As an artist, Justin Hager has given us vivid pop culture visions like Morrissey eating a Veggie Big Mac, Kanye eating actual fish sticks, Carlton eating Ritz crackers at the Ritz Carlton, and "DD" Ramone at Dunkin Donuts. But when MUNCHIES editor-in-chief Helen Hollyman asked Justin to illustrate our new cookbook, MUNCHIES: Late-Night Meals from the World's Best Chefs, he had to immerse himself in a culture that was far less familiar to him.
After many, many hours of watching Chef's Night Out, Hager applied that same keen eye for culture to some of the show's most bombastic chefs and gave us perfect visual representation of a good night out, condensed into single images throughout the book. From lobster luges to a crab-wrestling Danny Bowien to April Bloomfield beer pong, Hager created imagery that is as bold as any of the recipes in the book. He also picked up a lot along the way.
We interviewed Hager via e-mail to see what a visual artist can learn from watching chefs at their most depraved and inspired on Chef's Night Out.
MUNCHIES: What do your illustrations usually consist of?
Justin Hager: I usually draw pop culture figures that intrigue me. I create scenarios of them that wouldn't necessarily exist in real life, sometimes it's to shed light on the absurd and ridiculous nature of the world we live in. Most of the time, it's because it makes my friends and me laugh.
So, how did you end up getting the MUNCHIES cookbook gig?
I did drawings for a few online MUNCHIES articles and [MUNCHIES editor-in-chief] Helen [Hollyman] liked my style so much that she asked me to do the illustrations for the book. It's definitely an honor—I still can't believe it!
Is this your first cookbook project?
Yeah! I've done food-themed zines with friends before, but this is the first book.
How many episodes of Chef's Night Out did you have to watch for this?
I think, like 50. And I watched most of them multiple times to really get a feel for the chefs. It was fun learning about them all.
Did watching that many Chef's Night Out episodes change your perspective on the service industry?
Yes, definitely. Growing up, I didn't really eat out at nicer restaurants, so I was always kind of intimidated going to them as I got older. After watching the episodes it made me realize that most of the chefs just want people to have fun, enjoy the food, and get wasted! It's not as serious as I thought.
What was your process for choosing a chef from the show and then illustrating them?
Helen and I went through the outline of the book and decided which chefs needed illustrations. Then I would watch the episodes and Google the chefs to learn more about them and their personal style. I like to make the illustrations as personal as possible, because each chef is so unique. It was important for me to capture their personality as best I could. Adding an element of humor in the piece was a bonus. Each illustration was done by hand—an actual drawing or painting—I don't know how to use computer programs to illustrate.
Tell us about your relationship with Danny Bowien.
Danny's the best. He's one of my closest and best friends. He's a genius. I learn so much from him every time we hang out. My girlfriend Kristine and I do some art stuff for Mission Chinese, as well.
Would you consider yourself a "foodie" now?
I wasn't until recently. I've been learning more about the industry and just food in general. It's super fun to find the classic spots to eat, learn what makes food taste the way it does, where it comes from and all that stuff, but I still eat McDonalds and Little Caesars. And I don't know how to cook at all.
A lot of your non-cookbook art is heavily influenced by pop culture and celebrities. Where do you think chefs fit into the current cultural landscape?
It seems like modern chefs are freer to be themselves and embrace being the artists that they are. It's great to see chefs get the recognition they deserve and have fun.
What was the hardest part of this assignment?
Researching each person to make sure I represented them the best I could. I wasn't very familiar with some of the chefs, but I wanted to respect them. I wanted to make sure my illustrations were as sincere as possible.
Any illustrations that you're particularly proud of in the book?
They're all special to me in their own way. I think the seafood feast was the most fun to make. Also, Danny versus the crab where he's holding the championship wrestling belt was one of my favorites.