fertile and the Pinetop growing season, different from the desert one at his Phoenix home, has allowed him to plant many varieties of fruit trees like pear, apple and plum as well as berries and cherries. In fact, Samora’s garden is so prolific that he often supplies Phoenix chefs with produce and is currently soliciting ideas for unusual fruits and vegetables that chefs may be looking for.
Fernau adds, “One visit to his Arcadia area home is all it takes to understand just how much John adores food. He grows vegetables year-round. He harvests in-season peaches and citrus fruits. He smokes meats, he cures bacon. He turns leftover wine into vinegar. He never lets anyone walk into his home without offering a bite of something he has just grown or made.
But most importantly, John cooks as a way to give to others. His loving soul was never more apparent than when he dropped by my desk with a jar of peach jam made from his backyard tree, or a warm buttery tortilla he baked just like his mother did.”
I asked Samora about his favorite restaurants. Since he’s not a cookbook reader like most of us who are intrigued with food, I figured he probably didn’t eat out much either. I was right. He says, “It’s hard for me to eat out. I know what goes into making food and if the food is not up to my standards, I am not happy.”
“The food I crave when I go out is stuff that is far too difficult for me to make at home. I didn’t grow up with an Asian food profile in my head so I prefer to eat Asian food out although I have managed to make some dishes at home.”
Among his favorite restaurants are Hana Japanese Eatery, Al Zohour, Tahoora Grill, Sekong, Little Saigon, Nobu, Bianco’s, Atlas Bistro, The Gladly, Yasu Sushi Bistro, Essence Bakery and Binkley’s. Samora gets inspiration from eating in ethnic restaurants. He may not try to duplicate a dish but he will learn about a new spice or combination of ingredients that he then elaborates in his home kitchen.
If you follow “johnsamora602” on Instagram or Facebook (and I strongly suggest that you do), you’ll see that he can become interested (more accurately, obsessed!) with a particular food or ingredient.
“Right now I’m in love with buttermilk syrup. I never heard of it before but my wife tasted it a while back and told me about it. She brought home a bottle for me to try.” Without even looking for a recipe on the Internet, he was able to re-create it just from tasting the original.
Avid gardener, photographer, potter, skilled home cook. But that’s not all. For more than 25 years, Samora has been a member of a local blues band, Big Nick and the Gila Monsters. He sings and plays the harmonica. The band plays in local clubs, at festivals and other events. You can check them out at monstertonerecords.com.
I believe that all of John Samora’s interests and skills qualify him as a modern-day renaissance man, someone who is interested in and knows a lot about many things. He is an expert photographer, a musician, a conjurer and a scientist, but most of all a man with a keen sense of wonderment about everything.