The impact of food on our lives is everywhere – from its essence in providing sustenance for our bodies, to its place in culture and social interaction, to the tiers of culinary excellence around which people build there lives and even to its affect on our environment. The role that food plays in some ways feels immeasurable and understanding some of these aspects can be more involved than one may anticipate.
I recently came across a newsletter from Mark Graham, Managing Partner of New Food Studio and was so intrigued and impressed with his hard-fact food information combined with his knowledge of the industry and overall passion for food. He’s a chef, a creative, and a businessman. His career has spanned several years on TV, he has been a food stylist/recipe developer-tester in the Test Kitchens of the Chicago Tribune, and his clients have ranged from restaurants to large food manufacturers. He was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to Chicago Planner Magazine about the world of food – how it’s distributed, portrayed, the need for quality and what he sees as the food trends of the future.
CPM: You have a strong culinary background having been a graduate and former Fellow of the Culinary Institute of America. You’ve also worked with major food companies developing processed foods. A lot of people hear the term “processed food” and often associate it with things that are bad for you. How do you define processed food?
MG: Really, processed food is anything that is not made at home such as grab and go salads at Whole Foods or something made in a food commissary or a food manufacturing facility. I think most people don’t realize some foods have many many ingredients and may have multiple components. For example, a simple salad dressing may have 8 components. Making food with all of those ingredients for large amounts of people is a process.Hence, “processed” foods.
CPM: What has been your role in the processed food world?
MG: About 15 years ago I became the corporate executive chef for a chemical company in their food division. It was an eye opening experience and lent me keen vision into the world of processed foods. I prefer to work in the world of minimally processed foods and I knew I didn’t want to eat chemical ingredients. Food stabilizers are important for frozen or refrigerated foods but there are natural based stabilizers and many naturally derived alternatives. Since this experience I’ve worked in multiple positions where my job has been to create and execute branded food items with minimally processed ingredients.
CPM: In your work now, what do you think differentiates what you do?
MG: New Food Studio is a boutique food consulting firm. We like to immerse ourselves into our clients’ world (often working in their offices) with a very hands-on approach. For us, this feels comfortable and the right place to be. My work and research is data driven not just from a consumer perspective but also from a technical, food science perspective. My primary focus is to help create better-to-eat foods for small to midsize companies in aggressive growth mode who don’t necessarily have the band width to support a creative member on their team full time. We work with a proprietary process that allows for growth from within and room for an outside voice. An example of a successful client is New Seasons Market in Portland, Oregon. I helped open their commissary and developed a line of prepared, frozen and fresh refrigerated foods for sale in their supermarkets. We increased the bottom line in some categories by over 300% and helped create several brand new categories with an overall increase in sales revenue of over 12%. When I joined New Seasons Market, they had 10 stores and I helped them grow to 20 stores. The picture below is of a tasting of and entirely new line of soups we created for them.
CPM: What do you love about the way your career has developed and being the creator of New Food Studio?
MG: It’s very humbling to feel like I’m a pioneer – I love the idea of picking and choosing my clients; it forces me to stay on top of trends and be helpful with providing solutions. I often ask myself when considering a new client, “What about them sounds ethical?” While I typically don’t work with restaurants, I had my first restaurant client over the summer. We spent a year working on their business plan and I physically joined them on the East Coast in May of 2016 to help get their restaurant off the ground. While I forgot how much opening a restaurant zaps your energy, it was an incredibly rewarding experience. But the other work I do is really selfish pleasure. For example, I’ve been working in the Test Kitchen of the Chicago Tribune off and on for almost 20 years as Food Stylist, Recipe Developer, Recipe Tester, and Recipe Editor. It’s a great job that allows my work to be seen in syndicated in 133 newspapers worldwide.
CPM: As a chef, how do you balance or focus your social media?
MG: My Instagram feed is all about what I’m cooking at home!
CPM: How do you integrate food and cooking when you are not working with clients?
MG: I am a chef-member of a company called EatWith which is a compilation of international chefs who will cook for people in their home, which I will do for up to 8 people like a private restaurant. The greatest pleasure in my life is cooking. Feeding people who are eager to eat is selfishly indulgent and rewarding – to see people sitting around my dining table and enjoying it is a gift and feeding family and friends is the ultimate reward.
CPM: That sounds really wonderful – EatWith sounds like a really fun experience! Can you tell us what it’s like to be a Food Stylist and how you got that role?
MG: It’s kind of a long story, but it found me. Many years ago I was a chef at the Walnut Room at Marshall Fields (when it was still independent). It was my introduction to Chicago after being in New York for most of my life. While at the Walnut Room, I realized that they had an enormous kitchen that was designed to do things from scratch so I implemented some changes and upgraded what they offered – it was a very different experience then. While working there, Abby Mandel who was a cookbook author, columnist for Chicago Tribune and founder of Green City Market approached me. She was responsible for putting me in the spot light and asked me to do demonstrations on behalf of the Green City Market. This opportunity gave me some press which lead to working with the Tribune. Initially I thought I wouldn’t be a good fit and thought I’d be there just a few days. I wound up working there 7 years. During that time I had such great experiences, including working with an award winning editorial staff and photographers. It was and still is an incredible experience, and I’m very grateful to be part of the team.
CPM: What did you learn that surprised you?
MG: I think most people don’t realize that food photography isn’t as easy as putting something in a bowl and taking a photo – done right it fits in the confines of the brand, evokes emotion, and celebrates the food. Some of the work on my site is with a large scale, international food manufacturer based in Chicago and it’s very specific. The feel of the work depends on many things like the category or sub brand and it is important to be flexible and collaborative when photographing food. The Tribune is very vignette driven but they do not manipulate the food to make it look great, making them different than some of my other clients. The Tribune believes in ethical photojournalism so if we say it’s ice cream in a shot, it’s real ice cream – we don’t fake anything. However, the process to photograph the food may not be what people expect. With soup, for example, we make and test the recipe to make certain the recipe works and the finished product is delicious. Part of my responsibilities include recipe editing and food styling which means sometimes adjusting the recipe. To photograph the soup, all the components get separated out. Pouring soup in a bowl doesn’t always afford you the luxury of a beautiful photograph. Often, the soup particulates are strained out so it stands out in the photograph and then we would add the broth later to make the finished dish look complete.
CPM: Why add broth later?
MG: Well it does depend – it’s not always in that order. But you also have to consider the output. The same photograph might not relay well from digital to print so we try to look at a product as we work on it . Print media can often dull a finished photograph, and digital can often make every flaw very visible. Newsprint changes color of ink and can flatten the depth so it’s important to keep focus on dark and light spaces. It’s a tricky place to play but I’m fortunate that I work with pros who understand it.
CPM: Does your work as a Food Stylist have an effect on other work you do, even designing a menu?
MG: [Laughs] It all depends. I can usually work from an image and create a recipe to support it and that’s one way to do it. Then there are people like Donna Hay from Australia who is huge in the food publishing world and has a much different approach. Sometimes my influence is from the chef prospective by cooking a product first and seeing the results. An example of the importance of the visual component is with New Season Market. They have a lot of grab-and-go products like soup, salad and breakfast items in their display cases in store. There are a lot of baked goods. Having a visual plan of where the food will go in the case and what that would look like helps to influence finished goods. We tried to keep the display cases colorful and engaging – you don’t want a whole wall of brown things. To give a sense of quality, you have to fulfill an aesthetic prospective and make things look beautiful and appealing to guests. I’ve worked at Starbucks in food product development doing similar work.
CPM: What’s a food photo pet peeve of yours, particularly with social media?
MG: Using your flash to take a food pic in a restaurant is the worst possible thing. It annoys guests around you and flash ruins a picture of a beautiful dish. People are quick to post what they are eating without paying attention to the image.
CPM: Should people only stage food photos? Do you have any tips or suggestions to people who want to share instantly?
MG: Close up is better than overhead – it always washes it out. Close up and at an ideally at the angle you are physically looking at your food from and of course as much natural light as possible.
CPM: With New Food Studio, who is your ideal client?
MG: An established company that is small to mid-sized, hopefully based in Chicago, that has an aggressive growth mode either in new product development, or line extensions of existing products. One company that is on my radar is Pete’s Fresh Market. They are family owned and I just love that supermarket. The store where I shop is at Western and Madison and their produce section is ten times the size of any supermarket in the city. The selection and variety of what they have is incredible and they have better pricing. I would love them to be grocery store of choice in Chicago. I go out of my way to shop there and I feel like I could help them develop a line of branded food products in multiple categories.
CPM: What are some changes to the food industry or aspects of the industry that you think we will be seeing in the future?
MG: I’m fascinated with Chobani and their new campaign of “chef level snacking”. They’ve introduced savory yogurts, which in my lifetime, I haven’t seen unless you were European.
I also think we will see an increase in food product development in the Medical Marijuana industry. Watching the industry grow, surpassing $11 billion in the last several years with growth potential to surpass $60 billion dollars in the next 5-10 years is fascinating to me. You have someone like Mindy Segal, a James Beard Award Winning pastry chef, who has edibles that are both delicious and for many patients a non-evasive medical remedy. I believe this is an area that the food industry is not watching carefully. In the state of Illinois, recreational use of marijuana is currently discredited and the food prospective is ignored by some local manufacturers. I think it’s inspiring to think about a cancer patient in a hospital, whose appetite could be enhanced by food. There are maladies that can be remedied with cannabis and could provide sustenance that also relieves pain. Believe it or not, hospitals are looking into this. I think there is a patient-driven push for “neutraceutical” alternatives, with more potential for a holistic approach in the road to recovery and pain management.
CPM: The food processing world is big. How do you feel about organic foods versus more affordable food, especially in the issue of providing good food to kids?
MG: Organic is not a sustainable network. I’m a huge proponent of sustainable farming. Look at an areal photo of the Mississippi River where it empties into the Delta. It has become an enormous dead zone because of the systemic runoff of pesticides from the farm belt, ruining a lot of things. When we’re talking about cost of eating healthy, especially for children, Chicago is an unfortunate example because it is so incredibly segregated by socioeconomics and ethnicity. Wealthy school districts are where kids are eating extremely well because their parents are involved. How do we make good food available all school children? California is working on solutions in the Berkeley School District. I worked for manufacturer several years ago while Mrs. Obama rolled out the Let’s Move Program. I did a walk through for the Oakland School District where 70% of the kids only meal was the food they received while in school. The small commissary that fed these students had dilapidated equipment and food offerings that were a challenge to provide complete nutrition. I spent a day with the nutrition director thinking how I could help them. I then spoke with the CEO of the food manufacturing company I was working for at the time and he was sympathetic in the cause for better food for these kids. The company was very generous with both time and product. The bottom line in affordable food programs for school children is that it’s often politically driven, but feeding kids is so important and I don’t think solutions are truly that difficult. Cutting the red tape is what’s difficult, unfortunately.
CPM: What are some current food changes you are seeing in the industry?
MG: There is a lack of education of what it means to be well fed from grade school on. People are eating differently, although not necessarily better. People don’t cook at home as much as they could due to lack of hands-on knowledge. Ironically, there’s a great statistic from the Bank of America about loan information where the primary focus was for people to redo their kitchen, not for resale value but for cooking and entertaining at home. Believe it or not, more people cook at home in Chicago than any other city in the US. Boxed and delivery foods like Blue Apron are a good example of a changing market. Delivery systems are currently a $5 billion industry and this is something that big processed food companies ignored several years ago. Even the New York Times is offering prepared foods to be delivered to the door of their subscribers at any hour in any form – cooked and warm, cooked and cold, partially prepped, or raw ingredients – all from recipes in their current archives. I think that’s pretty incredible for a newspaper to step outside the box to deliver food and speaks to how the food industry is changing.
Are you as impressed with Mark as we are and want to work with him?