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

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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.

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.

"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.

Despite this, food stylists are finding it tougher to ply their skills these days as a tight economy encourages companies to scale back their advertising budgets. The same skills, however, are in demand with another segment these days: food bloggers.

Vivaldo credits proper food styling for the success of bloggers like her friend Matt Armendariz of Matt Bites, whose partner -- Adam Pearson -- happens to be a successful food stylist himself.

"People didn't even know there were food stylists for years," Vivaldo says. "Food styling is an American invention."

Part of the reason for the invention of food styling can be traced to the necessity of having pretty pictures in cookbooks, but Vivaldo is quick to address the uglier side of her industry as well: "Food styling sells shit," she says bluntly. "We take the horrid and make it look better."

The horrid includes frozen, packaged entrees like the Michelina's meatloaf Vivaldo demonstrated her skills with, foodstuffs that became popular right around the same time as another American invention: the modern ad agency. Ditto fast food, which needs hours of prep work and pancake makeup to make it look good for the camera.

"The camera's eye is stagnant, and it sees every single flaw," Vivaldo says. When you're photographing real food -- a fat, free-range chicken and fresh vegetables, for example -- you need very little aside from good light to make the food look better, Vivaldo points out. But if we all cooked and ate "real" food like this all the time, food stylists wouldn't have a job.

Even with that "real" food, Vivaldo is full of tips and tricks to make it look that much better: Consider color and texture on your plate when shooting a picture for your own food blog or food photography, she says. Make sure the colors and textures are balanced -- not too much white or brown or cream or meat on one plate.

Create elevation and movement, since the camera's eye is so stagnant: Elevation -- for example, a fluffy scoop of mashed potatoes next to a slope of meatloaf -- naturally creates movement in a photo. So does shine and gloss, which can be added with a spray of Pam or a dab of soy sauce. Utensils also add action to photos, and bring them more fully to life.

And pay attention to garnishes, Vivaldo says. Something like a maraschino cherry is only acceptable "in a Manhattan, where the bourbon effectively kills it." Otherwise, your photo will look instantly dated.

A short few hours with Vivaldo barely felt like enough time to absorb the wealth of knowledge -- not to mention celebrity anecdotes -- she brings with her. It's easy to see why students travel to New York, Los Angeles and even Singapore to take intensive, two-day workshops with her.

If I had the money, I'd sign up for another of Vivaldo's seminars just to hear more Sandra Lee stories. Ms. Lee herself has been busily defending that Kwanzaa cake lately, 10 years after the fact; in a way, one could consider Lee's well-deserved embarrassment over the pastry to be Vivaldo's greatest culinary gift to the world.

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