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.

Sakura Mochi Layer Cake

This cake is inspired by sakura mochi, a wagashi treat that is served during the springtime in Japan.  It is typically sweet rice covering a dollop of red bean paste, then wrapped in a pickled sakura leaf or topped with a pickled sakura blossom.  I incorporated these elements and gave them an American layer cake twist.

Three layers of sakura cake are covered with ethereal sakura frosting; not too much of it, as I wanted the flavor of the cake to really shine through and buttercream can often dominate.  In between the cake layers are two layers of sweet red bean paste (koshian), and bits of chewy homemade mochi. The cake is dotted with pickled sakura blossoms. You can preserve the sakura flowers yourself if you have access to cherry blossoms, or you can buy small packages of them on Amazon.

Last year, I went to the sakura matsuri at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and was blown away by the number of people.  I don’t think I had seen so many New Yorkers in one place before! The people watching proved to be just as delightful as the petal watching.  I went to the festival alone, lending it a similar feel to the days I wandered Kyoto’s streets alone as an exchange student.

This cake reminds me of the beauty of wandering alone in a strange place.  When you’re alone, you can absorb the little details without being distracted or rushed.  I hope that you can make and eat this cake in a similar fashion – leisurely and with the luxury of noticing every deliberate detail.

Scroll down for the recipe!

Sakura Mochi Layer Cake

For the Cake

Ingredients:

  • 3 1/4 cups cake flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 2 teaspoons sakura extract
  • 1 1/2 cup whole milk
  • Pink gel food coloring

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Prepare two 6 inch circular baking pans with cooking spray and parchment.
  2. Whisk together the dry ingredients and set aside.
  3. In a stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
  4. Incorporate the egg yolks one at a time, and add the sakura extract.
  5. Add pink food coloring, if desired.
  6. Alternate adding the milk and the dry ingredients until just incorporated.
  7. Evenly distribute the batter in your pans.
  8. Bake for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

For the Frosting

Ingredients:

  • 12 tbsp butter, softened
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 4 tbsp heavy cream
  • 1.5 teaspoon sakura extract
  • Pinch of kosher salt

Instructions:

  1. Beat the butter in a stand mixer until light and fluffy.
  2. Slowly incorporate the powdered sugar.
  3. Incorporate other ingredients and mix until all are combined.

For the Mochi

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup mochiko flour
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/4 granulated sugar
  • corn starch, as needed

Instructions:

  1. Mix the mochiko with the granulated sugar.
  2. Add the water to the mixture and mix until a paste forms.
  3. In a microwave, heat mixture for 2 and a half minutes.
  4. Using corn starch to prevent the mochi from sticking to the table or your hands, roll the mochi into small balls.

Additional notes:

Add store bought packaged red bean paste in between the cake layers.

When working with pickled sakura, be sure to soak the blossoms before use, as they are preserved in salt.  I soaked the blossoms for about 30 minutes and sprinkled sugar on them after laying them out to dry on a paper towel.