Stay Sweet: Boss A** Bitches of the Food Styling World

Hey, it’s been a while!  In this blog post I want to talk about the women-helping-women (but also the women-who-don’t) in New York’s food styling/media world.  I’ve been styling long enough now to start fielding questions about breaking into the industry.  Before pursuing food styling full time, it’s good to be prepared and know the facts, and I’d love to share some tips.  Food styling is a predominantly female-dominated industry in New York.  It’s crucial to recognize the difference between the women who are truly inspiring boss a** bitches and the ones that are just plain trouble!

Food styling assistant work can be brutal, but it’s the place to start.  Every industry has positions where you need to prove yourself and earn your stripes, and food styling takes the cake in terms of grunt work.  For most shoots, the food styling assistant does the bulk of the food sourcing, shopping, and cooking.  The stylist does some cooking, but also focuses on the fine placement of finished foods in front of the camera, and collaborates with the art director and photographers.  I have been told that it’s the norm to assist for three years before pursuing a solo career as a food stylist.

As an assistant, you’re hired to cook and to support the stylist, not to chat.  Most of the time there won’t be opportunities to network with photographers or clients because you’ll be hunched over the stove, covered in various sauces and monitoring three things cooking at once.  How do you rise up in your career when connecting with potential collaborators is frowned upon?

Food styling jobs are paid per day, so you never really know when you’ll be finished unless there’s a hard out-time at a studio.  I’ve worked until 10 pm, and have heard stories from friends who have experienced even later wrap times.  To add another layer of consternation, I’ve waited six months for a paycheck.  Stylists often don’t pay their assistant until they themselves have been paid by the client.  This approval process may take months.

Food styling is 60% locating and obtaining obscure groceries and transporting them to the shoot site in one piece.  Some of my least favorite items to collect in NYC are Thai basil (so scarce when you need it!), coconuts (try Western Beef for the freshest ones), and stroopwafels (when Whole Foods is sold out).  I’ve grown very familiar with New York’s grocery circuit over the past year!  Most food stylists don’t use services like Amazon Fresh or Fresh Direct because they prefer the food items to be hand-picked for optimum beauty.  One particularly poignant memory is when I had to individually select bean sprouts from a self-serve produce vat.

Many of the stylists that I’ve run into who have had prickly personalities have a background in restaurant work.  There seems to be an unspoken rule that it’s okay to verbally abuse your protege.  After all, it will only toughen them up, right?  A fellow assistant shared with me that she was physically pushed by a food stylist while on a job.  It’s sad to hear stories like this, when food is truly something that makes me happy.  It’s the food that I want to immerse myself in, not the negative personalities.  Unfortunately, it’s often a two-for-one bargain.

As you delve into food styling, focus on the joy in brings yourself and others and don’t dwell on the detrimental encounters that might spook you away from the industry.  Food styling is an incredibly rewarding art, and developing a mental barrier to  undermining comments is essential.  The food world is still largely monopolized by men, and food styling is unique in its female domination.  Stylists have worked hard to get to where they are, and it is my opinion that some of them want your path to be treacherous as well, even if it doesn’t have to be.

While there are certainly challenges, I am eternally grateful for the women that have offered support and real instruction for improvement in their craft.  And they are out there.  They lift me up and inspire me to forge ahead in building a career that I love.  While I continue to style food, I’m excited to keep exploring other careers in the food business landscape that offer more room for personal growth.

It’s a wild (media) world… stay sweet!  These nectarine balsamic blondies will help.

Nectarine Balsamic Blondie Jumble

Ingredients:

For the Batter

  • 1 3/4 cups white chocolate chips
  • 3/4 cups unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cups packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

For the Nectarine Topping

  • 2 cups slices nectarines (3-4 nectarines)
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon water

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Melt the white chocolate in the microwave until smooth.
  3. Lightly coat a baking pan with butter.  Line with parchment paper.
  4. Beat butter in a stand mixer until light and fluffy.  Incorporate both sugars.
  5. Add in eggs, vanilla, and salt.  Beat until smooth.
  6. Add olive oil and melted white chocolate.  Incorporate well.
  7. Add flour and mix until just combined.
  8. Scrape batter into your prepared baking pan.
  9. Make your nectarine balsamic topping: Place nectarines and sugar in a saucepan and place over medium heat.
  10. In a separate container, stir cornstarch and water together.  Pour this mixture over the nectarines.
  11. Let the nectarines cook until the mixture begins to thicken into a jam.  Stir constantly.
  12. Stir in balsamic vinegar.
  13. Spread this nectarines mixture over you batter.
  14. Place your pan in the oven and bake for roughly 30 minutes.  Let pan cool completely before attempting to remove your blondies.  The nectarines have a high water content and will make the blondie have a softer consistency.

Cherry Chai Cupcakes

My latest collaboration with Dona Chai and Brins Jam & Marmalade resulted in these adorable cherry chai cupcakes.  A lightly flavored Dona chai cupcake is crowned with cherry chai buttercream from Brins (formerly named Stagg Jam & Marmalade).  Brins actually used Dona chai in their jam recipe, so this cupcake is a flavor match made in confectionery heaven!

The cherries on top remind me of the alluring ice cream sundaes at old time-y diners, such as the one on my old college campus in Chicago.  Sometimes the only thing that would motivate me to write a paper was a friend dragging me from the bookish danger zone of my dorm room to study at our diner with a sweet treat close at hand.  That cherry on top could make it or break it!

Dona is a Masala Chai tea concentrate.  If you mix equal parts with hot milk, you’ll have a wildly good chai tea latte on your hands.  With vibrant spices like green cardamom and black peppercorn shining through, Dona chai breathes sparkling life into baked goods.  I suggest drinking a chai latte as you munch on your cupcake batch!  Dona chai is brewed in Brooklyn, where the brand also concocts a golden latte concentrate made from turmeric.

While I was cozy at home eating cupcakes this weekend, I was excited to browse the upcoming lineup at New York’s Dessert Goals festival next week.  I’m excited to see their new space in Long Island City!  I won’t leave before grazing on some fluffy shaved ice at the Bonsai Kakigori stand or taking incessant photos of the push-pop cake creations at The Pop Cake Shop.  I think there are a few tickets left for the event, so skedaddle on over to their website as soon as possible!  And if you can’t make it, definitely, DEFINITELY mix up a batch of these gorgeously flavored cupcakes.

Scroll down for the recipe!

For the Cake

Ingredients:

  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons Dona chai concentrate
  • 1 1/4 cups plain flour, sifted
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the vanilla and beat in the eggs.
  3. Mix in the Dona chai concentrate.
  4. Fold in the flour and buttermilk, alternating between each, and mix until just combined.
  5. In a separate bowl, combine the baking soda and vinegar and then mix into the batter.
  6. Distribute batter in cupcake holders until 3/4 full.  Bake 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

For the Frosting

Ingredients:

  • 2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cups Cherry Chai Jam from Brins Jam & Marmalade
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Instructions:

  1. Beat the butter in an electric stand mixer until light and fluffy.
  2. Slowly incorporate powdered sugar, sifted.
  3. Add cherry chai jam and vanilla.
  4. Beat until well combined.

Don’t forget the cherry on top!