Doubling down on skills for Kraft Kitchens (video)

I had a blast working on this series of six short how-to videos for Kraft Kitchens, each illustrating a basic kitchen skill. Besides being visually clever and appealingly short — little nuggets of cooking know-how — the music is beyond catchy. Mark my words, you’ll be humming it all day.

Director & DP: Ben Derico

Agency: Walton Isaacson
Client: Kraft
Creative Director: Mark Westman
Producer: Megan Guerrant
Food Stylist & Hand Model: Emilie Zanger
Art Director: Yumi Minamikurosawa
Copywiter: Juan Camilo Moore
2nd Camera: Sergio Salgado
Assistant/Photographer: John Thompson
Editor: Ben Derico
Color: Paul Galati

Cooking Light Summer Cookbook feature

It’s here, it’s here! After (all-too-appropriately) 9 months of gestation, my spread in the Cooking Light Summer Cookbook feature is finally out on newsstands this month. Inspired by local finds from three of the best farmers’ markets in the country, the feature offers up interesting, accessible ideas for the multi-colored barrage of fresh produce that’s hitting markets all over the country right now (although admittedly, here in the Midwest, we’re lagging a bit behind in seasonal favorites).

It was great to team up with David Tamarkin, an admired colleague in the Chicago food media scene who recently relocated to NYC to become the editor of David penned a beautiful piece about the Logan Square Farmers’ Market and what it means to the Logan Square community, while in my six recipes, I got to play with some of the best iconic Midwestern product from the market during its summer peak. Cooking Light’s test kitchen and food photography teams did an incredible job capturing the vibrancy and color of summer produce throughout. One huge surprise was that my recipe made the cover. If you’re a hot dog lover, prepare to salivate!

Cooking local doesn’t get better than this. I can’t wait to make the Cheesesteak Burgers from the Philly spread, and I’m impatiently awaiting the arrival of blueberries at the market to revisit the Lemon Herb Chicken with Blueberry Balsamic Salsa. True summer here in Chicago may feel impossibly short, but I plan to use every available opportunity to cram my kitchen full of local produce.

Here are the Logan Square-inspired recipes online, if you want to try them out (and you really should):

Golden Gazpacho

Lemon-Herb Chicken Skewers with Blueberry Balsamic Salsa

Grilled Eggplant with Freekeh Pilaf

Pan-Seared Lake Trout with Bacon and Cranberry Bean Succotash

Chicago Char Dog with Fresh Cucumber Relish

Dark Chocolate Ice Cream with Sichuan Peanut Brittle

Maple mushroom cornbread and other edible oddities for Woodland Foods


Candy cap mushroom and maple cornbread

Herbed socca (chickpea flatbread) with tapenade and goat cheese

Creamy tomato penne with bolete mushrooms and asparagus

Senate bean soup

Masoor dal tarka (red lentil curry)

Finally sharing some images I styled for my client Woodland Foods, an all-natural specialty food ingredient wholesaler that is celebrating its 25th year in business by launching a brand new website (coming soon!). Woodland brought me on for a multi-phase project, overhauling their owned content pertaining to the 1100+ specialty food products they sell — from the commonplace to the obscure. That meant researching and writing copy about everything from Spanish saffron and habanero chiles to eye of the goat beans, freekeh and candy cap mushrooms (which, believe it or not, smell and taste a lot like maple syrup!). If it sounds like a food-obsessive’s dream, you’re right.

Once the product copy was squared away, I dove into recipes, working hand-in-hand with Woodland Foods’ exceptional in-house culinary team. This phase of the project lasted for more than a year, and together we created hundreds of recipes showcasing Woodland’s incredibly diverse inventory of products, ranging from beans and legumes to dried chiles, fruit and mushrooms, to rice in every shape and hue imaginable.

Finally, we needed beautiful images to accompany those recipes. I worked in a consulting capacity with Chef Michael Shrear and freelance photographer Nick Kindelsperger to guide the overall look and feel of the recipe photography, ensuring that the images were not just beautiful, but true to brand. I also developed a styling guide that the brand can use moving forward to ensure their food photography remains consistent with the parameters we laid out.

Oh, and that maple mushroom cornbread? Crazy good.

Food problem-solving for Vanee Foods

Although much of my work is piecemeal by nature — a recipe editing gig here, a food styling project there — sometimes I have the pleasure of working closely with a client on an ongoing basis on more than one aspect of their culinary creative needs.

That is the case in my relationship with Vanee Foods, a family-owned and operated B2B food company that has been doing business in the Chicago area since 1950. I work with Vanee on a range of culinary creative and support needs, from menu concept development (coming up with creative and delicious ways in which foodservice operators can use Vanee products on their menus) and food styling for their website and sales and marketing materials to providing culinary support for industry events and sales meetings.

In most cases, the Vanee team specifies either which products they would like to be featured in the recipes or the type of recipe they are looking for (e.g. an appetizer, entree, breakfast item, etc.). Sometimes they also specify real-world culinary design constraints, such as “a dish that can be made using only a flat-top grill” or “a very simple appetizer with minimal assembly.” From there, creativity, brainstorming, research and testing take over. Working within these real-world constraints is sometimes challenging, but I enjoy the opportunity to creatively problem solve and come up with solutions that fulfill their needs and those of their customers. And often those constraints lead to unexpectedly delicious results! (Buffalo Chicken Taquitos, anyone?)

Here are a few shots from a recent photo shoot for Vanee. I developed these three menu concepts — Korean-Style Pulled Pork Taco with Kimchi Slaw, Low Country Chowder and Meatball Marinara Sliders — to showcase Vanee Foods’ Deluxe Pulled Pork, New England-Style Clam Chowder and Marinara Sauce in fresh, unexpected ways. Then I worked with the team to food and prop style the shots.

(All photos by Ryan Croson. Food and prop styling by me.)


Shooting meat and seafood with Jason Richardson and Gwen Lemos

I’m discovering that I love test shooting. It’s a chance to work with another creative person (or people) to make images that please you, that develop your skills, and that play with images and ideas you want to explore. Those are important things to do occasionally, between the client shoots where the focus is often tightly defined and brand standards are the holy grail. (Those shoots are equally, if not more important (and not just because they pay!) because they hone the skills that make a stylist versatile and able to meet clients’ goals. But when it comes to personal projects, getting to focus on a creative idea and see it through from concept to execution is really gratifying.)

Besides the creativity aspect, as an assistant on client shoots, it’s also pretty rare that I get to spend any time working with the hero food on set because that’s the the lead stylist’s territory. I’ll often prepare the food from start to finish, but once it leaves for the set, my role is complete. So for me, test shoots are where I get to practice those on-set skills.

A couple weeks ago, I teamed up with two very creative people, food photographer Jason Richardson and prop stylist Gwen Lemos. Gwen and I have worked together before, on the set of photo shoots for Crate & Barrel, where we’ve both assisted, as well as while filming the ninth season of Chef Rick Bayless’s PBS cooking show “Mexico: One Plate at a Time.” She has great style and a flair for vintage fashion and design, something that I also gravitate toward in images. We had talked for a couple of months about doing a test shoot where we could bring that vintage element into the tabletop design and propping. Gwen roped in her friend Jason, who specializes in shooting food for a major photo studio and also takes gorgeous food photography of his own, and we started talking about the focus for our shoot. Jason suggested focusing on meat and seafood, which we loved, and we agreed that we wanted to work on creating compositions with a darker, slightly moody color palette and some of those vintage design elements.

Armed with some great-looking whole branzino and mussels, some lovely frenched lamb chops and bags and bags of props, we went to work. You can see the results below in some of my favorite photos from the shoot. I especially like the contrast of the sophisticated props in the lamb shot with the piles of caveman-esque bones on the plates, and the way the slate background and black bowl set off the vivid golden broth and red cherry tomatoes in the overhead shot of the mussels. Thanks, Jason and Gwen, for letting me learn from your amazing talents and creativity. It was a great day, and I look forward to more!

[All photos by Jason Robert Scott Photography. Prop Styling by Gwen Lemos. Food styling by Emilie Zanger.]

Midsummer shoot with Huge Galdones

Breakfast taco mise en place

Breakfast taco mise en place

This post is obviously long overdue, but back in July I had a chance to collaborate on a shoot with a photographer and entrepreneur I admire a lot, my friend Huge Galdones. Huge is a super talented food and lifestyle photographer whom I met several years ago while still ensconced in the hospitality PR world. He has shot numerous food events, from some of my former restaurant and hotel clients’ openings to big, high-profile events in Chicago and beyond, including the national Cochon 555 tour and the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen.

Beyond his undeniable skill behind the lens, perhaps what I admire most about Huge is how he has successfully made a drastic career change — from post-doctoral researcher at Northwestern Hospital to in-demand food photographer — and has managed to build such a great reputation for himself in a very short time in the industry. Needless to say, when I made my own career leap last fall, Huge was one of the folks I consulted for advice.

And when he suggested we do a test shoot together, I was excited. Since it was July and the produce at my beloved Green City Market was beyond gorgeous, I opted to let the colors of my haul drive the shoot — heirloom cherry tomatoes in every fiery shade imaginable, inky blue blackberries and blushing purple plums, as well as crisp crimson and white radishes and verdant sugar snap peas. I wanted to play with color and composition, repetition and patterns, and have some fun while the market was at its best.

Here are a few of my favorite shots from our collaboration (and it truly was a collaboration in the best sense). Now that color is at a premium here in dreary, pre-winter Chicago, I hope it’s a bright reminder of the glory that awaits us in, oh, 6 months or so. Thanks, Huge. I look forward to shooting with you again!

[All photos by Galdones Photography. All prop and food styling by Emilie Zanger.]