This is Part 3 of my “Making a Cookbook” series and I’m talking about a very behind-the-scenes aspect of cookbookery, food styling, for which I have so much respect it borders on awe. It's an extremely complicated job. To be a food stylist is to be part cook and baker, part artist and part (very large part) tactical engineer. If you’re just jumping into the “Making A Cookbook” series, you might want to go back and take a look at Part 1, Recipe Testing, and Part 2, Food Photography.
When you see a picture of food in a magazine or in most cookbooks, you’re seeing the obvious part of the food stylist’s work. In simplistic terms, it’s the stylist’s job to make food and arrange it for the photographer to shoot it. But that food, the way the stylist makes it and the way it's arranged must, in the case of a cookbook, match the author’s spirit and vision and, of course, the recipes. Stylists have to know their way around food. But they've also got to have a battery of skills that have nothing to do with getting good grill marks on a steak or piping gorgeous buttercream roses.
I know that many of you assume that I make all the food for the images in my books. I know how to bake. I know how to make things taste good. I know how to make my family and friends happy. But I'm not a food stylist. I don’t know how to make every dish “just so” every time. That's a different skill. I don’t know how to make 10 recipes in a day. And to do that for 10 days. And to get 100 good bakes for good pictures. I don’t know how to make the shopping lists for that kind of work. And I still have trouble stacking a layer cake evenly. There! I’ve confessed. If I'd been the food stylist on any of my books, we’d still be waiting for them to be published. And even if I’d managed to get through the project, I’d never have been able to make the food as beautifully as the gifted stylists I was fortunate to work with on my books.
The shoot for BAKING WITH DORIE was done last fall in New York City under severe Covid restrictions. I couldn't be on set, as I usually am. I was 100+ miles away watching on a Zoom connection as the team made what looked like magic to me. Here's a look at how it unfolded, and the critical role of the food stylist...
She also does the Cook and a Half series for Food 52 with Artie, her 4-year old son, who’s a serious scene-stealer. I love that he addresses the crew as "his students."
Artie’s only a bit younger than Sam was when she started in the kitchen. She told me that when she was really young, she asked her mom for an Easy-Bake Oven and didn’t get it – Mom didn’t see any reason to buy a toy when there was a real oven in the house. And so, denied, Sam used the “big” oven and, she says, “I knew right away that there’d be dough in my future.”
Five years after graduating from college, while working on food programming at WNET, the New York City Public Television Network, Sam enrolled in the evening program at the French Culinary Institute. Her dream was to work in test kitchens, and she worked in two of the best: Good Housekeeping and Martha Stewart. It was at Martha Stewart that she perfected her gorgeous pie crusts.
I knew a lot about Sam before she walked on set to make the food for BAKING WITH DORIE, but we didn’t get to really meet – as in hug and have coffee and talk about everything important to us – until after the book came out. The way things go in cookbookery, it’s usual to first choose the photographer and then think about who will style the food and the props. While the author can always put together the team, my experience has been that it’s best if the photographer weighs in heavily here. It was the photographer Mark Weinberg who suggested Sam, and the way they worked together was like a duet in music or dance: they understood how the other moved and wanted things, and they could communicate almost silently. Now that I think back, that was an extra-good thing during that pandemic time when being in the studio meant being masked and as far away from one another as possible.
Before we hear Sam on what it takes to be a good food stylist, I just want to answer a question that so many people ask: Is all the food in all the pictures in your books real? And the answer is: Yes, yes, yes!
I’ve never been on a book shoot where we didn’t eat everything that was shot. Either the food was eaten on set or packed up to go home with the crew. In the before times, food was often given to firehouses or schools or shelters. All of the food was real. None of it was wasted.
Everything that Sam made for BAKING WITH DORIE, she made just the way you or I would make it at home. That everything looks “perfectly” homemade is part of Sam’s genius. Every time I’d come to the screen to see a new recipe on set, I’d grin, just about giggle with delight, and say, “It’s beautiful!” And every time Sam would smile, laugh – she has a great laugh – and say, “It’s your recipe.” I could never explain why, even though I knew it was my recipe, and even though I’d made it myself many times, seeing what Sam baked always made me look at the food in a different way. Sam made me see my work with new eyes. It’s one of the things that makes Sam such a brilliant stylist.
Here's a for-instance: Whenever I’d made the coffee-anise stars, I’d sprinkle their tops with something dark – coffee or chocolate or spice. When Sam went all white and sparkly, the cookies became more elegant and more fun at the same time. And so much more right for the holidays.
When Sam and I talked last week, the first question I asked her was: How did you ever organize the shoot?
“No one ever talks about this part,” she said, “the back end isn’t all that glamorous.” Of course, if you don’t get the planning right at the start, there’ll be nothing but problems.
Every day began and ended with to-do and shopping lists.
Shopping for ingredients and making sure that everything you need for every bake on each day is available are all part of the food stylist’s job. And since the other members of the team – the photographer, the prop stylist (you’ll meet Brooke Deonarine soon) and Sam’s terrific assistant, Laura Manzano – can’t do anything without the food, it’s the food stylist’s job to plan the run of the day. Sam said, “I like to begin every day with three things that are ready to go, so that the photographer can get started and I can get working on other recipes.”
Each recipe has to be dissected ahead of being made. Will you need to swap something out? Will you want to see the cake unglazed and then glazed? Should there be a process shot, in which case everything will have to be done step-by-step with back-ups, just in case. What needs to be done in the moment? What needs to be done ahead? So many questions, so much planning.
Having a back-up is great if there’s an emergency – and great even if there isn’t. Take the Lemon Meringue Layer Cake image, for example. The cake was shot on Day 3, and while we all liked the cake with its pretty candied lemon slices on top, it was never a favorite. It was a gorgeous picture of a gorgeous cake, but it just didn’t fit in the mix. And so, on the last day of the shoot Sam surprised us.
Every time a recipe is shot, a picture of it goes up on the wall. The pictures are a way of keeping track, but they also tell the story of the book and how the images feel as a whole. Sam said, “We kept looking at the wall and thinking that the lemon slices felt too fussy – the cake didn’t have the same feeling as the other recipes. It turned out that we each had something we thought we could have been differently. I had baked back-up layers and there was a little time in the day, so we reshot it. ”
Sam simplified the finish on the cake. Brooke chose different plates and surfaces. Mark changed the angle significantly. And the cake was sliced, so that we could see the beautiful layers and better imagine what it would taste like. A triumph of good planning and great teamwork.
There are almost 100 images in BAKING WITH DORIE, so it’s hard to pick favorites, but that didn’t stop me from asking Sam if there were some pictures or some little things about some pictures (all taken by Mark Weinberg) that made her particularly happy. The new, improved Lemon Meringue Layer Cake was one, and here are some others:
JELLY ROLL CAKE
The roll is a classic sponge cake that can be filled with jelly, its namesake, or just about anything else that’s soft and creamy and spreadable. Of all the options listed in the recipe, Sam wanted to make the Ice Cream Roll and as soon as I saw it, I was so glad that she had – you see the cake and know it’s party time.
Sam says: "The cake looks like FUN! This was my childhood vision of joy – still is."
ONE-BITE CINNAMON PUFFS
Tiny cream puffs, flavored with cinnamon and sprinkled with crunchy pearl sugar are a play on the traditional French treat, chouquettes. I was glad that we ended up with two images of them in the book and that they’re also on the dedication page – there’s something gleeful about these little treats.
Sam says: "We had a ball with these. We tried them so many different ways and on so many different surfaces. We shot them in a row, we shot them close-up and from a distance and, at some point, we just tossed them and shot them where they landed."
VEGETABLE RIBBON TART
I’m crazy about this recipe, which I think of as “fridge fancy” because so much of it can be gotten ready-made or found in our vegetable bins on any weekday. No matter what you do with it, this tart is going to be beautiful – you can’t miss because everything starts out beautiful.
Sam says: "I loved making this tart because it was like a canvas – I got to play with color and I felt like an artist."
BUTTERMILK-MOLASSES QUICK BREAD
This is one of my favorite pictures in the book. There are very few images that show a “scene” and this picture tells a complete story. More important, it makes me want to be a character in that story. I want to be at that table!
Sam says: "The headnote said that the recipe came from a guesthouse and I could imagine it. My goal for this picture was cozy."
I asked Sam if she could tell me three skills that a food stylist needs, and here’s what she said:
You’ve got be organized – that not-glamorous back-end part is so important.
You need to be a good collaborator – every picture is better when you exchange ideas and come together as a team
You’ve got to have confidence – you’ve got know the way you want things to be. There’s a decision to be made at every step. Every choice is important. How you cut something or even if you should cut it; which sugar you use to decorate something; how much streusel you sprinkle over a bun. Everything matters. You have to imagine how every step will affect the final image. With baking (unlike with some cooking), you can’t go back – it’s the challenge, but it’s also the fun.
Sam will be back on Friday with specific tips on how we non-professional bakers can make our food look more beautiful.
See you then!
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