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Monday, March 19, 2012

Guest Interviews: Denise Vivaldo, Food Stylist

Food Stylist Denise Vivaldo. Photo from 

What I learned when I began this mission, to share the nuts and bolts about the art of food-styling, was it's not well-known at all! I couldn't believe that the Chapel Hill Public Library didn't have ONE copy of any Food-Styling book. 

So, as gently and delicately as I could I threw myself like sesame seeds on a shellacked bun at any number of food stylists, and Denise Vivaldo, without any hesitation threw herself back at me! She sent me a disc of her portfolio and her book, The Food Stylist's Handbook, that is a charmer and soothsayer. Without so much as a by your leave, TFSH "reveals the secret world of food styling." 

Learning is everything in life, and though Food-Styling is perhaps not as well-known or as "clamorous" as some other food professions, it is a field ripe with opportunity; thanks in part certainly goes to the outspoken Ms. Vivaldo who was a hoot to speak with all the way from Los Angeles. 

And, I also hope you'll see how Denise Vivaldo's career, and food styling in general, has witnessed, partnered, and in some cases, been the driving force behind many major focuses and shifts in the food business over the last twenty years.

How did she do it? Denise began her culinary training at the Ritz Escoffier and La Varenne in Paris, and then graduated Chef de Cuisine from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. With over 27 years of experience, Denise has catered more than 10,000 parties and has cooked for such guests as George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Prince Charles, Bette Midler, Suzanne Somers, Merv Griffin, Cher, Aaron Spelling, Sly Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Maria Shriver.

In 1988, Denise founded FoodFanatics, a catering, recipe-development, and foodstyling firm based in Los Angeles, California. Since that time, she has also styled food for countless local and nationally syndicated television shows such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and NapaStyle with Michael Chiarello. 

Food Fanatics also educates and offers all manner of Workshops in such topics as Developing a Portfolio, How to Create a Branded Culinary Personality, and even a Two-Day Food-Styling Workshop in Singapore.  

One might say that Food has moved from being a prop to being in style. So what is food styling?

An art form where food is the medium, says Denise in her book, The Food Stylist's Handbook. In further chatting with Denise I learned the development of food styling came about as a result of the home economists, called “home ecs” oddly enough, who created books for appliance companies. Perhaps you even have some of these pamphlets and instruction books from the fifties. Denise herself says she owns a large collection of them. The Home Ecs were also referred to as prop stylists, and props played a major, if not puzzling, role in the photos of the dish. Up until the food network came about, the field was largely dominated by this focus.

Food in movies actually began in 1910. Again this was handled by the props department.

What does it take to be a successful Food Stylist?

Denise believes some traits matter more than others. One is having a propensity for tenacity and another being the ability to see food, look at food, with an artist’s eye. Another is being flexible to work in and under any circumstances, and improvise above and beyond, to understand that you are hyper-focused on giving the client what they want, and even giving multi-tasking a makeover to the maxi-multi level.   

While it isn’t necessary to be a five star chef in order to be a food stylist, knowledge of food is paramount, since this is your medium. Knowing the look of the food, how it behaves, what you can expect from it.

Merci, Denise, for being visiting with me on Planting Cabbbages!

The Interview

And so, Denise, tell us. Tell us your truth about food-styling. Once and for all! What would you like us to know? 

That when done well -it looks easy.
It's really being creative on someone's dime and timeline.
Best career I ever had and I had a few.    

Who or what sparked your interest in food styling - was there a specific moment, food, person? Please share how you learned the art of food styling. 

I am a graduate of the San Francisco California Culinary a Cordon Bleu appendage. At one point in my food career, but before food styling, I also sold fish to Wolfgang Puck

But after a women who was a food stylist/writer, taught a week long course, I was hooked. I didn't find out until later that she killed herself. Might have been a warning. Not a job for the week of spirit.  

Aaron Spelling came to one of my parties and put me to work on his TV show Dynasty. He wanted the look of my beautiful buffets. 

Explain a day in food styling with detail.

Everyday is totally different. I've been styling for 27 years..
Many days we develop and test recipes -take our own test photos -
then move into a studio for professional photos.
Food styling makes you very aware of concept, color and elevation.
Some days we shoot packaging for vendors.
One of our clients sells 20 M dollars a year in beef jerky....light that!
We shoot with a photographer that shoots more than 50%
of all the food clients in LA. And has extensive his 4,000 square ft studio.
Makes the job so much easier...we prop most of our own shots ...didn't plan on it...
but great use of color is necessary for  superior food styling...
Once in a while we work on a movie....there are less skills needed...for a moving camera than a still shot.

How can an aspiring Food Stylist get started?

TV demo's is the easiest way to break into food styling.....learn who they are, and contact a local stylist to apprentice with. We are having a workshop in LA in June.

Movie shoots don't pay as well and can never stand up to the scrutiny of print. 
Learn the looks of food styling -very styled, nearly styled, natural, polished, pristine....hard lights, soft lights, no lights...
Selected focus, out of focus...the more experienced you are the easier it becomes. There are all types of looks...and you need to be able to do them all.
It's truly all in the lighting ......I see more bad photography than ever...was asked to review a new photography book...
told the publisher you don't want to know what I think....horrible front cover...if a reader doesn't know what the pile of snotty looking crap is supposed to've missed your mark as a stylist.

Appetite appeal? That would be none.
You have to be able to manipulate the camera.
Everybody buys a Canon at this particular time and thinks themselves a pro....
We work 5 days if not 6 almost every week.
We turn work away. The less educated in marketing a client is ...the cheaper they are.....

Most consumers buy a package or a cookbook because of the photos...
Don't skimp on photos..

I work from 9 to 5 most days ...10 hr print shoots
TV can stretch to 14 hours a day.

Food stylists sell stuff. We are supporting ANY idea visually.

Sometimes we sell talent, too. I don't know Guy Fieri ... but the guy has followers ....
'cause visually I just want him to shower...cut his poor hair and 
get some big boy pants....have never watched him for more than 10 minutes...
No visual appeal to me.

Or Sandra Lee.....always afraid her botox will explode near a flame.....

Why do you love what you do? What makes it so appealing? 

I have worked in sculpture, paints, jewelry, leather... I like to make things....
Food is the most beautiful medium to me...

When I transitioned from real estate, my mother was resistant to the idea. “Go to the parties, not make the parties.” I knew the sales techniques I learned from my father, who was a honest man and real estate baron, would influence my success; as well as the fact that my family worked with food and owned grocery stores.

Do you have a short story (serious or funny) that happened to you that relates to food styling?

Writing a memoir of the last 27 years ...just got my first BIG nibble..hoping to sell it soon. Funny, tragic, ridiculous, sweet, inspiring or insipid...I have them all. 

What are your future plans, Denise? By your pages I can tell you've done if not, all, a good heaping portion of it, what do you dream of doing next? 

Rich clients producing a webisode show about my career....I can swear if played on the net. Have shot the pilot...turned out's just all about food.
I wrote it and all the content...if it's not real - true information -I'm not interested.
I watch almost no cooking shows...because most of the "talent" is a sham.  
It takes a crew of 30 talented people to produce their shows and their persona.
How do you think food styling contributes to the food and cooking world? 

We sell the "talent" and collateral associated with the food world!

Authors on tour really need us! They get off a plane and we have shopped, prepped and styled their segments!  

Add any quirky facts about yourself or even ask questions of the readers. We’d love to see what it’s really like to be a food stylist. 

I've worked hard ....learned everyday....and never say Uncle.
Sometimes -when people say no to me - I just think of it as another way to sell my ideas again -I am tenacious and don't mind a fight.

I like winning.  


To gain more insight into the profession and Denise’s styling career please visit

Denise often writes timely pieces for the Huffington Post.

Get moving! Visit her blog, Food Fanatics Unwashed.

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