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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.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Cook With Me: World Premiere Black Pudding Competition, Normandy

Thank you for being here, dear readers, and I want you to know I (try to) leave no stone unturned when it comes to reporting the "must knows" of the food world.

Not to be confused with the World Black Pudding Throwing Contest held in September in Ramsbottom near Lancashire and Yorkshire, there is another feat, not feet, of Black Pudding coming up at the end of this week. It is none other than the World Premiere Black Pudding Competition, held in Mortagne au Perche, in Normandy.

You'll know when you get to Mortagne au Perche because of the massive black Percheron horses grazing in the fields. Perhaps the horses as well as the competition is overseen by Knights of the Black Pudding. Don't you love it? 

I learned about the competition through a specialist, Marc Frederic, who is a Boucher-Charcutier-Traiteur from Devon, England and who is intensely interested in bringing back the "authentic" method of production which uses real blood, instead of dried blood. A lot of the tradition of preparing the black pudding changed because of Mad Cow Disease. 

So what is Black Pudding?

It is "the classic boudin de Paris, a creamy perfection consisting of equal parts blood, fat and onions. It also welcomes regional variations from across France and the world. Enjoyed with apple, fine rose wine or calvados." 

le boudin 
Photo of Black Pudding from the Mortagne site. 

There you have it..but locally, I doubt we could have it. So please peruse and dream. 

                             Inscription on the Medale. Photo courtesy of La Confrerie du Goute

A view of the 2011 Competition.

I've edited slightly, but for the most part (which part you might well ask...) here are the rules as they appear on the Black Pudding site. The dates are a bit off as this was for 2011. 

(I find ARTICLE 10 to be the most compelling.)

organized by : the Guild of the Knights of the "GOUTE-BOUDIN"
ARTICLE 1  On the 18th and 19th of March 2011, in MORTAGNE AU PERCHE, Orne, FRANCE, the guild of the "Goute-Boudin" (Tasters of black pudding) will be holding its 49th international competition for the best black pudding.
ARTICLE 2   The competition will take place on Friday, March 18th and Saturday March 19th in the grounds of the festival du BOUDIN in Mortagne-au-Perche.
ARTICLE 3  All French and foreign artisan pork butchers may participate in the competition. Competitors will have to certify, on their honour, that they have, themselves, made the products entered.
ARTICLE 4  In recognition of the many varieties of black pudding made in Europe, several zones have been created and there will be a selection process for each zone and country leading to the award for the best foreign entry.
ARTICLE 5  Competitors should address their registration(s) before March 6th 2011 to :
Concours International du meilleur Boudin, BP 65,
They should give (in block letters) their surname, first name and address.
ARTICLE 6  The registration fee of 50 EUROS  per sample must no longer be sent by cheque but can be payed by credit card or bank transfer. See account numbers attached to the registration form (to the order of "Concours du Meilleur Boudin Mortagne").
Under no circumstances will the registration fee be refunded.
ARTICLE 7 Competitors should bring or send 800 grammes of black pudding made from cooked blood before 12am on Thursday March 17th.
The parcels will be kept in a refrigerator until the competition begins.
To ensure that the goods arrive in best condition, we advise competitors to send their parcels by express post. The maximum postage weight in France is one kilogram.
The parcels must be tied with string only, to conform with customs regulations.
No complaints for deterioration during transport will be accepted.
Any parcel sent "postage due" will be refused.
ARTICLE 8  Competitors will include in their parcels a sealed envelope containing their full name and address (in block letters) with the imprint of their trade stamp.
There must be no identification marks on the outside of the envelope.
A computer will assign a serial number to each entry. Until the end of the competition the computer manager alone will hold the list of competitors and their corresponding numbers.
ARTICLE 9  Under the presidency of the Grand Master of the Guild of the Knights of Goute-Boudin  :
- a preselection committee composed of tradesmen, members of the guild and public will meet on the afternoon of Friday March 18th and will choose the products to be entered in the competition.
- the Grand Jury of the competition composed of distinguished members from the pork trade and members of the guild will judge the final competition on the Saturday.
ARTICLE 10  The black pudding will be tasted cold and ungrilled.
ARTICLE 11  It is understood that the awards won in the competition recognise the quality of the product for one year.
In case of multiple entries for the same candidate only the best prize will be taken into account.
ARTICLE 12  The competition results will be announced in the Town Hall.
The awards will be distributed on April 3rd 2011 or sent by post to those not present on this date.
All participants will be notified of the results in the week following the competition.
ARTICLE 13  The guild cannot be held responsible for cancellation of the compettion in case of accident or in case of absolute necessity.
ARTICLE 14  Prize order
Grand Prix International (foreign entries)
Grand Prix National (French entries)
For each country represented :
Grand Prix d’Excellence Cup
Grand Prix d’Honneur Gold Medal
Grand Prix d’Honneur Silver Medal
Grand Prix d’Honneur Bronze Medal
Honorable Mention

So, come back in the next week or so as I'll be reporting on the winners!

Monday, March 5, 2012

C'est si Bon! Travel Tales: Movement on the Surface or The Stirring of the Dragon

On a long ago day, outside it was May, but inside it was my first day in the Oriental Kitchen at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. This was  in the spring of my first year there. In a few weeks I would be leaving for my externship on Hilton head Island. But first there was this. For the next three weeks Chef (Warren) Mah would teach our class of thirty some students, everything we wanted to know about four or five thousand years of Chinese cooking.

Chef Mah gathered everyone at my station, that’s right, the one with the giant wok. We were the same height, Chef Mah and me. Short. And I stood beside him. But not too close. He smelled like garlic and maybe, shrimp. He was a Legend at the Culinary Institute. Rumor swore he grew his own ginger and fermented his own black beans at home in the basement, and that somewhere in the kitchen, in this kitchen, he kept a sword. Just in case. Of what exactly, I didn’t want to know.

He cleared his throat and began speaking to me as I had drawn the fortune of working at the wok, the most difficult station of Oriental Kitchen. 

“What you want look for is movement on the surface. The stirring of the dragon.”

My seventeen culinary compadre’s and I watched spellbound as he waved his hand over the huge wok full of hot oil while underneath the gas flames licked yellow and red and blue tongues against the bottom of the wok; shimmering the oil as if invoking magic.

My classmates smiled at me, shaking their heads. Poor Fool. Bon chance.

Chef Mah continued, ignoring the heat. He leaned over the stainless steel table with his knife raised.

Szechuan style mean main ingredient always cook first. First cut one inch piece. No wash.”

His curved knife cleanly tamed the green beans into fragments. His intense golden brown eyes told me everything I needed to know. He lives in constant battle with the oil, the dragon. But the more he talked, the more I felt, was certain, it was my goose that was going to be cooked today.

“Soak dry shrimp hot water. Chop shrimp, radish, scallion, and ginger fine. Then ‘ragon juice,” he held up the small bottle with a bright orange viscous liquid. I truly believe if he had uncorked it, we would all be consumed in a raging fire. If only, then I might be saved from the daunting and dangerous task of burning all the hair off my head, arms, and most likely even the tops of my feet.     

He handed the ‘ragon juice to me. “You in charge fire. Now everyone work.”

He clapped his hands furiously and disappeared. We had entered the battle.

I had never before looked in the face of such a behemoth. The mouth of the wok could have held an entire pig, and it looked hungry.  Was it moving towards me?

“Excuse me, Chef. You didn’t say. What to do. When. The oil starts moving, then? Whaaa-t?” But by that time Chef was testing the dough for almond cookies on the calm and cool side of the kitchen.

The soul of Chef Mah lay in this Szechuan dish. I could tell he enjoyed holding it in an ever passionate and dangerous embrace. Manipulating beans. Managing carrots and garlic into the szechuan portal. The dish would come through a delicate membrane, like an osmosis of his mind, will and spirit, to be remembered as Chef Mah and only Chef Mah. And once beyond the cruelness of hot oil, the dish would sit quietly and patiently on the table.

On the other hand, the only thing I had in my mind was how to quietly transform my carrots, radishes, and scallions into Chef Mah-like fragments. I did not, was not, on my first day of a thousand year battle, ready to face a dragon.

But it was as if the oil watched Chef, too, as he walked frantically from eggrolls
to hot and sour soup the oil took in Chef’s tension and strain. And multiplied it.  

I tried to stand as innocently as possible. Far enough away but ever in the
presence of the dragon. I kept my knife engaged with the radishes, carrots, and scallions. C’mon vegetables. Fragments, I beg you.

But the oil defied Chef Mah and billowed across the room to meet him.

I don’t remember ever hearing the fire alarm, but soon the entire building of 1600 culinary students, even Jacques Pepin who was the guest chef in Charcuterie that day were heralded outside.

All except for Chef Mah. He stayed behind in what they told us was a knock down drag out fight with the fire-breathing beast. It was no surprise to me who won. 

We filed back into the kitchen to find Chef remarkably calm. He motioned me over to the sideboard to finish filling won-ton wrappers with the ground pork and water chestnuts. Is this what he had students do who lost the battle?

Once a few hundred dumplings lined the sheet pans, I knew I’d have to engage him. I kept watch for his tall white toque bobbing about. Soon enough his small footsteps approached. Chef Mah stood by my side, his hands on his hips and said, “You monkey, me rat, together we fight dragon. Now fall off horse. And get back on.”

He lifted two bamboo skimmers from the rack nearby and handed one to me. He insisted we cross them like swords and then slowly we submerged the dumplings in the crackling beast.  

Merci, Chef Warren Mah!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Write With Me: Sense of Place: Part Two

Read Part One. The World With-Out

Readers, Merci, for visiting and as an explanation of the what-is-this-post-type, I hope it will suffice to say that on the Planting Cabbages blog, I hope to convey the bones about the two very different places I live. And you too, if you are a writer or other creative world maker - you surely recognize the terrain. One world, the world with-in, is where you create your art and the other is where you walk and talk in a linear world, perhaps on the way to a 9-5 job, and where you make your life in the outside world.

I want to learn what it is like in your creative world. What is your number one struggle? What day, oh horrible day, did you almost give up? How do you share and encourage yourself and others to go on?

This time of year – February thru early June the writing path, the World With-In at Planting Cabbages is also very busy.

For the world with-in is where the writer in me longs for quiet. The writer in me is pensive and boiling. Secretive and sly. In the language of food she works best and never tires as a garde manger or "the cold kitchen." This garde manger land is the hand-numbing corner of the french kitchen where beautiful tastes are dreamed up from scavenged bits and morsels too small to interest the poissonier (the fish and seafood chef) and the rotisseur (the chef who manages a team that roasts, broils, and deep frys) And just like the intensity of the "hot line", the garde manger takes pleasure in her work, in rendering what were once only visions and temptations into compositions solid and satisfying. And she does this, more or less, alone. 

How will, how can she imagine that this terrine she’s building will hold together? 
But she remembers the veal shanks, sawed apart to reveal the marrow - and she knows with a surety within her bones that the aspic will work this time; it will be clear enough to read the fortune lent by tarragon leaves. The other kitchen workers pause briefly at her wood table; they want to understand but then they see her myriad ingredients, they shake their heads, muttering crazy fool and quickly slide off to the rotisseur station, where they know they will get a nice hunk of roasted veal. 

She looks up, has someone just been by to see her? But she quickly returns to her craft; the intensely layered terrines and rolled and stuffed galantines and ballotines delighted  to be full to the brim with treasures she's gathered from the rest of the kitchen.

And to be sure while the rest of the kitchen is busy, so is she. It's lunch service and the orders roll in, like waves ~ announced by the aboyer, the expediter. When the grillardin chef lays lengths of flaccid pork over the hot coals, she takes his long boning knife and quickly trims bits of veal (certainly it was no more than that!) from the tied roasts ready for the flames and scurries on. Around the corner, at the poissonier station she steals glistening roe edged scallops and slides spines of carp and flounder in a pot to extract a few drops of precious jus. In the frigid holds of the boucherie the scent of blood even sounds metallic. She holds her nose long enough to snatch pig innards that she will set in jelly and sharpen with sherry vinegar.  She slides along a row of stacked boxes spilling onions and carrots, and rounds the last corner, back to her cold kitchen. After a moment and an oeufs mayonnaise to keep her going, she pounds the pink flesh of veal, blankets it in rolls of thick and forgotten bacon, the flavor crisped with piment d'espelette pepper.

The beautiful place where these two worlds meet is the garden. 

The potager, the soup cook, heads out the door to the trellised plots for parsley. Looking up to the mumbling grey sky, he twists off the new leaves. A tomato-stained side towel drops from his apron where the tiny seeds have been planted. The ground is warm,  today. I taste the bright green tops of radishes and turnips. Moist deep beds will bear golden beets, Swiss chard, and Jericho lettuce. If it doesn't snow. Spring onions with your blue green fronds, so brave in spring, come with me.

Refreshed by the garden I can again return to the world with-in to finish the terrines, the stories. 

The writer in me keeps a watchful eye going always, and perches over the roasting pan; where a fat pork belly sizzles with spring onions. I tumble in the pilfered but cleaned and diced turnips, the "too big" carrots, discarded shallots and green garlic pulled from the ground at dawn, before the gardener was even awake. These will render and enrich, encourage a reflection on the plate. An appetite sustained. 

The writer in me knows that the carrots are spent and the bouquet garni won’t make it to the table. 

You might not see them, but I hope you will taste them, and the long hours spent on the slice of terrine with jewel bright asparagus and delicate scallops edged in smoked paprika, will be felt. And you may not recognize or know it immediately, but when you rest, the pate de compagne with its green garlic confit, will visit you again in your dreams.

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