Guest – Sandrine Brubaker – Cayenne Pepper Studio

Sandrine - headshot

Sandrine Brubaker, of Cayenne Pepper Studio, is a food and architecture photographer. Sandrine comes from a family of amazing cooks and chefs and grew up around food. Her love of cooking made this career choice a natural fit.   Says Sandrine, “I love to cook. I love architecture and interior design. Food and architecture are very similar. They both have leading lines. They both have different structures to them. There’s different textures within a room, or within a [dish].”

Cayenne Pepper Studio only “officially” opened in the Fall of 2017. Since launching her business, she has worked with familiar local clients such as Ford’s Fish Shack, French Hound Brasserie and Layered Cake Patisserie. In her earlier photography years, Sandrine was into a little bit of everything… headshots, families, senior portraits. Being afforded the opportunity to work in several different photography genres, Sandrine got a good taste of what her strengths and interests are.  She shares, “I think it’s really important to find what you’re really good at so you can be really good at it.” (A BRILLIANT philosophy. Love.)

Sandrine - plated croissant

She loves to work with restaurants as she often finds that their photos on their menu or website are not a good representation of what their food actually looks like. She says, “I want to help restaurateurs, chefs, and bloggers, elevate their food.” Her desire to produce great photos for the restaurants is twofold. She says, “There’s a chance of me helping [the restaurants] gain more of a following, and there’s also a chance for people to be willing to try something that they’ve never [eaten] before and that they might be afraid of having. Like escargot!”

Sandrine’s giving spirit and enormous talent was a natural fit for It’s Sandrine’s true desire to help the restaurant community that inspires her the most. She says, “I just want to help them. They come to me with a problem and they’re afraid. They’re often reluctant to spend money on good photography because they don’t always think it is necessary or they may not have the budget. My job is to help them understand that it’s not scary and that I can help them get to where they need to be. I’m trying to make it so it’s not stressful. You just have to find a way to relate to people and you have to be genuine.” She goes on, “I heard that from [industry renowned] photographer, Thomas Ramsay. He told me, when I first started, ‘You don’t have to be the best at what you do, but you do have to be consistent. You do have to care and you do have to be genuine. And if you are all these things, then your clients are going to stay with you. They’re going to be loyal to you.’ That’s been really true. I have been fortunate to work with really great clients who have been with me from start.”

Life before Cayenne Pepper Studio was very different. Sandrine graduated with a marketing degree from Temple University. She shares, “I always thought I’d be in marketing and then I realized that marketing was not just marketing. It was sales. I don’t like sales, so I got out of it and got a job as an executive assistant. After that, we had our child and I started staying home.” When her son was little she began searching for something that she could do that would help her family. She quickly landed on teaching. Sandrine started volunteering at the neighborhood elementary school. She then began subbing and then transitioned to working as a teacher assistant. Shares Sandrine, “I thought, oh this is awesome! This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to be a teacher. I’m going to go back to school and get my degree.” While she was researching schools for her teaching certification, she was offered a Kindergarten Assistant position at a neighboring school. She held that position for two years, but during the second year, Sandrine got extremely sick.

Sandrine - family

Sandrine has chronic kidney disease. The grueling pace of assisting in a classroom of kindergarteners for two years took its toll. Says Sandrine, “I was tired all the time. I would go in and out of the hospital and my levels all plummeted. [The doctors] finally said that it was time for me to get a kidney transplant.” Relieved to hear that she was now eligible for a transplant, Sandrine quit teaching.

The plan was to go through Johns Hopkins Kidney Paired Exchange Program. The program allows a family member who is not compatible to donate to another patient who would be a match in exchange for the same. It took some time to get an appointment. During that waiting period, Sandrine was home resting. She shares, “I was in bed all the time. By the time I got to that appointment, my levels had somewhat [improved].” Because of that slight improvement, Sandrine was told that the surgery must wait as the risks of performing it too early were significant. Sandrine returned home and spent the rest of year in bed due to extreme fatigue and pain. It was an awful year for her.

She soon realized that she needed to do something with her life. She wanted to find something that she was really passionate about that would get her out of the house. That “something” was photography. She started taking classes in Leesburg and loved it. Through these classes she met some great people and outstanding professional photographers. She became a photographer’s assistant and slowly worked her way up. She was getting out of the house more and her health improved. Says Sandrine, “I got physically stronger. I could be out more and I started healing.”


Sandrine - ocean

One of the photographers that Sandrine met was Jeanette Burkle. Jeanette had her own business and was a multiple award-earning photographer and as Sandrine describes, “Is just a wonderful person.” The women hit it off, and Sandrine became her assistant. They worked together until Burkle relocated to Denver leaving Sandrine to take over some of her accounts.

This new role left Sandrine in a discovery period. She describes, “At that time, I hadn’t developed a style yet. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was so scary to put myself out there. It was so much easier to stay home and think it’s just not for me, then to actually go out there and [potentially] be told, ‘Oh you really stink.’ For a long time I [decided] not to do anything. It was a really hard time.” But Sandrine continued to work on her craft. She would spend days at places like Harper’s Ferry and just shoot photos and try different techniques. She would conduct photographic experiments discerning the affects of the manipulation of light. It was a great learning period.

Sandrine found another photographer who needed an assistant. At this point she thought, “Ok, maybe I should just be an assistant for a while. I’ll keep working on the business side of it, but be somebody else’s assistant so I can learn more.” That relationship lasted until mid Fall of 2017 leaving her once again wondering, “What am I going to do now?” Sandrine shares, “I said, that’s it. It’s time. I know what I’m doing. It’s time for me to just go out there.” Cayenne Pepper Studio was officially open for business with a confident, educated, and talented CEO at the helm.

Sandrine - food snowman

In the short-term, Sandrine would like to open a studio outside of the house. A must have for the space would be a kitchen so that she could cook and create her Facebook food photography videos. Since that’s where the industry is headed, she would love to have a better space for beginning to end production.

In addition to her studio dreams, Sandrine is working on a fantastic *project that has implications of helping a lot of people. In this fresh season of Cayenne Pepper Studio, Sandrine was searching for a way to help local restaurants and chefs and make an impact on the restaurant community. She understands that it’s a very hard industry and that many do not have the budget to put into marketing.   She says, “I was trying to find a way to give back in a way that would also help showcase [the restaurants] and put them on the map a little more. I thought a cookbook would be really great.” The concept of the book involves the public nominating local chefs or restaurants via Cayenne Pepper Studio Facebook page. After compiling the nominees, Sandrine has already begun interviewing the chefs, photographing them, photographing their creations, and will put it all in a cookbook.

Here’s the lovely “icing” on this project, the profits from the book sales will benefit Tree of Life in Purcellville, VA. Tree of Life avails meals on the weekends for kids who receive assistance from the county by having breakfast and lunch provided for them at school. She explains, “You don’t think about these kids going home on the weekend. What do they do for food? The Tree of Life in Purcellville really helps a lot of the kids in the community get food when they don’t have access to school.” She is targeting Thanksgiving 2018 timeframe to have the book available. A perfect Thanksgiving Hostess gift (you know I love my hostess gifts) or an excellent Christmas or Hanukah gift for anyone. I feel the need to point out the amount of people being served by this project: the chefs and restaurants, Tree of Life, the beneficiaries of Tree of Life services, you as the gift giver, and the recipient of your gifted cookbook! And just imagine the trickle down of benefit from having successful restaurants in our community!

Sandrine - profiterol

Interestingly, staying true to her original plan, her long-term goal is to, once again pursue teaching. Says Sandrine, “I’d love to help other photographers who are coming up in the industry. I’d like to be a teacher, and maybe even be a mentor!” She explains, “There’s a lot of misinformation in the photography industry. I would like to be a voice where I could inform photographers and future clients, not just for me, but for others. I belong to the Virginia Professional Photographers Association, an organization that provides educational resources to photographers who are brand new, as well as to photographers who have been in the business for years. This group has been amazing at helping me become a better photographer, better business owner and through it I have made great friendships. That’s how I see the photographic community, one where we help each other grow.”

I find it very interesting that she wants to go into teaching. That theme of mentoring somebody else makes her story come full circle. Sandrine has been so blessed to have extraordinary professional mentors in her life. She says, “I was very fortunate to meet so many great photographers and business people who have helped me along the way. I want to give that back. We need more of that.”

When asked what she is personally most proud of, Sandrine answers emphatically, “Starting something that makes you afraid, but that you really love and have a passion for. You just push through because you just really want to do it. I’m showing my kid that you can do it. That anything is possible if you just work.”



1 Sandrine is part of the Virginia Professional Photographers Association and enters prints into their competitions each year.  This photo of the ocean won 3 awards at the State and International competition last year.  She has others that won as well, but this is a personal favorite of hers.

*At the time that this interview was conducted, I had no affiliation with the Tree of Life Cookbook project. Sandrine has since approached me and requested my assistance with writing the book. I’m excited to be a part of a project that has the potential of helping so many people in our community.

To contact Cayenne Pepper Studio visit, or email Sandrine at  Be sure to follow Sandrine on Instagram at @cayennepepperstudio and on FB @cayennepepperstudio.

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