Dec 10, 2014

Food Photographer Michael Ray Reviews The Food Stylist's Handbook

Michael Ray is a Pittsburgh-based food photographer, and we were delighted that he took the time to review The Food Stylist's Handbook!

Even though I’m a food photographer and not a food stylist, I found this book very interesting and quite informative.  I’ve been around more than a few different food stylists over the  years, and I’ve always found it to be fascinating, how different stylists attack the same problem in different ways.  Food Photographers probably have this in common with them.  I think the reason for this is that we are all in our own little bubbles, and afraid to share the tricks of the trade with our competitors. I know I’m guilty of this, so it’s nice to see someone willing to share and teach the next generation. Denise, you did a great job.

As you can imagine, this book is full of some amazingly beautiful food photography and some  great behind the scenes photos too. I can only ponder the hours she took to write and assemble all this information and great content.

Table of Contents:

Food Styling as a career
What a food stylist does
The Different Niches of Food Styling
Starting a food styling business
Building a styling kit
Marketing your food styling business
Making money and selling your services Preparing for magic time
Tricks of the trade

The book spends a lot of pages talking about the career of food styling, including a brief history, FAQs, the traits of a good food stylist, the importance of a culinary background, who the clients are, and how to get started in the career. AND that’s only the first chapter! This book is a treasure trove of information for the aspiring food stylist, and would be a great textbook of any future course taught about the subject of food styling.

That’s all well and good, but as food photographers, what’s in it for us, you might ask…?  After all, why would a food photographer want to buy a book about food styling?
This is what I took away from the book:

1. First off, it’s kind of interesting to see the behind-the-scenes photos from so many different food photography studios.  In my career, I’ve only seen one, and that one is mine.  So it’s nice to at least get a glimpse at other studios.  And the food photos are inspiring too.  They’re definitely fist class, and I’m going to have look in the credits of the book to see who I should add to my “100 Best Food Photographers” list.

2. A little while back, I assembled my own little food styling kit to take on location, as sort of a “just in case” collection of useful tools for when I was forced to do a little styling on my own.  Boy, what a good idea that was!  I’ve used it several times and have even loaned it to one of my regular stylists when she discovered that she had inadvertently left her kit at home one day.  I would highly recommend that if you are a food photographer, that you put together a similar kit, and what should you put in that kit?  Well, Denise goes into great detail about what’s in her kit.  Your kit doesn’t have to be as extravagant, but her kit is a really great source for ideas of the items that you might want to include in your own kit.

3. The chapter of the book that generates the most sales is probably the one entitled “Tricks of the Trade”.  Denise goes into great detail on the following subjects:

Tricks for shooting poultry
How to make great grill marks
How to make different cuts and types of meat look good
How to make waves in your bacon
Burger making tricks
Coloring your meats to get the correct tone
The tricks of cutting and placing condiments
How to “build” a sandwich
How to fluff up pancakes
How to substitute glue for milk in cereal shots
And the tricks go on, and on, and on, and on…

If you’re a beginning stylist and you don’t have this book, you’re CRAZY!

And if you’re a photographer, you probably should get this book too, because you never know when you’ll have a shoot where the stylist is struggling a little.  If she (or he) is, and you might be able to “tactfully” make a suggestion or two that can save the day.  If nothing else, you’ll be able to talk a little shop with new stylists and with clients so that they actually think you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t.

Or… You might be on location some day, working with a chef that makes really good tasting food, but maybe not really good looking food, and you can “tactfully” come to the rescue there too.   Just remember that “tactfully” part…

Click here to enjoy the review in its entirety.

Dec 8, 2014

Association Of Food Bloggers Learns How To Style

"As I stood in the check out line at the grocery store the other day, the beautiful images of the food splashed across the covers caught my eye. I couldn’t help picking up one to flip through as I waited. But I’m a little cynical now when it comes to these gorgeous spreads. You see, I recently attended a food styling class that gave away many of the tricks of trade to creating the images you see in the glossy magazines."

I had a great time teaching at The Cook's Warehouse in Atlanta recently. This is a lovely write up of our time by The Association of Food Bloggers based in Atlanta. Click here to enjoy the post in its entirety.

Nov 14, 2014

Thanksgiving In A Bucket.

"As a chef you don't like the word 'bucket' near your food, but after I looked at the article, I thought the portable part of it was brilliant," said Vivaldo. "The idea of someone who doesn't have a lot of dishes or china, doesn't know how to entertain."

Because the bucket is so portable, you can take it to friends, take it to work, maybe to the park, or put it together if you have a tiny little apartment.

Besides all that, cleaning up is a snap. Another bonus: you can do all the cooking the day before, or even buy all the prepared things you want to layer from markets or restaurants.

Keep in mind these things are cooked, here's the pecking order:

  1. Stuffing to start as it is nice and sturdy.

  2. Add sliced turkey topped with gravy as the liquid seeps down through turkey to stuffing.

  3. Top with barely cooked blanched green beans or veggie of choice.

  4. Spread on the mashed yams.

  5. Top the bucket off with cranberries or cranberry jelly.

Remember to press down each layer to make it nice and compact.

Reheating can be a challenge, so it's important your container is oven or microwave safe.

And then you're going to have to get past the fact that all your items will be touching.

"And then, getting it out -- It didn't look pretty one little bit," said Vivaldo after she tried cutting a slice.

So Vivaldo does a take on the bucket, a Thanksgiving torte or lasagna in a casserole dish that you can cut and serve evenly.

If the bucket is a bit too bizarre for the big meal, make it after. It is a fabulous way to tidy up your leftovers.

Nov 3, 2014


I was spanked. Not a lot, but when I was, I usually deserved it. Not only was I a brat, I loved to lie as a kid. And I was good at it. 

Lucky for me, I was cute.  It was continually my saving grace. 

My first words were, “No, Daddy!” That didn’t work for my Dad.  My two older sisters were different than me. I don’t think they ever got the belt. One was stoic and never complained and took being the first born extremely seriously, and the other looked like my dad’s mother. She had a golden pass from discipline. She was a really nice kid. I can still hear my mother telling people, “My girls are all so different, but it’s not quiet, it’s like a circus.”   

As for me, it wasn’t my goal to be good. I think when you are born the last in line and vying for attention and jostling for position, you do what you have to. My vantage point as the baby was when I entered the big top, I saw all of the performances.  If I told a lie, big deal. 
What I wanted was to find my unique place in the troupe. And I have always been one for doing exactly what I want. My second grade teacher wrote on my report card, “Even with correction, Denise seems undeterred.” I’m guessing that I was not listening to what she said, and continued on in my own way. It was a progressive school. Discipline was very sedate. Today, a similar teacher might say, “Denise, use your words.” And for me, that would still be a no. No way, but good on you for asking with such zen dedication (told you I’m a brat).

At home, nothing was sedate.  Excited fighting Italians performed constantly. Swats, smacks, wooden spoons, ping-pong paddles, rulers, yardsticks; the instrument of discipline was whatever my parents could grab while trying to catch me. I wasn’t stupid enough to stand still. 

Yelling? Screaming? That was just the band warming up. All performers need an overture. When shit flies now on sets where I’m working, and later people apologize, seemingly horrified by their behavior, I can’t help but think that they have no idea where I come from. This calm exterior is part of my act.  Crazy is in my blood.     

As I got older the punishments changed. The days of, “You just wait until your father gets home.” turned into a quick a swift kick in the butt. My mother was tiny and she kicked like a mule. It was quite a surprise the first time. I was exiting the lion’s cage, turning on my heel, flipping my hair and when she got me, I was walking upstairs. That day I realized she didn’t want to wait for my father. She’d had enough. And I was humiliated that my tiny mama kicked the crap out of me.

We came to a truce after that. I was fifteen and I loved her. She worked so hard at being a good mom. And I knew she loved me more.     

My father, the ringleader, we still had work to do on our understanding. The usual teenage rules rode in on an elephant: You’re grounded, your car will be taken away, how would you like to spend the night in juvenile hall? The infamous juvenile hall….I’m not sure it really existed. I did know my canopy bed wouldn’t be there. I was well aware of the fine line between a princess and a delinquent.

I like nice sheets. Always have.

I learned the difference between discipline and torture when I was seventeen.
Such a clever, smart mouth I had.  My father had had enough that day. And I insulted him. I can’t tell you how and  looking back, I was wrong. Very wrong.

Every dinner in 1967, my father and I fought about Nixon, Vietnam, war in general, long hair, peaceful demonstrations and nuclear power. We liked to fight. We both wanted to win. And my mother would take her plate and would go into her bedroom screaming, ‘’Go ahead, kill each other!‘’  A supporting role, but none the less impressive. 

When I made a comment that was below the belt, my father, with his baseball mitt hands, slapped me across the face. My eyes stung. I saw stars. I was stunned and I felt ashamed. Because he was right. And I deserved it.

What broke the silence, the horror, the tension was my mother screaming, “Johnny, don’t hit her in the face…she’s cute!”  

Jul 7, 2014

Visualizing Your Career

I'm getting ready to speak at the United States Personal Chefs Association conference later this month, and wanted to share a few thoughts in case you won't be able to make it (and if you do, please come say hi!):

When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be a writer. My mother used to type my stories for me on her typewriter, and in 4th grade my story entitled "Growing Poppies" won second place in the first ever creative writing competition at The Bernard Hoffman elementary school in Terra Linda, California.

A different path found me, one that I was passionate about and felt called to: cooking. I don’t regret the choice as its brought me joy, prosperity and most importantly, great stories. I never stopped collecting them even though I dare not call myself a “writer.”
In 1993, I got a call to write a how-to book from Globe Pequot Press. They needed a catering expert and I filled that slot. I had never used a computer before so I wrote my first book and learned to use a PC at the same time. It could never have happened without the help of my lovely second husband. He told me I had to write this book because I had valuable advice to share. 

He kindly taught me to save my words. Get in, be clear, and get out. I experienced the flip side of the coin with the editor, who was mean. When I finally had pages to turn in to her, she'd tell me how awful they were. Not constructive, but anyone who knows me knows that above all else, I persevere. What I lack in intelligence, I make up for with stubbornness.  

I wrote my first book. I got the tiniest advance in the history of publishing, but I did it. With great pride, I now announce that the 7th edition of my catering book is due out this month, with added information, forms and menus. The life of my little catering book is alive and well. 

And guess what? I've sold over 100,000 copies and it has paid me (modest) royalties for twenty years. Most importantly, I receive emails every month from people who tell me that it changed their lives. A little book that helped them, inspired them, brought them income. I am humbled and grateful. 
So as you visualize your career, I invite you to feel more than you see. Do not get caught up in details and in thinking it has to look a certain way, because you may be standing in the way of your own greatness. My initial vision was about being creative and expressing who I am in a way others could enjoy. I’ve gotten that back tenfold and I know all of you can as well!

Jul 3, 2014

Avocado and Shrimp Tacos


The first cookbook I ever bought was "Easy Mexican Cooking." Don't know who published it but it was a pamphlet cookbook that was close to the checkout register in my dad's store. It cost ninety-nine cents.

I started working as a cashier in my dad's grocery store in June during the summer I was thirteen. I didn't want to, but it was either work there or go to summer school. Or the worst choice of all; helping my mother weed her huge garden and paint our house, in the hot sun, for weeks. I chose being a cashier, and the fourteen dollars a day my dad paid me would surely make me rich. (Just so you know, gas was twenty-five cents a gallon and part of the deal was my sister had to drive me to the store everyday. She had a car. It was her gas.) I would be so very rich by August.

Working eight hours a day and learning the produce prices, seeing what customers were buying, and learning to make change kept me busy the first week. As soon as I grew 
comfortable, I began to see food in a different light. Not only did it make me think about cooking, I wanted to try new things. I wanted to taste more. I wanted to learn about food.

The first thing I learned to cook out of my new cookbook was tacos. I bought ground beef, corn tortillas, cumin, cucumbers, lime, then I diced tomatoes and shredded cheese. I realize now the recipe was Americanized, but hey, I'm American and so were the people I cooked for, so we thought this was very exotic.

The first night I served tacos to my family, my mother was impressed. And she was extremely calm when I threw the hot oil filled fry pan into her sink and turned on the water. The new clock she bought totally hid the scorched wallpaper. Cooking is an adventure; I discovered that early.

Eventually, I added chopped avocados to my tacos. And if I can say anything with out reservation, it's that avocados are a perfect food. Eat 'em plain, mashed up, even make sorbet! It doesn't matter; they are delicious.
I thought for the Fourth of July this year, instead of heavy BBQ or burgers, I would go back to my roots and make tacos. I was inspired by the shrimp tacos I've eaten in Mexico. Soft corn tortillas or crispy, whatever you like best. It takes but minutes to fix.

If you want to know more about avocados and how they are grown, please enjoy my friend Chef Debbi's blog. In this particular post, Debbi discovers our mutual friend Mimi's avocado ranch. I am so rich this summer!

Avocado and Shrimp Tacos

Makes 12 Tacos

2 15-ounce cans of black beans
2 tablespoons crushed garlic
1 tablespoon ground cumin
12 corn taco shells

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 lbs. (16-20 per pound size) peeled and deveined shrimp
1 8-ounce clamshell of cherry or pear tomatoes
2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro, just leaves no stems

3 limes
2 ripe Hass avocados, cubed
1 tsp cayenne pepper  
Whole cilantro leaves for garnish

1.Open both cans of black beans, drain, mash and mix with garlic and cumin. Heat in a microwaveable bowl for 2-3 minutes. Swipe some beans inside of each taco shell.

2.In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil until it ripples, then add shrimp, cook two minutes. As they are turning pink, add the tomatoes, and continue cooking for 2-3 more minutes. Shrimp will be curled and pink and tomatoes will have blistered or popped. Sprinkle in the cilantro. Squeeze one whole lime onto shrimp mixture. Divide between taco shells

3. Take remaining limes, cayenne pepper and gently toss with avocado. Toss onto tacos.

4. Serve with extra cilantro and additional limes, if needed.

Excellent with cold beer, white wine, tequila, margaritas, Coke...oh never mind. Pick your own poison.