Bread and Butter

In Lisa Cherkasky’s world, it’s okay to play with your food. She’s made a career of it.

You may want to think twice before taking a bite of Lisa Cherkasky’s lasagna. Cut into it and you’re likely to find nothing but paper towels and tinfoil below the top layer of cheese and noodles. The same goes for her roasted chicken recipe, which has been known to include superglue.

Cherkasky has spent the last 25 years working as a food stylist and writer for clients ranging from The Washington Post and National Geographic to Maggie Moos. She’s the one who makes the mouthwatering food you see in magazines look pretty, whether it’s with a paintbrush or a tiny blowtorch.

Born in Wisconsin, Cherkasky started cooking at age 9 and moved to Northern Virginia in 1966 when her father got a job at the U.S. Department of Commerce. In high school she worked as a personal chef for her boyfriend’s family. (His mother was Washington Post gossip columnist Maxine Cheshire.) After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1979, she worked in several D.C.-area restaurants, including Restaurant Nora, Le Pavilion, Le Lion D’Or and the Tabard Inn.

Now 55, Cherkasky lives in Alcova Heights with her 12-year-old son, Teddy Telzrow. The dinners she cooks for him, she assures, are 100 percent edible.  

How did you become a food stylist?
I started out in restaurants and then went to work at Time Life Books. They were doing a cooking series and I was hired for my cooking skills. I learned to style on the job. It’s one of those things people don’t teach you.

So how did you learn it?
I learned from the photographer and the art director. We all figured it out together. But it was super nerve-racking. It was scary.

Why scary?
You’re standing on set with the client and there’s a lot of money changing hands. There’s a limited amount of time and a lot of detail. They want things to look a certain way, and you may or may not know how to get that effect. These days it’s easier. There are books and classes on food styling that didn’t exist 25 years ago.

What do you like about food styling?
I really like working with my hands and manipulating materials. I like aesthetics and composition. And I love books. I just worked on a holiday cookbook by the Kosher Baker, and I’ve done three books for Warren Brown from CakeLove. I also did The Mount Vernon Cookbook with photographer Renée Comet last year.

Have you written any books on your own?
In 1992, Renée and I did a book together—The Artful Pie. To make a living I do a lot of other things too—commercial stuff like video and advertising and catalogs and packaging. And I do some work for magazines, although they don’t have the budgets they used to have.

Where do you work?
I’m always on location and I might have five different locations in one week. I drive a lot. I hate the driving. I used to bike to work when I worked in a restaurant. It was wonderful.

When you style, do you make the food? Or do you hang out with the chefs as they are cooking and then just plate it? How does it work?
It depends on the job. Sometimes I shop, cook and work on the set from start to finish. Sometimes I even develop the recipes. Other times I work with a chef. The chef will bring me the completed dish, and then the dish in parts, and I put it together.

What’s in your toolbox?
Bamboo picks, forceps, paintbrushes, eyedroppers, spritzers, little sharp scissors, a couple of jeweler’s torches, spray bottles, Goo Gone, Windex and Armor All. I also use a lot of Kitchen Bouquet [seasoning sauce]. I can make a glass of wine or coffee or tea by mixing a few drops of it with water. It’s light and it’s cheap, so I don’t have to buy bulky liquids and carry them. I also work a lot with paintbrushes. If something catches my eye as distracting, I take it off or paint over it to enhance it.

So the food isn’t edible after you play with it?
Sometimes it’s edible and I take it home (a nice job perk). Sometimes it isn’t…like if it’s been mended with superglue. Sometimes it’s moderately edible, as in cooked but without any seasoning. My rule with ingredients is that if it doesn’t show, I don’t put it in. That brings the grocery budget down and speeds things up. It’s a pretty fast pace, so any step I can skip, I skip.

Any other tricks of the trade that you can share?
When you have a stack of pancakes, you can pin all the blueberries so they don’t roll off. When you cut open strawberries or watermelon, if they don’t look so good, you can paint them inside with food coloring. You can enhance the color of lots of foods once they’re open—like mangos and peaches. And I use Cool Whip instead of whipped cream all the time because it sits forever.

I read that celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis started as a food stylist. Do you have TV aspirations?
I actually was a finalist for the next Food Network Star. I signed a contract, but it fell through. And that’s okay. I would have liked the money, but not the work. I think you have to have unlimited confidence and I don’t have the personality for it.

What was your favorite food styling project?
My own book—or any cookbook. I did the cookbook for the National Museum of the American Indian. The food was great and I believed in the book. It was fun working as a team on it. I’m lonely for the company of other cooks.

Do you ever think about going back to restaurants?
Maybe when I retire or maybe when my son goes to college. But what I do now allows a more flexible schedule. I can’t chose when I want to work, but I can choose when I don’t want to work.

How are you different from other food stylists?
I am trying to push an agenda of food looking natural. I don’t want it to look too stiff and plastic and perfect and posed. I like it if food can look more like real food.

What do you like the most about cooking?
I like how it brings people together. Our identity is so wrapped up in what we eat. Food is one of the most important things after breathing and your heart beating. Everyone needs to eat. You want to share it and do it with somebody else.

Do you consider yourself an artist?
I don’t paint or do anything like that, but my work is very similar. The plate is an empty canvas.

Wendy Kantor teaches journalism at the Arlington campus of George Mason University. She lives in Ballston with her husband and two dogs.

Categories: People