Weekly Tip Number Forty-Five: Food Photography

Weekly Tip Monday is here!

Chef Nathan Lyon Weekly Tip Forty-Five


Your food will never look like that… phew!

I think by now we’ve all become privy to the notion that Photoshop, the magical photo editing tool, is used by magazines, advertisers, and the like to alter the appearance of people to make them look younger, thinner, blonder, shorter, taller… you get the idea.

It’s a bizarre thing to be surrounded by this “reality.” In Los Angeles, we get a double dose of it as it’s not only in magazines and on TV, but every corner you turn there’s a huge billboard staring back at you with  “perfect” looking people, always looking younger than you (even though they may be 30 years older than you), more fit, better skin, better clothes. Better life?

Can’t we just see people for how they are? What does it look like to grow older?

Time for a field trip through some google images – here we go. Two beloved stars before and after photoshop.

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Sorry to break it to you, but you will never be able to look like the Madonna on the right because she does not exist! As for Mr. Clooney: ahh, so he DOES have wrinkles. Thank Latte; he is a human being. We all get wrinkles. Even people who plastic surgery their face away cannot hide the way their skin ages-their neck, arms, hands.

So, why do I bring this up? Because it’s the same thing when it comes to food. You will never, I repeat never, have the Arby’s sandwich on the left. (Click on the photo and you’ll see more great examples of before and afters. And, by the way, please don’t eat this stuff anyway.)

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After all they do during the food styling of this sandwich, you wouldn’t want to eat that food you see on the TV. Why? Here are a few tools of the trade used by food stylists: glue, cardboard, spray deodorant, hairspray, motor oil, toothpicks, tweezers, glycerin, cotton balls. Sounds delicious, right?

Here’s another food photo that I just love:

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Don’t get me wrong. I love Cuisinart, but really? Evenly spaced strawberries and not a single drop of juice anywhere? Wow. I wish I could prepare food like that.

It makes me happy to see people sharing so many food photos from their own kitchens. It’s important to know what the food really looks like. That’s why I didn’t hire a food stylist or photographer for my cookbook.

I wanted to do it myself so it looked real. I cooked it, I put it on a plate and I walked it over to my window to take a photo. No motor oil or hairspray used.


No one wants to feel like they don’t match up to the “ideal” when in reality that ideal doesn’t exist.

You CAN make beautiful and delicious food without any fancy tricks.

So, when you see that perfectly glossy almost reflective roast turkey in the ad or the pancakes with the single pat of unmelted (or unmeltable) butter on top of a stack of golden pancakes, think twice. It’s probably not real.

So keep it real. And as far as the recipes in my cookbook are concerned, they’ll turn out like you see them on the page.



C is for Confession

Today, we had some time to relax, rejuvenate and enjoy some Austin spots.

It all started at La Condesa. On the way to Austin from L.A., we (my sous and the director of photography, Alan) met the aunt of the owner of this delicious restaurant. Not only did she highly recommend it, but several people throughout our stay have encouraged us to eat there. Well, thanks to all of you who steered us to this fine establishment. The food was delicious (I must mention a smoked salmon appetizer that was melt in your mouth maple smoky goodness). I would gladly eat there again.

Bonus – John Lash (photo below) and his lovely wife joined us for brunch. John owns a company called Farm to Table which sources restaurants and schools in Austin and San Antonio with local produce. Thank you both for joining and making the meal that much more enjoyable.


Okay, at this point I feel that I need to make a confession: I ordered a cappuccino today instead of my trusted Latte (so SORRY Latte).


Not to worry though, Latte, tomorrow I will make up for it, doubly. I promise!

After our meal, we checked out Zilker Park and, any Austin trip just isn’t complete for me without a visit to Central Market. Oh, how I love thee.


One more day in Austin and I can’t wait to discover more of this great city.

Until then… here are a few more pictures from the day.

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A Lyon Dreams of Sushi

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Inspired by the movie, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, that my sous and I recently enjoyed, this morning we headed to downtown L.A. and took a fantastic 3 & 1/2 hour sushi making class at the Sushi Institute of America. Also joining us was my sous’ sister, Karen, and our best friend, Scott – a master sushi lover.

There’s something so wonderful about the simplicity of sushi. I totally understand how the sushi greats, (like Jiro, his son and kitchen staff) train their whole lives in this art. Making the rice is a science in and of itself: the traditional method to clean it, the right ratio of rice and water, the mixture for the sweet/salty rice vinegar, stirring with the proper technique, fanning the rice to cool it, and so on – this one task alone can take years upon years to master.

The more and more we practiced and learned, the further perfection seemed.

I can only imagine how a sushi master must just ‘feel’ when it’s the right amount of rice in their hands for making a roll or the nigiri (when the fish is on top of a mound of rice). To begin to play with that delicate balance was very exciting for all of us. And the results? Snacks, rolls, and pieces of sashimi and sushi all along the way!

We also learned how to make dashi (fish stock made from seaweed and dried tuna) and miso soup. In fact, we ended up making so much sushi that, upon going home, we had to walk to the neighborhood bookstore to share our feast with our friend Tim (one of the tasters for my cookbook – he actually gave so much feedback that he’s IN the book). We armed him with some soy sauce, a pair of chopsticks and off he went.

Every grain of rice has a purpose. Every motion, every slice, every… delicious bite. The only downside to today’s class, if you can call it that, was the self inflicted sushi coma, which I quickly overcame with the aid of my best buddy, Latte.

You never know, tonight I think I may have some dreams of sushi of my own.


A Bittersweet Bite

I must say, this kale salad (from my cookbook) has been my go-to salad this entire winter. It’s hearty, tasty, oh-so filling, but not overly so (I mean, I still have an amazing piece of slow-cooked olive oil poached salmon in the oven!). It has a subtle bitterness (from the kale), it’s pleasantly sweet (from the oranges and dried cranberries) with a great crunch (read: nuts, kale, apple) and is finished with a splash from the dynamic duo: red-wine vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil (kale’s best buds). Fresh, delicious, and fast.

Yet, now that the LA rains have arrived, and winter is coming to a close, I must say, I will miss the winter produce and all the magical one-pot wonderness that can be enjoyed with cool weather. Recipes that last for days, often times getting better – more flavorful with time (if they’re not devoured by your guests, of course). Rustic soups, stews, and slow-roasted root vegetables.

As the weeks pass and the first fava beans, artichokes and asparagus arrive at the farmers markets, those winter veggies I embraced so lovingly will slowly fade from my Rolodex of recipes – making way for quicker, simpler cooking techniques.

But for now, my tasty bowl of kale salad, it’s just you and me, a blanket, a book and some tea.

Thank goodness Latte is always in season.

Creatures of Habit

We are all creatures of habit – some good, some bad. It is my hope that over the years we will all replace one bad habit for a good one. What’s my favorite habit? Well, read on my friends.

For the last (give or take) 15 years, I have been in the habit of going to the farmers market every Sunday, the Hollywood Farmers Market, that is. In fact, I think of the farmers market as my second home because I used to work at the one in Hollywood for over 10 years selling fruit for one of the farmers… my buddy Ken Lee.

Not only is it filled with every possible fruit and vegetable that you could possibly want, but so many people, from so many different walks of life come to shop every week – from the city’s greatest chefs, to tourists, to famous actors, to everyday shoppers. I love it!

This Sunday, my sous-chef and I were making our plans for what to buy, when we remembered that the L.A. Marathon was taking place. (Gasp!) Translation: roads closed everywhere.  A-ha! (pointing skyward) What a great opportunity to walk. I love L.A. without any cars. Ahhhhh.


And with this fancy little rolly cart, care of my friends at Lucini Italia Olive Oil, we were able to cruise to the market in style!


What have we here? Oranges, Fresh Herbs, Snap Peas, Flowers, Tomatoes, Lettuces, Cabbage, Greens….. Everything is so fresh and delicious. Starting with amazing produce makes my job as chef so easy! I love supporting my local farmer friends. Also, (come closer) …near the end of the day you can find a few really great deals!



ImageImageImageImageImageOh, and how cool is this – remember the little jaunt to Houweling’s greenhouse that my sous and I took last week? Well, look what we found. Turns out the cucumbers and tomatoes we have been buying all these years are from Houwelings! No wonder we like them so much.

ImageAll said and done, we were all filled up with fresh goodness and ready to go.


But, wait! What about our weekly loaf of fresh sourdough bread?! Our favorite bakery, the Village Bakery, couldn’t make it to Farmers Market because of the L.A. marathon. No sourdough bread? Not on my watch! So, we walked (briskly) back to my apartment, dropped off the fresh produce, grabbed some fleur de sel, a few thin slices of butter – and in the car we go! (cue very cool driving music)


Needless to say, we arrived just minutes before they closed. Praise Latte! So there we sat, my sous and I, in the front seat of the sunny car, tearing that delicious loaf into pieces – slathering them with butter and dusting them with fleur de sel. With free street parking to boot!

Now this is a habit I can get used to.

Monsanto Hide And Seek?

Today, sweaty from the gym, I wasn’t quite in the mood to cook just yet, so after ordering a simple meal at my local Thai restaurant with my sous-chef, we began to wonder about where all of the vegetables came from. Not just what supplier or farmer, but where the seeds originate: from the rice to the veggies to the soy sauce.

Before we even finished our meal, we began doing some research on the topic, which included internet research as well as asking my master gardener and farmer friends, and (although we are still researching), our findings are quite unsettling.

Turns out, a company Seminis, (established in 1994 – a conglomeration of a number of Dutch seed companies) sells over 3,500 seed varietals and controls about 40% of the US vegetable market and 20% of the world market. In the US, they supply 55% of the lettuce, 75% of the tomatoes, and 85% of the peppers supplied in supermarkets. Basically, if you have ever eaten a salad, you are eating the produce from Seminis seeds.

The unsettling part? Monsanto bought this company for 1.4 billion dollars (cash!) in 2005. Now that’s a lot of Lattes…

I am a big supporter of small farms, family farms, organics, non-GMO’s. It has been easy for me to stay away from the Monsanto GMO crops like corn and wheat since I buy organic flours and corn and stay away from processed food which contains things like GMO canola oil and high fructose corn syrup. However, this new discovery made me realize that by the mere fact that Monsanto controls so many seeds (albeit non-GMO), that through the simple act of enjoying a meal (in fact most meals) – I have probably still been supporting Monsanto!

Are there ways to farm conventionally without using these seeds that have been bred and grafted for conventional farming? Do farmers really have options? Do consumers who garden have options? And, how will consumers ever really know what they are eating or not if GMO labeling is not mandated and varietals are not labelled?

For a list of Monsanto/Seminis varietals, you can look at their website. As I teach people, farmers markets are so great because you can ask your farmers all about their produce. I know I’ll be asking my farmer friends about varietals this Sunday when I visit the Hollywood Farmers Market.

I’m on the search to find out. With Monsanto buying up world seed companies… is Monsanto really avoidable?