Gabriel Cabrera of The Artful Desperado

Upon first scroll through Gabriel Cabrera’s Instagram feed, you might be surprised to learn that some of the decadent, drool-worthy images of cocktails and sprawled out dessert scenes were shot in his apartment. Not that that’s a bad thing, as it reflects his passion for both cooking food and presenting it in a style he’s carved out for himself amongst a slew of so many.

Since his early days of studying culinary arts, the Mexico City born, Vancouver-based photographer and food stylist has surely proven his talents, creating and shooting recipes at his blog, The Artful Desperado, working for an ever-growing roster of clients, and co-hosting photography workshops worldwide. I sat down with Cabrera in his airy, light-filled South Granville home while he talked about the importance of staying original, plans for future projects, and why there’s more to an Instagram-worthy photo than a perfect acai smoothie bowl. 

Photos by Mark Yammine 

How did you get into photography and food styling?

“I’ve always loved photography but I would admire it from afar. I obviously love food. A lot of people [in this field] will say, ‘My parents used to cook these amazing meals,’ and no offense to my mother but she’s not the greatest cook, nor is my dad. But they always encouraged us to go out and eat and travel quite a lot, and try new things.” When I moved here from Mexico City I went to school for culinary arts. I thought I was going to be a chef like Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson. After graduating, I worked in many restaurants in Vancouver, which exposed me to a bit of food styling.

What inspired you to start The Artful Desperado?

“My friends eventually convinced me to put up my recipes. As I got more into it I realized I needed to take my own photographs of my food, so I went out and bought a camera. I asked a few photographer friends for advice, then I just started shooting. I was thinking about it all day long, which is when I knew I wanted to do it all the time.”

When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

"Starting out as a blogger helped me experiment a lot, and gave me a lot of feedback. I was doing social media for a company here in Vancouver and that’s what allowed me to experiment a lot more with that. Through Instagram this company Lubo found me and reached out. They were looking for someone to do more lifestyle, messy type shots for their products. After I did a job for them they asked me to come on full time.”

What were some of the things you learned working with them? 

“It was the real deal. It involved editorial, commercial, lifestyle – all these different things that I had to master, so that really pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and not just take photos in my kitchen for my blog.”

Could you describe a typical day on set for you?

“The planning part of a job takes up almost all my day. A lot of people think it’s mostly cooking, but that’s only 20 percent of the job. I start by planning the recipe: looking at my notes, getting inspiration from other sources. Then planning the visuals, looking for inspiration, what’s going to be the mood, what are the client’s goals. Once that’s complied I start gathering and hunting for props, then shopping for ingredients. I have to do a sketch of every single shot and list what’s going into each of them, even the little spill of sauce on the side of the plate – when you’re on set things move so fast you may forget to incorporate it.”

You recently quit your full-time job working for a food company and decided to go freelance full time. Did you prepare for it in any way?

"My super 9-5 friends said I was crazy, that I should save for a year and plan for it. And to a degree they're probably right. But all my creative friends said, fuck it (laughs). So I went to my number one source of wisdom, my parents, and they agreed I should just go for it, because there’s always going to be an excuse to put it off. I knew if I just quit it would really push me to work my ass off. I did save for a little bit, but I already had some clients that I was working with so that gave me a little bit of an advantage.”

Would you say your Mexican background influences any part of your work? Are there other places that inspire you?

“Absolutely. I always like to have some sort of spice in my recipes or pop of colour and I feel like that comes from Mexico for me. Whenever I come back from visiting I definitely want to shoot everything Mexican. I love it because I now realize whenever I’m away from it just how much potential there is there still that hasn’t been explored yet.”

“I’m someone who can’t stay still in one spot. My work is influenced a lot by my travelling, and the recipes and style. I’ll go to a restaurant in Copenhagen and be like, ‘Holy shit I’ve never seen this before,’ and then I make notes of it. That ends up influencing my next photo shoot or recipe. I always bring some of that inspiration back with me.”

Now that you’ve got more free time, what’s your plan? Any projects or collaborations you’re looking forward to?

“I’m going back to being humble. My first plan is reconnecting with people whose collaborations either fell through or we worked together in the past and it was successful, rebuilding my network, and grounding some of the projects that previously fell through.”

“I can’t sit still for a second. I do have an internal never-ending list of projects that I want to do. Fortunately because I have some clients from the past that I’ve worked with I’m going to reach out to them. I’m sorry to say but Vancouver isn’t a friendly city for collaboration – some people are – but in general people are very protective of their creative work, they don’t want to share their secret, how much they make, etc., which makes it difficult to connect with people. The few connections you do make, however, are loyal.”

Follow Gabriel on his adventures on Instagram @artfuldesperado

Meagan Albrechtson