Featured Story / Industry Spotlight

Food Stylist Alyssa Alia on Food, Family and Following Your Dreams

Alyssa Alia wears many hats. She is a chef, professional food stylist, recipe developer and cookbook author but above all, she is a mother who cherishes time spent around the table with family. We recently had the opportunity to chat with Alyssa about all things food and life as a career and family driven woman, and what it’s like to see your dreams come to life. 

In this interview, Alyssa shares her culinary journey and how she went from baking with her neighbor at the age 12 to styling for most of the major food brands we know of today, all while capturing and compiling the memories created at home and at work into her first cookbook: “If the Table Could Talk – A Taste of Celebrations.” 

Tell us a little bit about your culinary journey. Were you always interested in food?

My passion began at a very early age. Growing up in an Italian household exposed me to cooking traditions—family Sunday dinners and healthy food preparation on a daily basis. I was fascinated with my Mother’s and Nana’s cooking. I was their helper in every way, whether making fresh pasta or baking tons of cookies for the holidays.

At 12 years old, I started baking with my neighbor, Mrs. Betty Ann Maryott. She could have been a successful pastry chef. Every cookie she made was picture perfect. She lovingly taught me my first cake decorating lessons.

How did you end up in the food industry?

At 16, Silvia Lehrer, hired me as a runner and assistant in her gourmet shop near where I lived in New Jersey. It gave me my first opportunity to work in a professional culinary atmosphere. I was hooked the minute I walked in. She taught cooking classes in the back of the store. I was the shopper, food prepper and food gopher. I also did demonstrations for what at the time was the newest craze: the Cuisinart Food Processor.  

Ms. Lehrer would have guest chefs teach specialty classes and promote their cookbooks. I was able to assist the now renowned French Chef Jacques Pepin and Guiliano Bugialli—the Italian Chef famous for his extraordinary pasta making. I was just so enamored by them. I was in cooking heaven. This was my passion and I knew I wanted to pursue a career in food.

I believe everyone should wait tables at least once in their lifetime. It makes you appreciate all kinds of people and teaches you how to accommodate while making people feel happy.

I also waitressed in high school. I believe everyone should wait tables at least once in their lifetime. It makes you appreciate all kinds of people, and teaches you how to accommodate while making people feel happy, even if it’s for a moment. People will appreciate your kindness and pass it on.

Were you always interested a professional culinary career?

When I was in high school, my dad encouraged me to write to food editors at national magazines to ask them how to pursue a career in the culinary arts. This was life-changing advice. Many wrote back with college choices and class suggestions. I obtained a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences from Cornell University, but I still was longing for more culinary training.

For two summers, I interned at the Lipton Company (now Unilever) in the food science department. They introduced me to the Lipton Test Kitchens where they developed and tested recipes for all of their food products. After graduating, I worked in its Test Kitchen Home Economist. 

I learned so much about the corporate food industry, but I wanted more advanced culinary training.  I decided to leave Lipton and enrolled in a full-time culinary chef program at the New York Restaurant School In New York City. I loved every day. After graduating with honors, I was selected to gain extra training at Le Cordon Bleu, France—my ultimate dream school.

How did you transition into food styling?

After returning from Europe, I applied to many food magazines in New York City. One editor, Jean Voltz, remembered my high school letter and hired me as a freelancer. I spent three years freelancing for numerous publications doing recipe development, but then I would also go into the studio to style the recipes. 

…My food science training, my culinary passion, my love of food art and my professional culinary training. It all blended perfectly to become a professional food stylist.

That’s when everything started to click for me: my food science training, my culinary passion, my love of food art, and my professional culinary training. It all blended perfectly to become a professional food stylist. I’ve food styled over the years for most of the major food companies, as well as for magazines, packaging, film, advertising, national commercials, social media and video applications.

What has been the biggest accomplishment of your career thus far?  

I’m so proud that I’ve been able to make a successful career as a sole proprietor for over 35 years doing what I’ve loved to do since I was a child. I get so excited to see my work when I walk down the grocery aisle or see it on air!  

I’m so thankful that I was able to accomplish my ultimate food dream: completing my first solo cookbook. It brings me so much joy to be able to share my treasure trove of recipes full of the love and passion that have been, and continue to be, shared around my tables.

What has been your favorite project you’ve worked on to date? 

I have always wanted to do a cookbook.  All my years of experience as a food stylist and my culinary skills helped me to be efficient in my home kitchen for entertaining as well as feeding my family in a moment’s notice. 

This led me to write, “If the Table Could Talk: A Taste of Celebrations.”  With the encouragement of my daughters, I started to log the recipes that I served at all of our occasions. It was created from hundreds of menus served at my table. 

Each recipe is a story from my culinary life and family traditions. The book is about the love of food and sharing meals that created loving memories at my table. There is a photo for every recipe—that I styled as well. All the photography was done in my home kitchen with an amazing team. 

My second cookbook in my series, “If the Table Could Talk: A Taste of the Holidays,” will be released in Fall 2020.

What do you want to achieve next? 

I was recently asked to teach! Getting to share my passion with others has been a great honor and joy.  I’ve taught with a team of my amazing colleagues.  We did a weekend workshop at FIT and a master class at Yale explaining the world of food photography and the specialty career of food styling. Meeting eager students has been a gift. I’m in touch with some of the students I met, and I hope to continue to pay it forward and touch others with advice and guidance in our fascinating profession.

I also began teaching cooking classes at the Bed, Bath and Beyond Cooking School. I loved sharing my recipes, techniques and food traditions that mean the world to me. I hope to continue to share what I love: the passion of cooking and the art of entertaining.

Can you share a formative moment when you did not succeed? What did you take away from the experience to grow?

I was hired to do a pancake job when I was just starting my freelance career. It was for a magazine ad. I must have made hundreds of pancakes for this shoot. It was tricky since I had to use this cookie cutter in the shape of the pancake mix logo. This was during the film days when there was no digital photography. I also had to do syrup pours and show perfect butter pats melting all at the same time. I thought I was well prepared, but the cookie cutter gave me issues. I should have asked for it days earlier so I could practice before the shoot. It took me until midnight to get the correct pancake shape and get the correct pours. After that, I always ask for samples so I can practice ahead of time. 

You are only as good as your last job. That’s what people remember. Since then, I always “over” prepare. It made me stronger, more confident, and a better food stylist. It’s a field that you are constantly learning from, but you must be ultra prepared in order to make you a true professional.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career? Have you encountered any challenges in the industry because of your gender?

I think my biggest challenge as a food stylist has been that I must deliver every time on every job.

I’ve experienced some uncomfortable situations as a woman in the food industry, especially when I first started out. I had a few instances with one client who was the head chef of a reputable restaurant chain. He was very obnoxious and made many sexual comments on the set at me during the early ’90s, while also grabbing me too hard and using extremely vulgar language.  It was hard because the photographer really needed the work and this was a once-a-month photo session that lasted a few years. If that happened today I would have walked off the set, but back then it was very hard to be a true food professional as a woman and a working mom, so to some extent, I felt dominated. That person eventually served some jail time a few years later for fraud and embezzlement from that same company, and I thank goodness justice prevailed in some way.

What was it like raising a family while working as a freelance food stylist? What advice can you give for working mothers out there?

 Being a freelance food stylist for most of my career, it was hard because if you don’t work you don’t get paid. There are no paid vacation, sick, personal days or benefits, so you work even harder because work is never guaranteed. Most of my work has been from referral, so every job should be your best job. I actually went back to work three weeks after my first baby was born because of this. The mom guilt can and still does sometimes creep up, even though my daughters are young adults now, but seeing their father and myself work full-time jobs side-by-side has encouraged and grown their work ethics tremendously. I’m completely replaceable in my line of work, therefore I always want to be available for my client’s needs. Some family sacrifice is part of that equation. Now my girls know how much all of that work has paid off, and if they decide to be working moms they have all of the ability in the world to do so.

What does being a woman in the foodservice industry mean to you? Do you have any advice for women who want to work in this industry?

When I joined the workforce in the mid 80’s, I felt you had to prove yourself and work harder than a man, but being a woman in the food industry has been rewarding on so many levels. I’ve worked with national and international companies my entire career that have taught me many different views on food photography. I worked more with male photographers in the beginning of my career, but woman photographers started to grow in the early 90’s, which was great! The growth of the diversity of gender in the food photography studios has made me more confident as a woman and so knowledgeable in my craft. I can handle mostly any type of food photography situation with courage and determination. 

Never toot your horn. Be humble, keep an amazing work ethic and give kindness to all. Your talent and hard work will be noticed in your career and come through without telling anyone. 

Also, surround yourself with positive people and people who know more than you. Keep learning from all kinds of people and never stop your ambition to make yourself the best you can be. Stay genuine and food for thought: go to work early.

Is there one piece of career advice you received that has stayed with you over the years?

Follow your passion, do what you love and you will be great at it, and most of all…NEVER QUIT. You will make all your dreams come true doing what you love and you will be successful. Follow that passion and never stop. If you want it bad enough it will happen with faith and determination. Keep your table talking with memories around your table! Keep sharing!

And, my biggest kitchen mantra… En-JOY and cook, just for the love of it!

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