Tina Bell Stamos recently moved from California and now she calls Austin home. I spoke with Tina about her roots, influential icons and successful catering business that led her to becoming the talented visual artist that she is today.

Where are you from originally?
I’m originally from a small town in Western Kansas called Stockton.  Population 1,300. Alice’s bakery was a regular Saturday morning stop and had the BEST donuts I’ve ever eaten. My kindergarten class toured her bakery and I swear, she was frying donuts in a Folger’s coffee tin on a camping burner; I think there’s something to that technique. We moved to Lawrence, Kansas when I was high school and I consider that home.

What college did you attend?
The University of Kansas – home to the great KU Jayhawks. That’s the only sport I watch and only if they are doing well. I’m a fair weather fan and don’t have cable.

The catering business took off so I decided to ditch the museum plan and go with food

Were there any other career options that you considered before going into food styling?
My degree is in Art History and was planning on grad school in museum studies. I love art but sadly, cannot draw my way out of a paper bag. So, I guess studying art/artist is the next best thing.  In the early stages of grad school, I decided to start a catering business to fund my education.  The catering business took off so I decided to ditch the museum plan and go with food.  I found my creative niche! I catered for 5 years and then segued into styling.  I’ve always wanted to work with food. It’s my best fit. I also develop recipes so I feel like it’s a balanced career. Visual + taste.

What made you decide on it?
While catering, I was contacted by Hallmark to assist on their newly launched magazine.  The first day I cooked bacon with tweezers and fell in love with styling.

I was really drawn into all aspects especially the visual approach to food.

Catering was taking it’s toll on my body and I knew I could not do it forever, so the timing to make a career shift was right.  I assisted my mentor who lives in San Francisco for about three years. Some of my first gigs were in Napa and San Francisco so it was pretty charming start. It’s a job that is challenging, you have to think on your toes and no two days are alike. I like that kind of work day.  I also have a pretty insatiable case of wanderlust and there’s a lot of traveling with this job.  Plus, I get to cook everyday and hang out with photographers…it’s pretty sweet!

Who are your biggest influences?
Iconic food inspirations would be James Beard, Alice Waters, Julia Child, and Martha Stewart (this is not always met with enthusiasm from others, but I love Martha). Every year, I attend a food retreat called Eat Retreat and always come back inspired and changed. It’s like summer camp for adults in the food world.  I think Chad Robertson from Tartine is a genius.  I can’t stop looking at Edible Shelby by Todd Shelby.  I want to eat at every single restaurant mentioned in that book.  I love Afield by Jesse Griffiths and photographed by Jody Horton – so beautiful!

Have you thought about becoming a food photographer?
No. I love styling.  I love photography and can take a halfway decent photo but I’ll keep it as a hobby.

Are you an all natural food stylist or do have tricks to make some of the food look real?
I don’t use a lot of chemicals on a food shot, but it’s kinda understood, you don’t eat the food on set. It’s been handled, might have a tee pin lodged in it. If it’s meat, it’s probably raw.  You have to be efficient on shoots and since you only see one side of things, you only cook one side.  So vegetables that look roasted have actually just been quickly browned in oil and only cooked on one side.

All food is prepared in components and then reassembled to work for the shot.  Meat looks best seared on the outside and finished with a torch so it’s totally raw on the inside.  You want it to stay plump and maintain it’s shape.  And then there’s ice cream or anything frozen.  Since you have about a 30 second window before it loses it’s barking you either have to go to set with dry ice and shoot fast or fake it. I always have a batch of fake ice cream in my kit just in case, so yes, I have tricks.

Do you have a favorite type of food to prepare?

At home, we try to keep eating out to a minimum and eat pretty healthy. It gets pretty wacky because I try to not throw away any food and I never follow recipes. I cook very instinctively and try to piece together what I have available.  Occasionally, I’ll obsess about perfecting a particular dish and will make it over and over again for months at a time.  After I got back from Spain, my obsession was the Spanish tortilla. Lately,I’ve been into making shrubs which are drinking vinegars.

Who is your dream client?
When I first started styling, it was Gourmet.  I still miss that magazine.  Right now, I’m in love with the direction digital magazines are headed.  For a bit, the quality of photos in magazines was really suffering but it seems like that’s on an upswing.  I’ve worked on several magazines that have sadly folded and that’s always been my favorite work.  It’s where you get to be the most creative, but as far as a dream client, I don’t
have one.

What projects are you currently working on?
Currently, I’m developing recipes for 2 chapters for a Better Homes & Garden’s Pantry Staples cookbook that will be coming out in 2014.  My chapter topics are quick casseroles and great grains.

Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to go into this profession?
Have buckets of patience!  It doesn’t happen overnight.  Not even close.  Assist as much as possible.  Practice, practice, practice. Have numerous skill sets that you can do.  Like styling + recipe development, or food and prop styling.

Be flexible, agreeable and check your ego at the door.

Food shoots are about collaboration of ideas and esthetics, but your ultimate job is to make the client happy. If they want you to loose the parsley sprig, do it.

What has been your most successful career decision so far?
To commit to the hustle.  We’ve been in Austin less than a year.  Before that, we were in California and before that, Dallas.  All within a three year period!  When we got to Austin, I didn’t want to go through the steps to reestablish myself in another place.  I was being very mopey about the whole thing.  I finally got over it, redid my web site and started building local connections.  I’m so glad I did because I’ve meet great people and gotten a good amount of work from my efforts.  I’ve accepted the fact that I will always have to tend to the not so fun parts of working freelance.  There’s not one thing or another that I did that was successful except for committing to this career and taking care of the details that go along with that decision.

Where is you favorite place to eat in Austin?

Oh lordy – so many!  I’m still exploring so it will probably change next week.  I love the son-in-law at Sway, everything at Elizabeth Street Cafe, the lobster roll at Perla’s and the ceviche at La Condesa.

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