Know Your Food: Interview with food stylist and culinary creative director Charlotte Omnès
“I like to make things that are not always realistic, that are not always tangible, because that is what makes them fascinating.” — Charlotte Omnès
Food Stylist and Culinary Creative Director, Charlotte Omnès, can attest to the fact that there’s a huge difference between loving food and knowing food. Growing up on a farm in the Pacific Northwest, she had the unique opportunity to personally partake in America’s agricultural traditions, gaining an in-depth understanding of where food comes from and what it takes to produce it.
These early experiences proved to be formative for Omnès. Her accomplishments, failures, as well as life-changing opportunities helped shape her into one of them most in-demand culinary professionals on the market, with world-famous brands relying on Omnès to tell their culinary stories.
How long have you been in the culinary business and when did you start food styling?
I’ve been in the culinary business for over 20 years, and have been food styling since 2003, so, about 14 years now. I’ve done a lot of different things before finding my passion for it. My path took me to culinary school, through an apprenticeship, and many other jobs in the food world.
Eventually I got a job doing recipe and restaurant development for different companies, where I had the opportunity to be at the next step of the marketing process, which is photographing the results. That’s how I started to move into the food styling world from the development world.
How did you develop a passion for working with food?
I think the thing that really took me down the food career path was that I really liked the experience of going to a restaurant, or having a meal my family would cook for me; I really enjoyed how it made me feel and I wanted to be able to share the feeling with other people. So, I got excited about learning how to cook when I was really little.
What makes the sharing process worthwhile for you?
I really do think that food is an emotional thing more than just a sustenance thing. There’s a reason sharing food can form emotional attachments; things that you’ve eaten throughout your life will remind you of certain people, will bring back specific memories. Tastes and smells evoke different emotions, which can be both positive and negative. So, sharing food with people does a lot more than just helps them be less hungry.
Was this something that was reinforced by your family?
Yeah, absolutely! We ate dinner together every single night. My parents cooked food off of our farm. Really having an understanding of where that food came from and what it meant in terms of how hard we had to work to produce it made a huge difference. Eating a chicken you’ve raised is a very different experience than buying a commodity wrapped in plastic on a Styrofoam tray. You can still appreciate the food, but there is definitely a disconnect when it comes to understanding the sacrifice it takes.
What was some of the first stuff you ever made?
Well, I remember making scones and pancakes. One of the things I loved to do, because we lived on a farm, was to go out and hunt for wild huckleberries and put them in muffins. That was always fun, probably because of the foraging.
Isn’t foraging potentially dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing? Who taught you?
My mom mainly taught me. She never went as far as to hunt for mushrooms, but I had a 6th grade teacher who was in the area – he would be called in to the hospital if someone ate a strange mushroom – and he was very knowledgeable about what grew around us. He would take our whole class out and teach us, so we knew what to pick to eat and what was risky. My mom taught me about foraging and being able to eat in different areas of the forest. She helped me understand what grew, how to harvest things, and when things are ripe and when they aren’t. It was really fun!
At what point did you decide this was going to be your career path?
When I was about 13. There’s something about food that allows people to figure out that it’s their passion early on. Just like some people develop an interest in sports, we develop an interest in food. My neighbor taught cooking classes; so I would go over and help her clean up [in exchange] for free lessons. As a result, I got an apprenticeship and was very fortunate to have someone who allowed a 16-year-old in his kitchen. A lot of things fell into place and my interest was fostered.
So when you started this apprenticeship, what did you learn first and how did you progress?
Anyone interested in starting down a culinary career path must first learn how to wash the dishes. If you don’t know how to run the dishwasher, you don’t get to be the chef – that’s just how it goes. When I started, I would wash the dishes after school during the week. And, on the weekends I would fill in for the full-time baker, making deserts and the daily bread.
I started there; then I worked in the pantry, and worked my way to the line after that. By the time I was 19, I kind of worked my way around the kitchen and had a basic understanding of the backend of things. Years and years of practice followed.
Is there a moment during those times that stood out to you, that you reflect back on fondly?
I think what happened was that I simply started identifying myself with food – I KNEW food. My friends and my schoolmates, at that time, did not care about food at all. It wasn’t like it is now, where everybody is a foodie. Back then it was cool for people to eat Lean Cuisine, and I was more interested in how to make a puff pastry. There were many experiences throughout those years, but the thing that I think moved my interest along was that food became part of my identity.
What was your first job?
I guess the apprenticeship was my first real official job. But I also worked on a cruise boat for about 9 months, and then I worked in restaurants and a catering company in Seattle. I was given all of these opportunities and I tried to take advantage of all of them.
Is there anything that you discovered for yourself about your abilities during that time?
Well, I learned that I don’t really like working as a line cook. A lot of people really enjoy it, but I really like to have the time to myself to enjoy the process. I also remember working in a restaurant where we were given a chance to create a recipe. If it were good it would be put on the menu. I played around with a concept, which did end up making it. That was cool and interesting to me, and it was also what led me into development.
So, what exactly is a Culinary Creative Director?
It’s actually a title that I created for myself. A Culinary Creative Director is essentially an art director who works with an agency, or whoever, to create a culinary story. Sometimes a photographer can be really into food and know a lot about it – sometimes he or she may know absolutely nothing.
I’ll work with a client well before the shoot to find out how their product should be positioned and help develop the culinary story. It has a lot more to do with people’s perceptions and relationships with the product, whether it’s food or a company that uses natural ingredients, like Burt’s Bees.
There’s a very specific image on your site that is visually and conceptually striking, the chocolate shoe and the milk foot. How did you do that?
I was trying to incorporate food and fashion, while making some crazy images where food took center stage. So to create it, I bought a shoe, dipped it in chocolate and bedazzled it with chocolate chips. The foot actually belongs to a mannequin; I painted it with a sugary solution and allowed it to drip. There’s no Photoshop, just some manipulation.
When it comes to creating a single image for a client, it takes a village – is that correct?
Yes. You have a photographer and the photographer’s assistant. You also have a prop stylist who may also have an assistant. You are the stylist, but you may have assistants yourself. Then, of course, you have the client, and often times you’ll have the agency that is helping you shape the final outcome. Now, that’s on the commercial side of things, but there are tons of amazing people involved in this process (bloggers, PR strategists, etc), because everything has to be really dialed in. The commercial and editorial sides are completely different, so it’s hard to say that all images involve so many people, but you absolutely need a quality team.
How are they different?
So, if you take a magazine, like Bon Appetite, and flip to the pages that have pictures showing the ingredients involved in a specific recipe, those images are considered to be editorial. If you flip through the same magazine and come across a Burt’s Bees ad, the featured image is commercial. They are totally different. One is sharing information about how to make something and the other is selling you a product. With commercial images there is a lot more on the line financially, so that’s one major difference.
How long does it take to create these images, a few weeks, a couple of hours?
Good question. I guess it really depends on the project. Again, whether you’re doing it for commercial or editorial reasons makes a huge difference. If you’re shooting an editorial, you can get a max of 6 – 7 images in a day, even 10. But for a commercial shoot, you can do a max of 4 images, and only if everything goes smoothly. Sometimes you’ll only get one.
Do you have a favorite food?
I always LOVED German food: potato pancakes and bratwurst and sauerkraut. For me it’s like comfort food. When I became an adult I realized I can drink beer with it, which made it even better!
Is there food you don’t like?
It’s strange to say, because I’m from the Pacific Northwest, but I don’t like oysters. I’ll eat them barbecued, or in something, and I like the flavor of them, but when I was working in restaurants I shelled so many of them that I developed an aversion.
Are there any artists who you like in the non-food world?
I love Andy Warhol, because his work really makes you take a closer look at the world of consumerism and your place within it, and that is exactly what my world is about. I think he was very ahead of his time and a genius in the way he put those thoughts behind his artwork.
Note* All images and videos are sourced from Charlotte Omnès.