I met Tamara Kaufman on Facebook. I’m not really sure how interesting and accomplished people find me, but they do. Tamara is a very creative person.
I’ve always been fascinated by food stylists for television or print work. Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I worked (liberal use of the word) for EUE/Screen Gems in NYC. They did television commercials. My degree from Emerson College is in Film. As a budding cinematographer, (this helped to translate my keen appreciation for photography) I worked on dozens of television commercials. One in particular was for the product: Cool Whip.
I’ll never forget this commercial because the food just looked so darned good. Almost too good.
Color corrected does not necessarily mean safe to eat. So what did I learn? Don’t ever eat color corrected food.
Tamara Kaufman: The Five Questions.
1. Who taught you about food?
My early memories of food are very vivid—both visually and in flavor. My parents nurtured a real sense of exploration, as did my grandmother.
My Grandmother was a great cook and made delicious pies. She taught me the joy of making pie crust from scratch. My favorite treat was to eat the raw pie dough and to cook off the leftovers with cinnamon and sugar.
There so are many things that I remember my grandmother making — an amazing lamb and spinach stew, liver and onion sandwiches with butter, watermelon rind pickles (a favorite) and plum jam.
Many of my favorite snacks come from my childhood – I love mangos, sharp cheddar, braunschweiger and simple avocado sandwiches with salt.
Of course I had my moments of unsophistication… and loved ketchup, sour cream and butter slathered on baked potatoes and ketchup and white bread sandwiches.
I was born in Colorado where my Dad was attending CSU. We moved back to Iowa when I was five where my parents built a house on a 140 acre century farm, meaning it has been in our family for 100 years.
We always had interesting things going on and a variety of animals including a small herd of beef cows, chickens, a turkey that followed us on walks, guinea hens, a horse and a pony. Most animals acquired names and when they ended up on the dinner table it was a bit traumatic but gave me a true sense of where our food came from.
We had a garden every year. My dad would encourage eating turnips, tomatoes and carrots right from the garden, washed under the hose. I avoided weeding the garden at all costs. My first and only attempt at a garden as an adult had a plethora of weeds. We have one of the best farmers markets in the world here in Madison, Wisconsin, and many CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture programs) and so I leave produce growing up to the professionals and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
My mom canned and froze the garden vegetables and so we had garden grown tomatoes all year long and rhubarb sauce over vanilla ice cream in the middle of winter.
I learned how to hunt morel mushrooms on our property and I can tell the difference between the morel and its toxic lookalikes.
On our property we had apple, mulberry, pear and plum trees, wild black raspberries and black berries. My dad hunted for wild asparagus and a local bee-keeper gave us honey in return for keeping his hives on our property. My father went elk hunting in Colorado every winter for 30 years and so elk meat was a staple at our table.
Everything I experienced gave me such an appreciation of how the land plays a role in bringing food to the table. We never had junk food or sugary sweet sugary cereals…but I confess that I do have a ferocious sweet tooth.
As a child, I vacationed with my parents in a VW camper van, never staying in one place long, which meant that before graduating from college I saw all but two of the lower 48 states, all the lower provinces of Canada and parts of Mexico. We always sought out the local cuisine. I remember a great bbq served in a back yard shack in Florida, dim sum during a wedding in Toronto’s China Town and fresh lobster and crawdads cooked on the beach. Dad sought out the local BBQ sauces wherever we went.
Friends of the Family
A close family friend had a monthly tradition of gathering in a local park with a giant frying pan and a selection of ingredients were he made omelets for everyone who came. I also remember him at our house cooking late night meals with crepes and “stinky” soft cheeses while speaking in a silly French accent.
I was offered many unusual things at the dinner table including Rocky Mountain oysters. There isn’t much I don’t like. I adore every ethnicity of food. There are a few exceptions such as beef tongue and sea urchin.
Cheese, Food Advocacy and the Creative Arts
My serious interest in cooking and healthy eating began many years ago at a local natural grocery store where I acquired a position as Cheese buyer. Cracking open a 80 pound wheel of Parmigiano – Reggiano is an amazing experience. I dream of owning a cheese cave. I also worked for Whole Foods as a cheese buyer where my job description included teaching classes to the public.
I surrounded myself with people passionate about good food and grew to understand the importance of cooking seasonally, with whole foods …and became passionate about the politics of food and food safety.
Through the years I have done everything from stocking groceries and delivering pizza to making large beautiful batches of puff pastry, decadent chocolate cakes with chocolate ganache, custards and pots de crème. I had my own small catering business for three years and then decided to pursue food styling.
Food styling is primarily a free-lance career, however I was fortunate to work for Readers Digest/Reiman Publications as a staff food stylist for two years.
As far as the artistic side of my work, creativity runs in the family.
My mom and dad built their house in 1973 and were DIY’ers back when there wasn’t a TV network dedicated to this lifestyle. My mom is a watercolor artist and my grandfather conducted an orchestra in Latvia. I have always been very visual and acquired a BA in Art and Design from Iowa State University with an emphasis in Psychology and Advertising. I believe it’s my art degree that gives me a different perspective on food styling than many who come in to the career from cooking school. A great photo-composition is very important to me. Three dimensional design skills come in very handy with building things such as sandwiches and cakes, as they require structure inside to stay in place on set for long periods of time.
2. What is in your refrigerator right now? Do you keep your props for your food photography at home? Where do you shoot your work?
My fridge/pantry is usually filled with pretty basic ingredients. I always have sharp cheddar, Spanish Manchego or a fresh chevre. I stock lemons, limes, edamame in the shell, unsalted butter, half and half creamer for my coffee, toasted sesame oil and endless condiments. Beans and grains are a staple.
Right now I have my home made port-wine-fig compound butter, waiting to be delivered to friends as a gift.
And then there are the mystery potions that I use in my work…Glycerin, Mallose (a browning agent) and the many items that I use to keep food looking beautiful on camera.
Food dies quickly and stylists use some tricks to help the food stay fresh looking on set. I strive for a balance between real food/recipes and adding final touches that make for a beautiful composition. I don’t want it to look overly styled, unapproachable or overly promised.
I do use special effects and faux foods such as ice cream and milk as these remain stable and help save on an advertising budget.
Powdered sugar and Crisco make the perfect fake ice cream, Wild Root hair tonic makes a perfect “milk” that won’t turn the cereal soggy in minutes. Kitchen Bouquet makes a perfect chardonnay, tea or coffee. I use fake bubbles, fake ice cubes, fake droplets of “water”…and I always have tweezers and other strange tools on hand.
The photos are taken anywhere from my dining room to sets across the country. This summer I was invited to participate on a cookbook project in Maui. Moorish Fusion Cuisine will be my first cookbook credit and I hope it to be the beginning of many more.
3. Do you miss film photography? I find that digital is more computer than eye. What you think about computer manipulation of images?
I love film photography and mourn the loss of it. I learned to shoot on film in high school and college and only just recently acquired a digital camera. I loved developing my own black and whites and miss the connection you feel to the photos when you process your own film and photos in a dark room. There is also the excitement of not knowing what you actually captured until the film is developed.
In my profession digital image manipulation can save the day. Many hours are often spent on just one photo. For instance, on one shoot, the lighting and composition were perfectly set after many hours of work. The two eggs and bacon no longer looked like a smiley face and the lighting was perfect. Lo and behold the egg yolk broke. It had already taken us several dozen eggs before the perfect sunny side up egg was achieved. It would have been no easy task to replace it with a new perfect egg, making a typical 12-hour day even longer. This is where Photoshop and modern photography keep people on the job sane. With all of the magic of digital photography, it is still truly an art to capture food well. Technical lighting skills are one of the key elements that help the food come alive. The working relationship between the photographer and food stylist is crucial. We work together on every detail, as you don’t get a second chance to give the client what they want. The food has to appeal to the five senses, yet it must be translated into a single visual image.
Many think that a food stylist’s job must be zany and fun all of the time…but it is actually a very high-stress job. Food has a life of its own, and its life expectancy is short, therefore photo shoots are labor intensive. Keeping calm and a sense of humor is key!
Commercials and advertisements are often the collaboration of an entire team of creative people including magazine editors, art directors, photographers, prop stylists, soft goods stylists (clothing), models and food stylists.
I am the shopper, prep cook, baker, builder and creator of a beautiful composition.
4. If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would that be? Doing what? Eating/Drinking what?
SO hard to choose one!
On the ocean having fresh lobster, scallops and fried clams.
In New York exploring some interesting restaurant. Casual and hidden little gems are usually the most fun! I have never had a bad meal in N.Y.
At Sweet Revenge in NY having the best cupcake on earth pared with a glass of wine or cup of coffee. I wish they shipped.
In Boston’s North End Italian district for a day of total indulgence, beginning at Pizzeria Regina and then moving on from there for gelato, a cappuccino, cannoli and Italian tri colored cookies!
Traveling in Italy, Spain or any country with a rich food culture.
Seeing cheese made, anywhere in the world. If there is anything I would be likely to smuggle in to my luggage…it would be cheese!!
On a rooftop garden overlooking Brooklyn with a glass of red wine and a piece of cake from the Chocolate Room.
At Random in Milwaukee, WI eating a genuine retro ice cream drink with Frank Sinatra playing in the background.
At Conejito’s in Milwaukee, WI for the best Mole I have ever had.
I love my job!