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.”