Photographer Brad Ogbonna Gets Heirloom Tomatoes at His Bodega

Photographer Brad Ogbonna with his branzino and shrimp. Illustration: Lindsay Mound

“COVID brought me back to being more intentional about where I’m going out to eat and spending money,” the photographer Brad Ogbonna says. “All of my meals before I went back to work in late May were home-cooked, so it’s more like when I do start going out again, I want to have these places be worth it.” Ogbonna’s work brings him around the world, to photograph people like Lil Yachty, for publications including The Atlantic and W magazine, and the chef Pierre Thiam’s favorite places in Dakar. At home in Brooklyn this year, he’s been spending a lot more time in his backyard garden, and in recent weeks he’s been in tomato mode: plucking them out of the garden, buying them at local stores and the farmers’ market, and eating them wherever they’re served. 

Thursday, September 3
I started the day at the office. I’ve been working on a project that has me directing three remote shoots across the country. So I’ve been spending most of my time at this office in Soho, doing almost 60 hours a week there. Every day, they order me this jalapeño, lime, lemon, and, I think, pineapple juice from a local spot in Soho. That’s how I’ve been starting my days.

I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve been working a lot. I was in Norway when the pandemic first struck, and I was stuck there for a few days. When I got back to New York, everything had shut down, so for two months I was just like everybody else, around the house, not doing much. Got the Criterion Channel. I started off toward the end of May doing my own personal projects, driving upstate or to Long Island as much as possible. I started posting some of that work, and people started hitting me up. Ever since then, the ball has been rolling.

The office I’ve been working from is at that intersection of Soho, Chinatown, and Tribeca. We usually do the whole Sweetgreen thing, but we’re trying to incorporate different local stuff. You just get into this mindless thing when you’re working that many hours; you just want something simple and easy. But we’re not paying for any of this stuff, so why not put in for some local stuff that’s dope?

We ordered lunch from BòCàPhê. I got the salmon–and–Thai-basil rice bowl. I’m not really a big snacker, so that was pretty much my meal for the workday. It’s really nice, really good Vietnamese food. Minnesota has a really big Vietnamese population, and my dad and I would go to this one restaurant called Pho Ca Dao, more toward high school.

I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and then moved to Roseville, a suburb kind of situated in between Minneapolis and St. Paul, for elementary school and high school. My dad worked on the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus, and whenever I’d go visit him, we’d always try to seek out something different from what we were used to. Roseville, as far as food options, you’re looking at Applebee’s, that kind of stuff. But whenever we were hanging out in Minneapolis or St. Paul, we’d get Vietnamese food together, Greek food together, Middle Eastern food together. We’d try to mix it up.

He was someone who was interested in trying different things. What made him excited was going to a Vietnamese restaurant and ordering the right soup. Or finding things where there’s a lot of overlap between our Nigerian culture and something like that. Indian food and different foods that have spices and full flavors. After my dad passed away from cancer in 2011, I started making it a point to go to Nigeria and visit as much as possible. I do that probably once a year.

When I got home, I had a heirloom-tomato salad with ricotta and some crushed bread that I got. I’m growing tomatoes in my garden, but these ones specifically were not from my garden. These were hardier heirloom tomatoes.

When it’s tomato season, I try to eat as many tomatoes as possible. I get some pretty good ones from my garden, but those are usually smaller ones I use for salads. Sometimes I walk over to Saraghina Bakery — they have pretty good tomatoes there — and this bodega next to me has really good heirloom tomatoes for some reason.

It’s really strange. The neighborhood has definitely changed a lot, and they try to have something for everybody there. Yeah, it’s this bodega on Tompkins and Putnam, and they just strangely always have good heirloom tomatoes. I’ve never quite figured out why they have them, but they do.

Friday, September 4
I was in the garden that morning. I had a few moments to spend there before I went to the office. I had some of my grapes and some tomatoes, and then I had these chiles that were growing. I don’t know what kind they were; I threw them in some eggs, and I had that before work.

Lunch was just Sweetgreen. The Shroomami, that’s what I always get there.

After work, I visited a friend at June. I had some wine there, and their tomatoes with marinated tofu and some merguez sausage. It was really good. My friend does the wine there. I defer to my friends when I show up to these spots. My friends are like, “I’m going to show you all this new stuff we got in.” I’m pretty easy. I like most things. I tasted five different bottles that night.

I’m really into wine. In the last couple years, I’ve gotten really into natural wine, definitely on that tip. I have another Instagram account where I just post wine. It goes back to college, I guess. I definitely knew I liked wine, but didn’t have access to good wine, so I was just drinking Carlo Rossi with friends. I moved to New York and started feeling older, elevating to Barefoot, and as time passed, I tried to expand and got really into Malbec. When I went to visit one of my friends in the Bay Area, she was working at this spot called Ordinaire, and she put me on to natural wine. I didn’t know what that was. She was just like, “This is natural.” I was like, “This is way, way better than all the other stuff I’ve been drinking, I want to know about this.”

Since then, she has recommended stuff to me. I’ve been traveling a lot for work, seeking out different wine bars, learning about stuff along the way. I’ve been trying to approach it in a non-pretentious way, where I don’t need to know the terroir, about the soil. Only if it tastes good. Just a more fun approach to it, and I’ve found that in natural wine at least.

I’ve found that in every city I’ve been to, people into natural wine tend to be super-nice and welcoming. I’ve kind of built a network off that. When I’m in a city like L.A., Portland, Minneapolis, or Miami, people are just hyped that you are hyped about the wine and want to try something new. I went to a nice restaurant two nights ago. Awesome place. But the wine list is extensive and there’s an air of pretentiousness when the sommelier comes out; he explained the bottle and told me everything I needed to know except for is it good? Is it fun?

Saturday, September 5
This was my first day off in so long, so I went to the Fort Greene farmers’ market. Before that, I cleaned the house, did all the domestic things I wanted to get out of the way, and was able to hit the farmers’ market toward the end of the day. When I have a day off, I usually try to see what kind of meal I can cook. I don’t get a lot of time with friends, so I try to respond to friends I haven’t had a chance to see.

I picked up corn, radishes, these really cool bell peppers, heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, and these really weird peppers. I got a quiche there, too, and there was this woman selling shaved ice with mango, strawberries, banana, pumpkin seeds, sea moss. A really well-done shaved ice. So I had that.

Afterward, I stopped at my fish spot, Shipwrecked, and got two branzino and six oysters. I had those oysters for lunch. I got an oyster knife earlier this summer and am trying to teach myself how to shuck oysters. Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty fun. I just don’t see how people are able to do it for hours without cutting themselves.

Later that day, I hung out with two friends who’d been trying to come over for a long time. They finally caught me on my day off and came over for dinner. I had another friend hanging out; he used to live with me before he moved to L.A. and was back to grab his stuff in the basement. He was hanging out, drinking wine, and was like, “Well, if you’re cooking dinner, I would like to stay.”

I ended up roasting the two branzinos, jumbo shrimp on the grill, did that zucchini, and had an olive loaf I’d picked up from Saraghina bakery. I also had some burrata and arugula that I used for a salad with tomatoes. Everyone was super-happy with that one. For the fish, I made a sauce of butter, parsley, basil, garlic, and lemon sauce. Something quick and easy. I didn’t have much time to prep. When they came over, I just threw things together, went on autopilot. I also had zucchini flowers from my garden. Grilled them. I should’ve stuffed them in retrospect.

Sunday, September 6
Sunday was another day off. It was chill. I had just a pretty simple eggs and toast for breakfast. Saturday mornings with my dad, when I was growing up, we’d fry plantain, make eggs, and eat them with a big red stew or rice. That’s a really popular Nigerian breakfast. When I have that on Saturday mornings, I’m definitely reminded of my time with my dad and certain dishes that he enjoyed. Even when I’m thinking about going back to Minnesota, I’m definitely going to be reminded of all the different restaurants we used to go to.

I’ve got another project lined up and then I’ve got to back to Minnesota. My mom had a stroke back in November 2018, and it took her a while regain the use of her left leg. Not being able to be independent and being away from family, she asked for the holidays if I could get her off to Nigeria. We got her there, and the original plan was for her to spend the holiday season with her sister in Lagos. She decided to stay longer and then she decided she didn’t want to deal with the winter in Minnesota and she’d come back in the spring. I’d booked her a ticket for March 16, and then you know what happened next. She’s been there since December. Nigeria has a pretty severe lockdown, and just for me I don’t feel personally comfortable bringing her back until the numbers come way down. But America does have a better healthcare system, and I do want her to get back for that. It’s nerve wracking.

Later that day, my flatmate cooked dinner. He had people over and made chicken wings. Another friend brought potato salad. That’s all I remember eating with them.

I don’t eat a ton of meat. When I do, I like lamb, so sometimes at the farmers’ market I’ll get a merguez sausage from this stand at the Grand Army Plaza one. Something easy to grill. Occasionally I’ll eat chicken, but I pretty much stick to seafood and veggies.

Monday, September 7
Monday was Labor Day, so I got lucky to have that day off, because I haven’t had two to three days off since, man, June or May. I went for a nice run, then on the way back, I ran into a friend of mine who was walking on Lafayette. We were catching up, so I asked him what he was about to do, and he said he was going to Choice Market to get a late breakfast, so I said, “Shit, I guess I’ll end my run to join you for that.” I got oatmeal and a ginger-beet juice and chilled with him. I hadn’t seen that friend for a few months, since COVID times peaked. That was cool.

I had plans to go to an antique shop. I really wanted to look for some art prints on Atlantic Avenue. A friend of mine hit me up; she was in town from Miami, so I told her to join me for that. We drove over to Atlantic Avenue, but it turned out everything was closed for Labor Day. Which I probably should’ve guessed.

We were driving around, over in Cobble Hill, and I asked her if she’d ever been to Red Hook. She never had, so we ended up driving into Red Hook, cruising around, and getting wine at the Red Hook Winery. It’s a cool spot — I really had no idea, I just typed in “wine red hook” into my phone, and it brought the place up. It was right on the pier, bottles for like $ 35 or $ 40. We got a spot by the water, caught up. They give you a bag of pita chips, which is kind of wild ’cause it’s not a great thing to eat.

You can bring food, so we ordered dumplings from this place called Oh Dumplings. We were there for an hour, but I made dinner plans a while ago. So this is kind of late in the day and all the fish places I tried to go to were closed. I ended up going to the supermarket where Fairway was and from there got tiger prawns, parsley, baguette, and small red potatoes. Grilled those prawns for my friend, that was for dinner.

Usually at night, I’ll chill in my garden for a moment. Lately, I haven’t been spending a ton of time back there because I’ve been working so much. I have some cucumbers I’ve been growing. I threw some in some vinegar the other day, my attempt to make pickles. I’ve had a few so far, I’m going to let them sit for a little longer.

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