Molly Shuster’s Manhattan kitchen is much like the city itself: compact but powerful, where work and home overlap, great things are made, and every choice of food is at hand. The freelance food stylist and recipe developer’s shelves are stocked like a SoHo bodega: the dry goods piled atop one another, just out of reach. Also like Manhattan, Shuster’s kitchen reveals itself in little, secret pockets. There’s the pasta pot under the hallway table; the extra ingredients in the bedroom; the cookbooks and food magazines—including several issues of Gather Journal, where Molly is a regularly contributor—lined up against the living room window.
We arrive at her apartment just as the warehouse window floods the kitchen with the right amount of afternoon light, and discuss her grandmother’s recipes, the ethics of food styling, and how to build a career in food media.
My first job was in publishing at HarperCollins. Though there were aspects of the job that I loved, being in a cubicle was not for me, so while I was at Harper, I started going to culinary school part-time at night. Halfway through my culinary school program I got laid off—this was back in 2008 when the economy crashed—so I kind of had no choice but to hit the ground running. I knew I that I wanted to shift into food media but I had no idea how, so I took every opportunity I could: I interned at the James Beard Foundation and at DB Bistro Moderne, I hosted at Monkey Bar—I was doing six things at once, dipping into different aspects of the food industry, trying to find my way.
Everyone told me I was going to culinary school for the wrong reasons. I had zero desire to work in a restaurant—to be a cook, chef, or caterer—but I knew that culinary school was necessary for being a food editor or for working at a place like Martha [Stewart]. I had my English degree but I needed to prove that I had a vested interest in and knowledge about food and cooking. I also didn’t have any solid technical skills—I just cooked. And that’s fine, there are great cooks who cook that way, but I needed the proper techniques to transition cooking into a profession.
Right before I graduated from culinary school, I worked as an intern on a cookbook photoshoot for Susie Theodorou, who is an amazing, incredibly talented food stylist. The cookbook was called Harvest to Heat. From Susie, I cobbled together a network of women who I would assist, and I’ve been freelancing ever since. I wasn’t looking to be a food stylist but it was a great combination of food and media, and I also met an amazing group of freelancing women in New York who are now my mentors and friends. Eventually, I branched out into writing and recipe development.
ON RECIPE DEVELOPMENT
Recipe development starts with dreaming about what I want to make, what’s seasonal or appropriate or exciting for this time of year or this month. In the kitchen, sometimes you have a clear idea of how a recipe will play out, and sometimes you don’t. Especially with technical recipes—baking, for instance—getting the proper rations can require making the same dish six or eight times. Nailing down those fussy details can be the hardest part. At other times, it’s a consideration of having the dish do what you want it to do. Does it taste the way you want it to? Is the texture nice? If it doesn’t work, I go back to the drawing board.
When I develop for magazines, the first questions I ask are ‘what’s delicious?’ and ‘what is easy for home cooks?’ You have to consider the readership and what they’re looking for: simplicity, relatively available ingredients, reasonable cooking time. Not everyone wants to cook from scratch or spend half the day in the kitchen making something extravagant. I love making homemade ice cream, but does everyone want to make a homemade custard and chill it overnight, and do they have an ice cream machine so they can churn it the next day? For a lot of people the answer is no.
ON FOOD STYLING
The most important element in food styling is quality of ingredients. If you’re using the highest quality produce or meat, you’re already halfway there, because they have much better color and shape. That’s not to say it should look commercial. You want it to look like it came from the farm, not from plastic. I source produce from the farmer’s market whenever possible—the quality and beauty is impossible to mimic. Then the styling is just about enhancing.
Of course color’s important, texture’s important, shape’s important, but I want food to be approachable. I hate it when people fuss too much. Most food stylists would call themselves home cooks—we’re not chefs. The recipes that we make and style are often for home cooks because that’s what gets printed in magazines or cookbooks. It’s entirely different from a fancy restaurant where they do modern plating and the aesthetic is very sparse. Sometimes working on a book with a chef gets complicated, because they want to show that very particular, very extravagant plating. But I wouldn’t make that at home! Food styling at its best encourages and excites people about food and cooking.
Meat is the hardest to style. Not only do you need to consider the proper temperature, but even when it’s the right temperature, sometimes it can look really plain. You also want to cook it a hair over, because pink can read very pink in a photo, and medium can read really red. But anything brown is hard to make beautiful. Also, foods that have a short lifespan, like grilled cheese or ice cream, are tricky. You only have a finite amount of time to get the actual shot. Sometimes you have to prepare ten times the amount of product so that you can do multiple takes—if it’s a moment where you need to capture a drip, and the photographer doesn’t get it or the lighting wasn’t right or the focus wasn’t there and you have to do it again.
ON WASTING FOOD
There’s definitely an element of food media that requires one to grow a bit immune to throwing food away. I hate it; it drives me crazy. But sometimes the food has been sitting out for six hours and has had ten hands on it. It gets to the point where it isn’t food anymore—it’s a prop. On smaller editorial shoots we try to eat the food or feed the crew. Maybe we’ll have it for lunch or send it home with people for dinner. I take home so many extra ingredients. My cupboards are chockfull—I even have two extra tote bags of ingredients next to my bed because there’s no room left in my kitchen. I try to recycle as many ingredients as I can, either for my next job or for recipe testing.
In New York, there are really strict laws about what you can and can’t donate to a food shelter. If anything is open, they won’t accept it. I try to drop off whatever I can, but it can be hard to find people who will take it. It’s easier when I work in Massachusetts, where there is a food pantry that takes everything. So you try. You try to make sure nothing goes to waste. But it’s also inevitable.
On a much smaller scale, the same goes for recipe testing at home. I often have to make something three or four times, but I can’t eat three or four pies. We try—I eat some of it, my fiancé will eat some of it, but there’s also waste on a smaller scale in my own kitchen, and it still really eats at me.
I’m accustomed to cooking in a small kitchen. It’s not a huge amount of workspace, but this morning I was rolling pastry and I had plenty of space to do everything I needed. I barely have to move between the workspace and the oven. That said, my cookware is scattered throughout my apartment. I have pots and pans under the tables because I don’t have anywhere else to put them. This closet is filled with equipment; anything from springform pans to cake pans to sprinkles.
My personal cookware is largely newer models, but I source props and some of my bakeware from New Bedford, MA. They have all these vintage and reclamation places. You know Moby Dick? New Bedford used to be the whaling capital of the world. Now it’s sort of a depressed town but there are all these beautiful artifacts, like whaling captains’ homes. A lot of vintage and antique stores have taken root. If I’m propping a job, that’s the first place I go to, because there’s so much to find and it’s a lot less expensive than anything you’ll find in New York.
The real cook in my family was my paternal grandmother Gertrude. She was a stereotypical Jewish grandma, always in the kitchen cooking or baking sweets for all of her grandkids. Unfortunately we didn’t have much of an opportunity to cook together, but when I think of my family and our cooking heritage, she is first and foremost. When she passed away I got this manila accordion envelope full of all of her clippings—newspapers and postcards from friends and those “From the Kitchen Of” index cards—she had handwritten recipes from friends and relatives. I made an album of all of her clippings and recipe notes.
Her grape nut custard pudding was my favorite dish growing up. It’s very old school; you mix milk and eggs and sugar and grape nuts and you dust it with nutmeg and you bake it in a water bath. It’s so old-fashioned and so good. She’d make it for my birthday or if I had a cold. I also love making her homemade applesauce—that was my brother’s favorite. She had this old food mill to puree the apples through. I always think of her whenever I make it.
MOLLY’S FOOD SOURCES
1. Produce: There is a small farmer’s market on West 97th that I’ll go to on Fridays so that’s nice because it’s local. But if I’m searching around for work, I’ll definitely go down to the one at Union Square. Also, the Manhattan Fruit Exchange—it’s not always the most beautiful, but they have a really good range, and are well priced.