Denise Vivaldo: Food Styling, Sandra Lee and Tips for Better Food Photos

Categories: In the Trenches

Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
Denise Vivaldo is scooping fluffy spoonfuls of mashed potatoes atop a mountain of cotton balls. She tamps them down a bit with the edge of her spoon, securing them to the cotton mound underneath, then smiles and moves on to her next task: using a pair of tweezers to apply pieces of parsley so small, they're nearly microscopic. It's a slow, exacting task.

Vivaldo is a food stylist, a long-time professional with decades of experience in the small, close-knit industry that makes frozen dinners seem palatable and the pages of your latest cookbook look good enough to lick. She's also famous for creating Food Network host Sandra Lee's notorious "Kwanzaa cake," and then issuing a public mea culpa years later on the Huffington Post.

The column was since pulled, but some digging reveals that traces of it can still be found online. Vivaldo is currently working on a memoir about her food styling adventures with various celebrities, called I Can't Make This Sh*t Up. It will be her 8th book.

Vivaldo made this Michelina frozen meatloaf look like...
The parsley she's using today is dried, from a glass jar. But Vivaldo has reinvigorated the dull flakes with a healthy spray of Pam that makes them shiny and green. And the mashed potatoes were frozen only a few moments ago, but Vivaldo added a glug of Karo syrup to them and mixed it in to make the cold, stark potatoes appear warm and creamy.

"This is all in my book," she says, as she scoops up the flabby slice of meatloaf from the cardboard box that -- until now -- held an entree of frozen meatloaf and mashed potatoes. In a few more minutes, the once horrid-looking food will be transformed into something worthy of a spotlight, using tips and hints that she explains in The Food Stylist's Handbook. The hardcover tome is about to be reprinted in softcover, with 40 additional pages just for a new generation of food stylists: food bloggers.

Vivaldo closely examines both sides of the meatloaf slice to see which one looks "best," and finally chooses the more rugged side, the one that less resembles a frozen piece of ground beef of indeterminate origin. She places it carefully against the potato-cotton mound. One side of the meatloaf starts to sag, so she quickly props it up with a ramp-shaped makeup sponge from a plastic bag.

...this perfectly edible plate of food in only a few minutes. (Note: It's not that edible anymore.)
"There," she says, finally satisfied. "It's detail work." She spoons out a few delicate trails of reconstituted meatloaf sauce and the staged dish is complete. She looks proud.

Vivaldo wears Julia Child's pearls around her neck at all times, a gift from one of her first and most important mentors. A graduate of the California Culinary Academy at a time when there were only three other women in her class, she's since become one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes members of the culinary community. She's catered for everyone from Dean Martin to Bette Midler in addition to writing books and teaching classes. But it's food styling that has tied it all together over the years, food styling that has always been her foundation.

"Most people can't envision food," she says. "That's why photos sell cookbooks."

They don't just sell cookbooks, though: Food stylists work on everything from movie sets to TV commercial shoots, from package designs to magazine covers. A food company might pay $20,000 to get two good photos out of one day in the studio; a TV commercial can easily pay $100,000 -- sums which include the cost of photography, food, props and studio space in addition to Vivaldo's own fees.

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These artists can manipulate anything they are photographing that will be used on almost all print advertising (i.e. frozen food boxes) because of those two cute words- "*serving suggestion." Go ahead, prop your shit up on cotton balls and makeup sponges- if it'll make it taste better to you. Lipstick on a pig. I want this job.   

Albert Nurick
Albert Nurick

To me, food styling is fraud.  

Sure, these fake shots are pretty, but they bear little resemblance to how the food you cook or order will actually look.  I believe the mark of a great food photographer is his ability to compose a shot that makes the actual food on the plate look delicious and appetizing.

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