Feb 26, 2015

Laugh at the Horror. An interview with Denise.

Photo Source

Whenever possible, I always take the time to speak with students. They are the future! The lovely Amelia St. John from Emerson College asked me to share some of my experience.

During the process of drafting up a professional, yet friendly email that captured the essence of this assignment, I spent about an hour carefully wording what came out to be about a significant paragraph in length. After sending it on a Tuesday evening, almost immediately, I received a response; a very informal, “Yes-I am in Peru! Can talk this Thursday or Friday!” followed by “Sent from my iPhone.” Again, I sent a formal follow-up that was met with an equally informal and straight to the point response telling me that if I send the questions, she will answer. From these first few messages, it could easily be seen that Denise Vivaldo is a busy woman who means business.

Growing up in San Francisco, Denise had two sisters and began a career selling real estate in her family’s business. She now makes her career as a professional food stylist, former culinary professor, and author of eight books including The Food Stylist’s Handbook. This wide range of business ventures Denise has dived into perfectly exemplifies the advice she gave to anyone interested in food styling: “You have to be able to wear a lot of hats. Be bold. Develop a tough skin.” She did just that. “My parents were horrified,” she replied when asked how they reacted to her decision to start her career in food. “I was selling real estate in my family’s business [and] I made a lot of money. They wanted me to stay selling.”

Although she dreamed of becoming a princess as a child, a dream that she jokingly says did not change through middle school and high school, Denise attributes her inspiration to pursue culinary training to her love of cooking and giving parties, adding “When I realized Prince Charming was not coming...I thought, I’ll cook.” She said of being a newcomer in the area of food, “You need to be prepared to be broke for a year or two. […] Expect life to be hard. It’s the journey, not the finish.”

After her career change, Denise began her culinary training at the Ritz Escoffier and La Varenne in Paris. Catering, she says, was her first stepping stone on the path to becoming a food stylist. “You transform a backyard into a dreamland…and I love colors and beauty. It comes naturally.” Of course though, Denise faced obstacles as she broke into the business. Male chefs, she answered, were a big obstacle but she, in her own words, “learned to laugh and get over them,” before strongly stating that she does not give up. Denise’s many hats can also be seen in other aspects of her life, one I noticed as I watched videos on her blog displaying one of her classes in the area of food styling for photography. She was inspired by the idea of paying it forward when she came up with the concept for instructing a class based on her knowledge. “It’s a small industry and a whole lot of great people helped me.”

Denise experienced a very strong outpouring of support and interest in teaching food styling classes. She has taught for 10 years in countries all over the world but she is also very interested in writing. She chose her favorite area of expertise as being her experiences with writing a cookbook. “I love to compose a picture […] You start with an idea and 244 pages later…you have a book!” In order to be successful and happy, food, she said, needs to be your whole life, just as it is in hers. “You need to love food…more than money, shoes, or your family.” Denise related one of the best days of her life to her love for food and where that has taken her, saying that her most memorable experience has been working with Betty White for a day on TVLand. She left me with some advice before concluding the interview: “Learn to prioritize. Be focused. Laugh at the horror […] follow your dream.”

Feb 9, 2015

Gluten Free Nutty Fudge Cake

Jon Edwards Photography

Gluten Free Nutty Chocolate Fudge Cake

This dense and rich cake will keep for up to a week at room temperature if stored in an airtight container.

8 ounces chopped dark chocolate
1/2 cup almond meal
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup chopped walnuts

1.         Preheat oven to 350°F.

2.         Spray an 8-inch springform pan with non stick cooking spray.

3.         Place dark chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and heat on high at 30 second intervals, stirring between intervals, until chocolate has melted and is smooth. Set aside.

4.         In a medium bowl stir together almond meal, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt.

5.         In a separate bowl, using an electric mixer, beat sugar and butter until creamy.

6.         Add eggs one at a time to butter mixture, beating well after each addition. Continue beating until mixture has turned pale and creamy, about 5 minutes.

7.         Beat in melted chocolate and vanilla until just blended.

8.         Fold in dry ingredients and walnuts.

9.         Pour into prepared springform pan and bake until cooked through, about 35 minutes. Let cool before cutting.

Makes 8 servings.

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!”