Words by Katy Kelleher
Intentional Mess
Photography by Zack Bowen and
Food Stylist Catrine Kelty Influences Culinary Art from Her Buxton Home

Catrine Kelty went into food styling “kicking and screaming.” In 1998, a photographer friend asked her to bring her expert eyes and well-trained hands to a shoot they were doing for a Mariposa home goods catalog. At the time, she was a stay-at-home mom in Boston, but she had a background in restaurant management. The daughter of a butcher, she’d grown up with food in its various stages of undress. It wasn’t strange her friend would ask this favor, though it was prescient—this shoot marked the beginning of Kelty’s influence on the culinary visual arts scene.

Twenty years later, working often from her new home in Buxton, Kelty’s publications list rings in longer than a Hannaford receipt running up to Thanksgiving. You may not know her name, but you’ve probably seen her art. She’s worked for Bon Appetit Magazine, Yankee Magazine,and Boston Globe Magazine. Her corporate clients include Stop and Shop, Green Mountain Coffee, and Hannaford. She’s styled cookbooks for Stonewall Kitchen, Moosewood Kitchen, and the chefs at Eventide in Portland. Her appealingly messy (but always elegant) aesthetic has changed how many people envision, and often present, their favorite foods.

It’s a subtle thing, what Kelty does, the kind of behind-the-scenes work that is often overlooked in favor of the flashier artistic credits like photographer, writer, or chef. “Think of food like it is a person. I’m like a makeup artist. You can’t cake the makeup on; you need it to look real. It’s about enhancing. If a model has beautiful eyes, let’s enhance those eyes.” But instead of applying coal-black mascara, Kelty’s medium is lapsed time. She considers how food shifts as it melts, cools, flakes, and ultimately gets consumed. “If the food is ice cream, it’s luscious, it has a bit of melt,” she says. “Let’s enhance that—not so much as it creates a puddle, but so much it looks delicious.”

The goal of food styling is to take an edible object and delectably freeze it on film. While it may seem like an Instagram-spawned phenomenon, food styling dates to the 1930s and the advent of full-color advertising. According to Feast for the Eyes, a 2017 book on food photography by historian Susan Bright, we have Hungarian-born photographer Nickolas Muray to thank for the hyper-saturated, painstakingly arranged tablescapes of mid-century modern cookbooks. Back then, stylists created inedible dioramas that only lookedgood. They used glue for milk, soap bubbles for froth, and Crisco for ice cream. They sprayed deodorant on cold glasses to look frosty and hid incense inside a plate of pasta to create steam.

Kelty does not go in for this kind of food trickery. She likes food to look real, and real food is often imperfect.

A classic example, Kelty says, is when there is a lime on a shoot. “I’ll say, ‘Let’s squeeze [the lime] in a way that you know it’s been squeezed.’” She likes a lime to look wrung dry, its sharp acidic tang spread all over the cheesy quesadilla it’s there to garnish. Similarly, she likes cake that has crumbles on the plate and pasta sauce that has spattered a little.

“Food is organic,” she explains. “It moves. I have always been a bit into the mess.”

When she started styling, mess wasn’t as common. Clients asked her to make the food look polished and pretty. Now, art directors want a “modern rustic” style, which is naturalistic and influenced by the farm-to-table movement (think juicy produce, leggy fresh herbs, and whole-roasted fowl). This type of styling is Kelty’s bag. “I’m lucky. The industry has grown with me,” she says.

Kelty’s food styling is all about intention, “about stopping and saying, ‘What happens to this bread when I smear mayonnaise on it? What happens when I bite this burger?’”

She helps convey this message through light use of props. Kelty likens her work to managing a theatrical performance. The food is the star, but the props are “supporting actors that help the food be its best.” A linen towel, carelessly thrown near a plate of roasted chicken, helps enhance the scene. “Maybe she was cooking when the phone rang,” Kelty says. “I’m always making up backstories for everything that happens.”

In her old farmhouse she is surrounded by her favorite props, piled chromatically on most flat surfaces. The 10 acres her house sits on, near the Saco River, surround her with artistic inspiration. “Nature feeds me,” she says. “I’ll be mowing the lawn and get an idea. Being in a rural setting gives me peace. It gives me ideas.”

Maine is a “food place,” Kelty muses. Mainers value food and eat well because it’s part of the culture, not a fad. “I want [clients] to come to me and do shoots in my house and garden,” she says. “That’s my dream.”

You can get a glimpse into this dream via Kelty’s Instagram, where she shares pictures of lilacs and eggs, bowls of peaches and mugs of tea. She isn’t herself a photographer, but she knows how to capture a beautiful moment. Sometimes, that means letting nature be what it is—messy, decayed, dilapidated. Some of her images are like 17th-century still-lives, where glorious flowers are always on the edge of losing their petals and pears can never be too ripe. “I always say there’s beauty in the compost,” she reveals. “Once, I found oranges that were rotting. They made a beautiful picture.”

Artfully Messy Kimchi

Catrine Kelty styled the picture of this recipe that appears in Eventide, the cookbook recently released by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House. The book was written by the trio who own and operate the popular Portland restaurant by the same name—Arlin Smith, Andrew Taylor, and Mike Wiley—in conjunction with Sam Hiersteiner.

Makes 10–12 cups

5 jalapeños, stemmed and coarsely chopped

3 bunches scallions, white and light green parts, coarsely chopped

1 cup fish sauce

1 cup light soy sauce

1 cup gochujang (Korean chili paste)

10 garlic cloves, peeled

5 tablespoons kosher salt

4 quarts filtered water

1 large head green cabbage, outer layers removed and reserved, cored and thinly sliced

1 large carrot, peeled and julienned

1 large (8- to 12-inch) daikon radish, peeled and grated

To make the kimchi base, combine the jalapenos, scallions, fish sauce, soy sauce, gochujang, and garlic in a food processor and puree until smooth.

In a large nonreactive container, dissolve the salt in the water. Add the base puree to the brine and mix well. Add the sliced cabbage, carrot, and daikon to the brine, cover with the reserved cabbage leaves, and weigh down with a plate. Cover the container and let stand at room temperature for 3–5 days, until the vegetables taste pleasantly sour. Store the kimchi in its brine in the refrigerator for up to several months. When serving, use a slotted spoon to remove the solids.


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