You call yourself an image collector. Tell us a little more about that.
I was growing up in San Diego. My Mom was an X-ray technician. Dad was an aeronautical engineer. I started compulsively collecting images until you couldn’t see the walls in my bedroom! I was 12 years old and I’d just tear out photos from magazines – everything from shots of buildings, food, people and faces – and that’s when I decided I wanted to study photography and art.
So you studied photography and art?
Absolutely not! When I announced to my parents that’s what I wanted, they wouldn’t have it. It was simply out of the question. My parents wanted me to get a real job. I did pre-med major at college and quickly discovered I was not pre-med material! One day, my Mom sat me down and said, here are your options: a) X-ray Technician b) Physical Therapist c) Radiation Therapist or d) Respiratory Therapist. I chose the latter. For six years, I worked at San Francisco General Hospital in the Trauma Unit and ER. For a time, it suited my temperament perfectly. I liked being on my feet all day. I loved the excitement, the variety of patients and the satisfaction of helping people who really needed help.
What was the defining moment that catapulted you from respiratory therapist to food stylist?
I’d become somewhat dissatisfied working at the Hospital. So every weekend, I’d organize trips exploring Sonoma, Napa, the wine country and I’d be dining at Chez Panisse, Square One, Stars and Zuni Café, you name it!
The whole California Cuisine trend was exploding, I was hungry to learn everything about food and even considered working in the food industry! That’s the moment the light bulb went off in my head. I switched to part-time work at the Hospital. I enrolled in the California Culinary Academy, an intensive two-year European-style cooking program. I’d never been happier.
How did you land your first job assisting for a food stylist?
One afternoon, a good friend was flipping through Food and Wine magazine and she said, “WOW! There must be someone who is paid to cook the food for these spreads!” The next day, I’d sent 100 letters to every magazine that featured food in its pages. After getting two responses (one from Food and Wine magazine which forwarded my letter to the top 10 food stylists), I landed a four-week internship with Rick Ellis, one of the most highly-respected food stylists in NYC which eventually led to a full time job as his assistant.
When did you decide it was time to go out on your own?
After three years assisting Rick, I decided it was time. Again, I sent out a 100 letters but this time with engraved cards. I was lucky. My phone started to ring pretty quickly.
What’s your 30-second elevator pitch?
I’m a food stylist. I prepare food for photography: for editorial, advertising and TV. That’s it.
How different are you to your competitors?
Most food stylists are known for being slow and a little stiff. I’m the opposite. I happen to be fast. I’m approachable. I tell potential clients “ I can give you Thanksgiving in 45 minutes.” And I can.
So how would you describe your personality?
I’m a little hyper, basically. I’m fun. I love variety, interacting with different people and working on location.
How would your clients describe you?
He’s efficient. No attitude. He gets the work done.
What do you do that no one else does in the business?
I keep them laughing! I’m known for my #@%@# sense of humor especially at lunch.
What do you most like about being a food stylist?
The best thing for me? It’s all about creating an image. I love working with photographers. It’s a collaborative process. I like creating a 3D sculpture that the photographer captures in 2D. Of course, there’s all the other great stuff, like composition and color. Then, there’s the food: sautéeing, baking and grilling. (And you get to eat it!)
What kind of reputation do you have as a food stylist?
My style is casual, real and approachable. It’s the kind of person I am. That’s why I think a lot of food companies are contacting me. They’re responding to my casual approach to food for their packaging.
What are you doing for food companies?
I act as style guide, updating a new look and a new direction for their packaging. I also cook the food, of course! It’s all about being part of a great team – client, photographer, package designer and prop stylist – and great synergy, of course!
I find corporate projects like this truly challenging and totally fascinating. And, interestingly enough, there’s been a huge shift happening in the world of food marketing and advertising. Packaging used to feature a photo of a beautiful apple pie but… not one crumb on the plate! Unrealistic, right! Now, it appears the corporate preference is for a more imperfect, more accessible and casual approach. Consumers clearly can identify with this kind of thinking because they feel that – yes, they can do it, too! There is beauty in imperfection. Food companies – fashion and cosmetic words, too – are all backing this different direction: Imperfection is beautiful and real!
Tell us a little about working on editorial/cookbooks vs corporate?
Cookbooks are really like storybooks. I’ve done around thirty or forty cookbooks. There’s something special about it because I work with the author, the most passionate person of all! It’s all about realizing the visual aspect of their book for them. I love the mix, particularly straddling both worlds of editorial and corporate. It’s the best.
Tell us about your most exhilarating food styling experience?
It was 1991. Martin Scorcese was filming “Age of Innocence” in New York with Michele Pfeiffer and Daniel Day Lewis. Based on Edith Wharton’s novel, food played a major role, so to speak. I was working as assistant to Rick Ellis at the time, and we were hired to create the most extravagant displays. There were silver platters with extraordinary displays of fish, roast duck, pork, rich gravies, the lot. It was an amazing experience to be on set. The location team had tracked down the grandest house in Brooklyn, decorated the entire house in the Victorian period and the bottom line? Everything in excess!
What makes you spring out of bed in the mornings?
I am the most productive in the mornings. I tend to be spinning my wheels first thing. If I could have my way, I’d start work at 7am.
Why did you leave New York in 2006?
At heart, I’m a Californian. I had promised myself I’d only live in New York for 10 years. On my 17th anniversary (and my best year ever!) I decided it was time to go back to California. My parents were getting older. I felt like I wanted to be close.
What’s the best thing about living in Venice Beach?
I grew up on the beach in San Diego so I’m reliving my childhood. I walk my dog Alba. She’s a Bracco Italiano. I ride my bike. It’s a Beach Cruiser without brakes or gears. I still haven’t bought a car. No one can believe it. If I need a car for a job, I rent one.
If your bike doesn’t have brakes, how do you stop?
The bike isn’t built for speed. It goes slow.
What ‘tool of the trade’ are you carrying now?
A worn leather knife kit I’ve had for years. I bring it along to every job. My assistant teases me, calls me “the MacGyver of food styling”. He says I can do anything with a ball of string, a hairpin, and a piece of chewing gum! That’s it. Basically, I’m intuitive and improvise on the job. It’s the way I work. You could call me a bit of an anti-stylist.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished a complete redesign of Stouffers Frozen Food Packaging for Nestles. And I’m also working with Kohls/Food Network on a new line of kitchen equipment. For fun, I was a contestant on Food Network’s “Challenge Show Super Star Food Stylist.” Too bad, I lost. (I want a rematch!)
What’s the biggest dream you want to see come true?
I would love to have a kitchen/garden shop perhaps in Northern California or Oregon. I actually love Ashland, Oregon. My Dad leaves an hour south of Ashland. It’s a great community with an annual summer Shakespeare Festival. The dream is to combine cooking, teaching and travel. I’ve already designed (in my head) the logo, typographic treatment, and the kind of paper (unbleached) for the stationary and look of the store.
You know, there’s something very special about being a shopkeeper. When I was in high school, I worked in a Mom and Pop house wares store. It was called Great News in San Diego. It’s still there. I did deliveries, too.
What does the idea of travel mean to you?
Imagine this scenario: You travel. You see what people eat. You learn about their culture. Give me a knapsack, a bit of money in my pocket, and I’ll happily walk around the globe. Just travel and eat. (FYI If I could fly anywhere tomorrow, I’d head for Brazil.)
Is there one thing about you that no one could ever know about?
You bet. I’m shy. Also, I recognized I had a pretty bad memory. So I decided, right there and then, that if I told the truth, I’d never have to remember anything. It’s true. You try it!
If you could tell the world one message that might transform their lives, what would it be?
Learn how to cook! It’s such a beautiful gift. There’s nothing more satisfying than creating a meal for people you love. Just learn how to cook three things: Appetizer. Entrée. Dessert. Learn how to perfect them and you’ll be popular beyond your wildest dreams!
So what are your favorite three things you’ve perfected?
OK. I can do that. Here’s my Dream Meal!
Appetizer: The best tomatoes you can find, sliced, salt and pepper. Add the best olive oil and a slab of crusty bread.
Entrée: Grilled steak or BBQ Lamb. (My preference? Medium rare.) Dry rub of black pepper, fennel seeds and coarse salt. Assume everyone knows what a ‘dry rub’ is. Combine with Yukon Gold luscious mashed potatoes with lots of butter and roasted garlic. Yum.
Dessert: Find the best berries. Add whipped cream. Done!
While we’re on the subject of cooking, what drives you crazy?
Big fancy kitchens no one uses.
What’s your current mission in life?
Let’s face it, the skill of cooking is being forgotten. So I challenge you. Learn to cook! Try to eat locally. Go to the Farmers Markets in your area. Track down a small meat purveyor and buy from them. Think about what you’re eating. P.S. Buy fresh food from real people!