Talented food stylist Teresa Blackburn is the subject of our February interview. Teresa was someone I’d been looking forward to talking with for some time, as we share a number of inspiration sources in our approach to food, travel being chief among them. As skilled with her camera as she is in the kitchen, she operates two wonderful food-related websites that every food lover should know about: Teresa Blackburn Food Styling is where she feeds your eyes with vivid culinary photography, while at Food on Fifth one finds the recipes that will feed your stomach. Teresa talked with me on topics ranging from styling creativity to how her chosen career informs other areas of her life, to the most valuable lessons she tries to impart to students of her food styling workshops.
Flavorful World: You seem to draw much inspiration for your recipes from books, art, and travel. Tell us about each of the three most recent recipes you created that were inspired, respectively, by a trip you took, a work of art you enjoyed, and a book that you read.
Teresa Blackburn: Your first question touches on some of the most important parts of my life: books, art and travel, three of the sustaining and constants in my life that provide much inspiration and outright enjoyment. Sometimes this trio collides and overlaps. A book and travel inspired my blog post from November 7, 2016, “Braised Garlic Chicken with Yellow Rice” from the cookbook/
travel book “Cuba – Recipes and Stories from the Cuban Kitchen”. My travels to Cuba in the 1990’s were all brought back to me by this book which happens to be written by some friends in Chicago. The recipe I chose was one of my vivid food memories from my own trip. I still have a bottle of Cuban rum bought in Cuba, which I used when styling the photograph as well as swatches of handprinted fabric. I love to travel and over the years have done posts with recipes from Budapest, Hungary; Quintana Roo, Mexico; Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Kuala Lampur, Malaysia and Santa Fe, New Mexico. As for art as muse, Vermeer would be a recent one. On December 10th, 2016 my blog post, “An Apple Cake to Celebrate….” was a modern riff on the food and domesticity often seen in this Dutch master’s paintings. At the time I was perusing a coffee table book of his works. This post with a simple apple cake is styled using old Dutch pewter pieces and plates I picked up at flea markets in Amsterdam a few years ago along with heavy linens and blown glassware once again melding art and travel. I was gifted the cookbook, “Soup for Syria”. The recipes are
supplied by so many wonderful cooks, writers and activists and all the profits go to aid Syrian refugees. The stories and photographs are stunningly beautiful. I read it from cover to cover and the resulting post “Tomato Basil Soup with Bread from the Soup for Syria Cookbook” was done on February 12, 2017 inspired by the cover photo.
FW: On your site you liken food styling to sometimes needing to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. Tell us about your most recent instance of having to do this? What was your dilemma, and how did you resolve it?
TB: The phrase to turn “a sow’s ear into a silk purse” was one often used by my mother and grandmother to praise someone who took nothing and made something out of it. It could be food or a piece of fabric or a simple idea. I have been pretty lucky recently, but in the past have had to turn some pretty blah food into something! Balogna comes to mind. An assignment in which I was handed a few packets of Bologna left me a bit stumped. All I had to do was make it look good and appetizing. It is now one of my favorite shots on my website. I fried the slices until they had some searing on the surface, then I used some nice slices of bread toasted crusty bread, bright leaves of lettuce and homegrown tomato slices along with a smear of mayonnaise and styled the photo as a “process shot”. In other words, as if someone was just making this sandwich at their kitchen counter with a pot of mayo, slices of tomatoes, a stack of bread and more lettuce leaves as part of the scene. I placed the finished sandwich on a sheet of waxed paper. I was working with a photographer who shot it in a window with natural light coming from behind. This shot is simple, well lit and fresh looking and it all started with a packet of bologna.
FW: How has a career as a food stylist informed other areas of your life that involve food preparation, cooking, recipe creation, etc.?
TB: People always ask if I style my plates at home for meals and on reflection, I suppose I do. I am pretty sure I approach food prep and plating as a mini filmstrip in my head, like a series of mini digital images. I notice how food looks on a plate, whether at a restaurant or at home. I do not ever critique out loud what I am served, whether at a friend’s home, or in a restaurant. It is not their job to make food photo-ready lovely and I am so happy when others cook for me!
FW: (Editor’s note: At the time I posed this question, I was operating under the mistaken impression that “Fifth” referred to New York City’s Fifth Avenue. It in fact, does not. – AB) The portion of your website devoted to your original recipes is called “Food on Fifth” (a nod to your test kitchen on Fifth Avenue South in New York City.). If you were asked to advise an out-of-town visitor on a place to eat, and were restricted only to Fifth Avenue, what eatery would you choose and why?
TB: I’m really tickled that readers might think, due to the name of my blog, Food on Fifth, that I live in New York City! I actually live on Fifth Avenue North in Nashville, Tennessee. Just a bit different, but a wonderful historic neighborhood street none the less. My “Food on Fifth” is located in Historic Germantown and has so many good restaurants that it is hard to keep up, but on Fifth Avenue North proper I would suggest “5th and Taylor”. The food is really good and satisfying, it has interesting cocktails that you can enjoy on a nice secluded outdoor seating area and the deck is conducive to having a conversation without having to scream at your dinner partners. All these things in one place! Highly recommended.
FW: Tell us about the “Picture Projects” tab of your food and styling site. How did that idea come about? What single takeaway do you hope visitors to that page bring with them?
TB: My “picture projects” page began as of random photographs I began taking a few years ago of found objects picked up on my walks around my neighborhood. Leaves, flowers, twigs. Then I started leaving thing on a kitchen shelf to dry out just to see what they would look like. Peaches with stems from my tree, roses given to me as a gift, blood oranges, garlic gloves and various fruit. After a few months most of these items take on a new beauty, an otherworldly texture, an ancient patina. I photograph them and am still working on more things like this. The “shadow” photographs are also random items in my kitchen sitting on a table with sunlight hitting them in the early morning. I think the shadows are often much more interesting than the object themselves. A bit fun and silly and I often do these with my first coffee of the morning.
FW: What is your earliest memory of wanting to work with food professionally in this way?
TB: I did not particularly intend to be a food and photo stylist. I attribute it all to a series of very lucky moments where my personal style and interest in photography and art collided with a growing interest and need in the advertising and food communities. I have a degree in art and art history and a knack for cooking and making food look pretty and appetizing and interesting all at the same time. All these interests melded about 30 years ago and I have never looked back. I freelance and still love what I do.
FW: What have you found, as a food styling workshop instructor, is the most common assumption that people make about food styling and photography as a career? What do you feel are the three most valuable styling/photography rules that you emphasize to students of your workshops?
TB: I often start out asking why each person in the class wants or thinks they want to become a stylist and photographer. Many want to know more about it so their personal blog sites will
become better. Some say because it looks like so much fun. People with all sorts of backgrounds attend, but primarily food bloggers, chefs and cooks. One of the best lessons I can teach them is to never underestimate the power and beauty of natural light and never ever use the flash on their camera. I encourage them to keep it simple, think lo-tech and use a good basic digital camera and above all else, have a wicked sense of humor.
FW: Excluding the name of any of your pre-existing blogs, websites, or print/online personas, tell us what name you would give to your memoir about your culinary exploits?
TB: That’s a hard one…maybe “A Little Nashville Kitchen” or “Edible Travel”. Perhaps “The Plated Life” or “Travel and Table”.
FW: When you aren’t cooking/eating delicious things, how do you most enjoy spending your time?
TB: I am a “nester” by nature, which means I love to be at home. I think that most of what I have learned in life that is worth knowing, I have learned from novels, and spend an amazing
amount of time reading. I am a walker and try to take a daily “walk about” for at least an hour or so outside in the open space of my city. Travel, travel, and more travel is always a goal.
*Note to readers: Want to enjoy the visual artistry of this exciting food professional for yourself? Admire and savor to your heart’s delight at Teresa Blackburn Food Styling. Care for a little something with your breathtaking food photos? Then you’ll want to also hit up her recipe blog, Food on Fifth. There’s always something enticing to be tasted.
This article first appeared on FlavorfulWorld.com.