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.

Olive Oil Cupcakes

Chicago is snowy and gray, so I’m posting a recipe that I sampled during some of the last warm days of September.  I need some warm autumn colors and tastes in my life right about now!

olive oil from afar

During a visit home to rural Illinois only a few months ago, I had to battle a tangle of moonflowers and morning glories to get to our front door.  Clumps of brown-eyed susans clustered around the path.  Their color seemed to be the perfect color-bridge to autumn and its yellows and oranges.  I decided to make olive oil-flavored cupcakes as a light treat.  The olive oil complemented the vanilla frosting, and the yellow batter seemed to soak up some of the bright festiveness of the  brown-eyed susans.

olive oil detail

Olive oil cupcakes are the perfect warm-up recipe to make today, with bright yellow cake that’s not in-your-face sweet!

 

Recipe

Ingredients:

1 and 1/4 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 2 large eggs, 3/4 cups sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/2 cups olive oil, 1/2 cups plain yogurt, pinch of salt

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Prepare a cupcake pan
  2. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar
  4. Slowly add vanilla, olive oil, and yogurt to the wet mixture
  5. Slowly add dry ingredients to wet ingredients
  6. Fill cupcake pan with batter and bake for about 15 minutes or until ready.  Test by gently pressing a finger on the top of the cupcake.  If it springs back, it is done!