Thursday, September 25, 2008

Styling super talent: Paul Lowe

"Black fig shoot." Styling by Paul Lowe. Photography by Colin Cooke

Have you heard of Paul Lowe? He’s a brilliant food and interiors stylist who captures his styling adventures and inspirations on his blog, Sweet Paul. I find Paul’s work completely inspirational. He has a wonderful modern aesthetic in the very best sense: beautiful, natural, warm, clever, clean, soulful and crisp. Quite hard to describe so you will have to see for yourself.

Paul started out as a florist, and when a photographer friend of his suggested that he would be quite good at styling, he gave it a try. A few jobs and rave reviews later, Paul was hooked. Even though Paul only moved to the U.S. (from Oslo) a few years ago, his amazing artistry has already attracted the attention of an impressive array of talented U.S. photographers: Ellen Silverman, Gemma Comas, Colin Cooke and Frances Janisch to name a few.
"Black fig shoot." Styling by Paul Lowe. Photography by Colin Cooke

I spent a couple of hours with Paul last week as he styled for a shoot for European magazine, Interior Magasinet, for photographer by Colin Cooke. The theme of the shoot was “Christmas desserts” and I fully expected to see a lot of red, green, tinsel, evergreen and all of the other clichés. Not so in the world of Paul Lowe: it was a beautiful rustic-natural shoot with white the only inkling of a winter-holiday connection. He integrated flowers and knits into the shoot and everything had an “effortlessly casual” style that is so difficult to create.
"Black fig shoot." Styling by Paul Lowe. Photography by Colin Cooke

I was amazed to see Paul in action: there were eight or nine different shots captured. Paul had developed all of the recipes for the shoot himself (which he did on little notice, and only a few days before the shoot) and was not only in charge of the food styling but also the prop styling. He created the sets and styled the food quickly and effortlessly. While I sat there mesmerized for two hours, I saw three complete shoots from start to finish. There was no over-manipulating the props or undue set adjusting. Colin shot tripodless, un-tethered and with natural light and breezed in and out of the set capturing a number of different angles for each shot swiftly and confidently – a perfect match for Paul’s own approach. Paul swooped in, did his magic, and swooped out. Everything created was entirely edible, and in fact, when done, Paul and Colin sat down to a healthy helping of fondant spice cake and orange vanilla cake.

Styling comes completely naturally to Paul: so much so that it’s difficult for him to articulate how he does what he does other than to say that he just tries “to create beautiful things” but I did get to talk to him about his inspirations, approach, and general advice to budding stylists (and ahem, certain avid food photographers who fancy themselves as “do-it-alls”):

"Christmas dessert shoot for Interior Magasinet" Styling by Paul Lowe. Photography by Colin Cooke

What is your approach to developing the look of a shoot?
I often use neutral colors as they are timeless. I want the food to pop. The overall image needs to be pretty. That’s hard to describe but I want people to want to tear my image out of a magazine and tape it to the wall because it’s pretty and inspirational. I hate mediocrity.

Are there any tips or tricks you regularly employ?
I don’t do anything “fake” except use Cool Whip instead of whipped cream. It’s important to not cook certain things through, like pasta. It’s also important not to overly fuss over the food. I like to keep it simple and keep it real.

What has changed over the years that you’ve been in the business?

On aesthetics, everything is moving toward a “natural” look and a “green” direction: natural, organic, fresh, high-quality. Food is no longer plastic looking. The day of the painted, plump, shellacked, monster Thanksgiving turkey is over. Even commercial shoots are beginning to take on a much more natural, “editorial” feel. On the business side, one key change is that more and more companies and magazines are hiring and using photographers in-house. That has changed the landscape for freelancers and the economics of the business. On the technology side, the digital age has changed the business tremendously. Not only is it easier because you can immediately see the images you are producing, but it also makes fixing issues much more possible.

Where do you find inspiration?
Many different ways. While eating a meal at a restaurant. At the grocery store looking at ingredients. At the flower market. On Ebay. Another way is reading blogs. You can get such quick information from so many different sources with unique perspectives. I also find inspiration in the Sunday New York Times. I keep an idea file with photographs, illustrations and other things that generate ideas. The hard thing is to come up with an idea, the easy thing is to execute on the idea.

What blogs inspire you?
The Bedlam of Beefy
Hoping for Happy Accidents
Cannelle et Vanille
Souvlaki for the Soul

What magazines do you find inspirational in the food world?

Donna Hay, Côté Sud, Vogue Entertaining (Australian), Delicious (Australian)

"Christmas dessert shoot for Interior Magasinet" Styling by Paul Lowe. Photography by Colin Cooke

What are your favorite types of shoots?
Editorial shoots where there is a lot of leeway to envision the image and make it my own. Commercial shoots are much different since a room full of people often drives them and it might take all day to produce one shot that everyone can agree on. I do my own prop styling in addition to food styling, which is somewhat unusual in the business. I prefer when I am hired to do both. My work is 70% editorial and 30% commercial.

What is some tactical advice you would give to budding stylists?
Test, test. Experiment. Fail. Work with photographers to practice. Begin to develop a sense for what works and what types of foods are photogenic. Try to develop a unique style. Work whenever you can. Meet people and gain exposure and experience. Be alert. Look out for ideas and props.

Any “watch-outs?”
1. If you don’t feel comfortable, you shouldn’t take the job. I have gotten into trouble with that in the past. Once I had to do a pizza shoot and it was way over my head at the time. It was a commercial shoot and required an enormous amount of control over the food.
2. Don’t take too long styling. Just go with your gut. Don’t second guess. You have to move on and you have to teach yourself to work quickly.
"Christmas dessert shoot for Interior Magasinet" Styling by Paul Lowe. Photography by Colin Cooke

Monday, September 15, 2008

Healthy start: quinoa breakfast porridge

Thanks so much for your empathy and commiseration about my computer failure! It turns out that both my hard drive and logic board died, and when I returned to pick up my computer, they handed me a completely revamped device void of any programs or data. It was one of those stereotypical computer repair experiences: they looked at me blankly, informed me of what had happened and then gave me that judgmental: “that’s why you should always back up”. Luckily, I have been backing up automatically regularly – to two different hard drives, but I have never tested the back ups. So I was still slightly panicked when I left the repair shop and dreaded having to re-load and re-set up everything from the operating system to email. To my great surprise, when I restored my computer absolutely everything re-loaded, settings, passwords, software, everything – restored to the minute my computer crashed – how wonderful is that? Please back up your computer – mine is only a year old and I never imagined something this catastrophic would happen!

Last week had one great piece of news despite the computer saga: I placed first in last month’s DMBLGIT for my jam jar muffin image. Thanks so much Andreea for hosting and to Alessandro and Simone for judging. You guys made my week – thanks again. See here for the roundup and all the other amazing images that placed.
I also wanted to share that a few weeks ago I had my first “cook and style” shoot for the New York Times Dining Section. It was featured on Wednesday, August 26 and was for the Feed Me column by Alex Witchel. This particular article was about burritos – and I cooked, styled, and shot the image. It was terrifically fun and I hope that there will be more of the same to come in the future.
The fresh air and wild blueberries of Maine inspired the recipe for this week (see throughout for some memories from the trip). Actually, it’s been on my “to-cook list“ since it was featured on 101cookooks. It’s from Chef MD's Big Book of Culinary Medicine: A Food Lover's Road Map to Losing Weight, Preventing Disease, and Getting Really Healthy by John La Puma, M.D., a book I most likely never would have taken notice of had Heidi not written about it on her blog.
The book sounded so compelling I bought it and true to promise it is chock full of wonderful advice on healthful eating. What I like most about it is the detailed discussion about the health benefits of different ingredients. What’s least effective is that it has absolutely no photos to accompany the recipes which I’m sure was an important cost consideration but it certainly gives the book little visual food appeal. Fortunately, Heidi’s photo of the breakfast quinoa recipe and her review of the dish drew me in.

Quinoa is a grain that I am just learning about. It has wonderful health benefits including cholesterol lowering benefits and has a high protein content for a grain. It comes in blond and red varieties (the red being very pretty in this dish). Regarding preparation, it seems most prefer to rinse the grain, let it dry, and then toast it in a dry skillet to bring out its nutty flavor and remove the bitter-tasting saponins that coat it. I cooked the porridge this way and was not disappointed. The porridge is a cross between oatmeal, grape nuts, and wheat germ in consistency and flavor.
It’s cinnamon-y and fruity and has just he right toothsome texture. You can add whatever nuts or berries most appeal to you and can substitute honey for agave although the latter is quite nice in this. If you rinse the grain the night before and allow it to dry in a strainer, the dish is very quick to prepare in the morning and easier than oatmeal since you don’t have to worry about scorching. Give it a try.
Quinoa breakfast porridge (from Chef MD's Big Book of Culinary Medicine: A Food Lover's Road Map to Losing Weight, Preventing Disease, and Getting Really Healthy, reprinted from 101cookbooks)

1 cup organic 1% low fat milk
1 cup water
1 cup organic quinoa (rinsed. can also toast the dry grains to bring out their nutty flavor)
2 cups fresh blackberries, organic preferred (I used a combination of blackberries and blueberries)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup chopped pecans, toasted* (or other nut - I used sliced almonds)
4 teaspoons organic agave nectar (can substitute honey)

Combine milk, water and quinoa in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low; cover and simmer 15 minutes or until most of the liquid is absorbed. Turn off heat; let stand covered 5 minutes. Stir in blackberries and cinnamon; transfer to four bowls and top with pecans. Drizzle 1 teaspoon agave nectar over each serving.

Serves 4.

*While the quinoa cooks, roast the pecans in a 350F degree toaster oven for 5 to 6 minutes or in a dry skillet over medium heat for about 3 minutes.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Perfect portion: chioggia beet and goat cheese tartlets

I had the nightmare experience of trying to turn my computer on yesterday only to find that no matter what I did, the screen remained black. Two computer repair places and several hours later, I accepted the fact that it needed to be sent out for repair, and that I would be without my lifeline for four days. Luckily I have a backup system that would make Bill Gates proud, and am not worried about my files. That said, it has taken a while for me to get set up so that I can access my critical files from a borrowed computer and be able to write this week’s post. I’ll save what I was going to share from Maine for next week when I have my own computer back, and in the meantime have a bright lunch idea for this rainy weather.

I love anything cooked in individual portions. Somehow, everything looks and tastes better served that way. Tartlets are no exception – they are even easier to make than full-sized tarts since forming the dough size is simpler. Inspired by the beautiful Chioggia beets in the farmer’s market, I set off to make beet and goat cheese tartlets for lunch and served them with wonderful farmer’s market greens. I love Chioggia beets – they are even more exotic-looking raw and can be eaten that way. I like thinly slicing them in salad: they are a beautiful contrast to greens. Cooked, their concentric rings lose some of their punch but they become beautifully mottled with pink, white and orange colors.

These tartlets (with a great green side salad) are the perfect light, highly civilized lunch.

Beet and goat cheese tartlets

For the dough, use any basic pâte brisée such as this one (dough for one 9 inch pie will make 4-5 tartlets)

For the filling

4-5 beets (Chioggia are beautiful but standard beets would be nice too), drizzled with olive oil, wrapped in foil and roasted in the oven at 350˚ for ~45 minutes or until a knife easily passes through them)
5 oz goat cheese
2 leeks, white and light green parts only, well washed
1 Tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme plus one spring thyme to garnish each tart
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Press dough inside fluted mini tart pans (~4.5 inch diameter) with removable bottoms. Roll rolling pin over tops of tarts to cut off any dough above the edges. Prick dough with a fork in several places. Allow to rest in the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes. Place parchment paper inside tart pans, covering sides and fill with pie weights. Blind bake for 25 minutes until dough is a golden brown. Remove from oven and set aside.

While tart shells are blind baking, slice leeks into thin rounds and sauté over medium/medium low heat with a splash of olive oil, small pat of butter and sprinkle of salt and pepper until they are soft and translucent. Mix ~1 tablespoon chopped thyme leaves, and a sprinkle of pepper into goat cheese. Stir to soften the cheese.

When beets are cool enough to handle, remove skins and slice very thinly and evenly, ideally using a mandolin.

When tart shells come out of oven, fill bottoms with sautéed leeks and then dot goat cheese evenly on top, using your finger or a fork to gently distribute the cheese.

Bake tarts for ~10 minutes until cheese has softened. Remove from oven and neatly place beet slices on the top, drizzle with a little olive oil, sprinkle with remaining teaspoon chopped thyme leaves and heat in oven until warm, ~5-7 minutes, taking care to ensure beets do not dry out.

Remove from pie pans, garnish with a spring of thyme and serve with a green salad.

p.s. I'm entering the top-down image in this month's "click" event