Interview with Mary Valentin

This week, we visited Mary Valentin in her Chicago home where she told us all about her life as a food stylist. 

Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with us today. We are big fans of your work and thrilled to feature you on Taupe & Birch.

For starters, can you tell us what your average work day is like? 
I like to get up early enough to really enjoy some coffee and read the paper.  The longer I can sit and do the crossword puzzle, the better.  I still do it on actual newspaper because once I turn on my laptop, the work day has begun. I get out of the house by 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. to shop on my way to the studio.  Sometimes I need to source out specific items ahead of time, like organic duck legs, or pea tendrils. I like some of the small produce shops in Chicago, like Stanley’s, but I can get most of what I need at the larger supermarkets.  I’m always apologizing to the baggers, because I’m all over them about how to pack the produce and bread that I’ve just spent an hour selecting for shape, color, and texture.  Most of them think I’m nuts, but a few are really curious about food photography.

Once I get to the studio it takes a while to unpack and get organized.  My assistant can look things over and we’ll start to have a conversation about tasks: who will do what, how many recipes we have to get through. While we’re getting organized, the clients will show up.  We begin to talk to the photographer and the client about what it is that they’re looking for.  There might be a conversation about what feel they want the food to have or who their audience is.

Once food is on set, I work with the photographer to compose the final image.  If there are more elaborate environments involved, there’s a prop stylist on set.  It’s really a group effort at this point.  The client may choose to be involved in the process or just ask us to show them when we think we’ve got it.
There are a few photographers that I love to work with, because they have skill, experience and a sophisticated visual sensibility, but they’re willing to go into every shot with a sense of daring.   They don’t need to control everything, but allow things to develop organically, responding to the scene, rather than dictating. I feel the same way about the food.  It needs to be allowed to do what it does, and that’s where you find the most interesting shot.


When did you decide you wanted to pursue a career in culinary arts?
I didn’t initially understand that I was choosing a career in culinary arts and didn’t get really serious about that until later. I was working on my BFA in painting at The School of the Art Institute in Chicago.  I was an artist.  I still am. Working in restaurants, bartending, and waiting tables were ways to live and pay for school. I started working in the kitchen at the Café du Midi and really loved it.  I watched everything.  I took mental notes while watching the chef Francis Leroux chop, sear, etc. It was sort of a magical time for me.  There was a great crew there, great clientele, and I made life-long friends. I even met my husband there. I worked on the line in this awesome, tiny kitchen until my son was born in 1992.

Can you tell us a little bit about where you started and how your career unfolded?
A great friend of mine was an art director at a big catalogue house in town. She would hire me to paint large backgrounds for the studio, and occasionally prop shop. One day they had a food stylist come in for a kitchen gadget catalogue.  I didn’t know what a food stylist was at this point, but I was asked to help out with the project because a) I was artistic and b) I knew food.  The idea that someone could get paid for making beautiful food and understanding how to compose a visual image was revelatory for me; a marriage of my unrelated skills. It was not as though I could walk out the door that day and call myself a food stylist.

The only way to really learn to make contacts, to become accepted in the industry, was to assist an established food stylist.  The problem was, and still is, that there are few real food stylists and many, many droves of people interested in the field. A lot of food styling assistants these days already have a culinary degree or certification. Early on I did a lot of food propping, making food for product photography where the food is not the hero.  Pots and pans for example, they are usually shown in use. It gave me the chance to work in photo studios and learn the work culture without the pressure of a real commercial food shoot. Once I started assisting, I also went to industry conferences like Food on Film and the International Conference on Food Styling and Photography at BU and the IACP. Those organizations really helped me to become more professional, more skilled, and to meet important people in the industry.  My early clients were Pfaeltzer Brothers, The Pampered Chef, and Fannie May Chocolate.  I began teaching at Kendall College in 2005.  It seemed as though things were evolving quickly.

I had always wanted to pursue a Masters in Gastronomy, but there was no place in Chicago who had such a program.  I mentioned that desire to an acquaintance who was teaching at Kendall College, a culinary school in Chicago.  She turned around and said “why don’t you teach food styling at Kendall?” I didn’t take her seriously, but the next morning she called me and said “I just spoke to the dean about your food styling class and he’s really excited.” I spent a few frantic days coming up with a syllabus, a course schedule, lesson plans and I actually got the job.  I was blown away by the students at Kendall and saw how serious their training was. I decided to pursue their culinary degree.  I got about ¾ of the way through that program and then went on to finish up a baking and pastry certificate, while still teaching.  That changed everything. It always amazes me how much there is to learn, after you think you know it all.

You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the industry such as Kraft, Godiva, and Panera Bread. How did you come to work with such high profile companies?
It’s hard to say exactly. Luck comes into it, but all we really have to go on is our portfolios and our reputation, Sometimes I’ll get a cold call from someone who’s seen my website but more often it’s someone in the industry who has recommended me to a new client.  This is a relatively small industry, even on a national level. Everyone knows someone who knows you. Relationships are extremely important. You can be a great food stylist, but people have to want to work with you. You can be skilled and experienced, but you also have to be able to put your clients at ease and get them to trust you. You have to play well with others. 

What is your favorite type of project to work on? 
I like to work. Period. I’m not real fussy about what kind of projects I’ll take or not take.  That said, I do love to do editorial projects and testing.  Editorial shoots allow for some real artistic freedom.  Testing is when you get together with a photographer and shoot whatever you want.  Maybe it’s just an idea that one of you has and wants to try out: something about lighting or composition or a recipe. I will always make time to test with certain photographers.

Where do you find inspiration as a food stylist? Do you have any favorite magazines, blogs, restaurants, etc.? 
I still get inspiration from art.  When I was teaching at Kendall College, I would drag my students to the Museum of the Art Institute to look at food in art.  The Dutch Masters spent a hell of a lot of time looking at food: watching how light comes through the pulp of a peeled lemon, at a cracked pastry crust, every errant crumb becoming part of the composition. I love the Valesquez kitchen scenes.  Almost everything you need to know about lighting and styling food is in those still lives. I might steal a composition idea from Irving Penn. I will whip through any cooking magazine but try to not get too hung up on trends. I gave up on looking at blogs a while ago.  There are so many with bad recipes.  It’s my pet peeve. I love the democracy inherent in the internet, but not everyone knows how to write a recipe. It is a specific thing; there is chemistry involved. I just started using instagram and I like the immediacy of it. It also takes the bad recipe out of the equation. The cooking mags that I like the best are SaveurFood and Wine, and Cook’s Illustrated.  Saveur has gorgeous photography and great articles.  Cooks Illustrated has perfect recipes and solid product reviews. It’s my go-to. I try not to get too caught up in imitating what other people are doing.  In order to be original I feel like I need to go to multiple sources for inspiration and let things percolate.

Tune in with T & B next week where we will be sharing a recent collaboration with Mary.
Content and portrait photography by Heather Day for Taupe & Birch.