Estefano Onatrac: the food and travel photographer in love with people
the only love sentence – ever, above all – is ‘did you eat yet?’
Three hours from Utrecht, the night train takes another of the many curves, en route to Innsbruck. Beveled wheels glow briefly as they ride the tracks’ camber. The train had left the Netherlands on time, as could usually be depended. As the train steals through darkened countryside, somewhere in Germany, the outside disappears, and the rattling, glowing train is, for now, all that there is. And all those on board, separated from everything other than the moving night, the lulling rhythmic sounds, sink into their thoughts.
It’s the summer break in 1988. He is 22 – 23 in October – the ‘night train conductor’. A holiday job taken in the pause of his Hotel Management course.
The tickets checked and all passengers settled, Estefano drifts, as is his habit, to the catering car. There is something about observing people at work, in any field, but in food preparation he finds a particular magic, a transformation, meaning. Sacks of potatoes, containers of cream, large heads of vibrant green parsley, crispy baguettes, wild intense garlic, vivid strawberries, tomatoes ripened in the sun, caressed by salty sea breezes – products of the earth harvested by hands and bending backs. And now, all transformed. Made offerings to sight, scent, touch and taste.
As the catering rituals continue and the train rocks the night, Estefano thinks, with a smile, of his 10 year-earlier self in Arnhem. How he and a close friend had set out on their gastronomic journey together, with the lofty goal of flambeed beef – but the meat was cold and it sullenly soaked up a bottle of whisky without emitting so much as a spark.
But some sparks cannot be extinguished.
Estefano’s preoccupation with the human experience of food, its gorgeous connective power, never left him. As he watches the first-class trolley make its way to the front carriages, it strikes him – food should be borderless, classless, all people have right to the abundant pleasures of life and all of its gifts. Yes, this was the story he needed to tell.
After years of the business of hospitality (catering manager, chef de service, sales and service manager, feasibility consultancy, franchising manager, restaurant concept development), Estefano left the plotted path and followed his lifelong passions. He now lives his life as a freelance food and travel photographer. As he tells us that he has lived in Amsterdam, Cologne, Hamburg, Rhodes, Palermo and Athens. As he tells us that, in all of the places, he had the blessing of absorbing all that the people, the seasons with their flavours, and the soil passed on to him. As he tells us, these things and more, he glows as if flambeed with night-train-conductor passion. His love of photography and love of food have become inextricably interwoven because, as he says, ‘you eat first with your eyes’.
But this multi-faceted artist knows the real world. He knows kitchens’ extreme heat, time and creative pressure, sumptuous battlefields of the 5 senses, of the ache of creative need. He knows that place, people, produce and passion make a connectivity that joins us all, that is the expression of all our loves, of our hopes and souls, of everything we have in abundance, no matter what we lack. And in these modern times, an image of a table’s offerings in Tokyo can be shared with hungry eyes in Copenhagen, in an instant. Our tables are set not only for those we love. Instead, we find our love offerings, our gastronomic gorgeousnesses reach beyond everyone we know.
As Estefano felt when the first-class food trolley rattled away; as he has found throughout the long curve of his wanderings and passions; as he has found through all the people he has met, all the photographs he has taken and all the meals he has shared – we are all connected.
This is the story. And we have never needed each other as much as we do now.
‘it’s not for nothing that cookbooks go with you throughout your life,
are treasured and then passed on from generation to generation’
photo: Estefano during the Cook & Shoot Workshop in 2015