ASKING A CHEF: BERNADETT VANEK

Today we're talking to Bernadett, a plant-based chef, photographer, teacher, passionate herbalist, and an amazing food stylist!

She was born in a small village amongst the mountains in Hungary but life took her places and now she resides in California. You can read more about her on her blog.

 

Bernadett is one of my biggest inspirations when it comes to styling herbs and veggies but I'm like a few hundred levels behind in mastering this skill. In this interview, we chat mainly about process and inspiration but also about difficulties of organizing your own work, some importance of physical exercise and surfaces!

WORK

When moved from England to California you have suddenly become free to choose what to do, can you tell our readers why you have chosen to pursue culinary arts and photography?

Both cooking and photography have been my hobby for many many years and I was told by friends and family that I am really good at them. It was natural to pursue these to see where it leads.

Being a chef, a photographer and a teacher, which one of these occupations you think you enjoy the most?

I think I would say teaching. In both photography and cooking. Teaching requires a certain skill, other than knowledge of the subject. Being able to pass on your knowledge is a crucial factor in being a good teacher. I do have that skill and it is the most rewarding to see others being able to do something after you taught them.

When I look at your plating it really mesmerizes me. Patterns, colors, and composition that you choose clearly shows your sophisticated taste. Do you think this is something you developed while going to culinary schools or is it an internal thing that was always there? In other words, do you think that a formal education helped you to shape your vision or was it a tool to help to manifest it?

The culinary school didn’t teach me this. I remember when we had to plate the first thing at school, a simple fruit salad with the practiced citrus supremes. I had no idea how to make it look good. I thought this is something I will never be good at it. Cooking yes but not plating. I think it was photography that helped me shape this skill. I never really plan what a plate will look like. When the components ready I just start plating and let my eyes lead me and help me until the plate looks beautiful.

How long does it take to develop a recipe?

I think about it a lot. About ingredients and textures. This is the part that takes the longest. I will also refer to back my favorite book, The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. This is a book all the possible ingredients and will simply list anything and everything that goes well with them. This often gives me new ideas, many times it confirms my instincts and very rarely diverts me away from my initial thought.

How do you choose what recipe to work on next?

It is simply what I see at the market and what comes to my mind when I am thinking of the current availability.

I know you like experimenting with different cultures’ cuisines, which ones you can call your favorites?

My favorite cuisine to eat is definitely Asian and Mexican. Probably because of the amount of spice and fresh herbs these cuisines use.

In the process from creating a dish in your mind to editing a final photo of it, what part is the most challenging?

The most challenging is definitely plating, styling for camera. When you prepare a plate of food to eat, so many variations look amazing on the plate. Somehow your eyes will take everything else around you into consideration. Once you want to take a photo that grabs the eye, and there is beauty, it is another story. The same plate of food looks too messy, too much or just simply not pleasing the eye at all. I definitely find this the most challenging part.

When you taught your very first workshop, how did you find your audience and what lessons did you learn from that experience?

I found the audience very interested and honestly really appreciative. It did surprise me how much I can teach them. I had to realize I can give so much and have to be prepared to explain even in more details.

What was the most fascinating milestone of your journey as a chef?

Although overall it was really a not positive experience, my stage at The Restaurant at Meadowood. Specifically when I was plating that food while people were watching at the Chef’s Table in the kitchen.

I know you styled for Final Table on Netflix, did this experience differ from styling in your own kitchen? Was it challenging and if it was how did you approach the challenge?

This was a completely different experience. Styling there was more about making sure the plates can withstand the time that they needed to wait before shootings. Also I gave guidance on how to show the plates on camera. I would love to say it was challenging, but I did not feel that way.

Question about surfaces (of course:) ) Do you think having background surface makes photographing process different from not having one?

A good surface is definitely helping me to frame my composition. Although my plates are predominantly focused in and showing the whole plate of food, the right surface helps me add more background and lead the eye towards the food. On the contrary, when I shoot produce stills I like to zoom out and show more and the right surface will make the subject pop out. It will also allow me to compose the image without framing restrictions.

And a sensitive one: about the financial aspect of being self-employed, do you feel what you make is enough to support yourself and your passion or there's something else in this for you, of a different value than income?

I am lucky enough to have a husband who has been supporting me both emotionally and financially. For years I did not even have the right to work in the US and it was really tough for me to accept my circumstances. Now that I can, I have more chance to work as a private chef than a photographer. When it comes to photography somehow people think free work or some sort of trading is acceptable. I am fully aware of the quality of my work and I am standing in the line of those photographers that say no that kind of attitude.  Luckily people do want to learn from me so having photography classes is the perfect option for me.

At the same time, I do not work every single day and I hope I will not have to. Only this freedom makes it possible for me to keep on creating beautiful dishes and images. I can be totally lost in time when it comes to photography and by then already spent hours with shopping, cooking and plating a dish. Without flexibility in working schedule, I would not be able to do this.

BODY

Being your own boss can be difficult in the meaning of prioritizing things and one of the things that is rather easy to neglect is our physical body (for me at least). How does it come for you to take care of timely meals and workouts throughout your work week?

It is difficult. Luckily I do workouts and hiking with my husband so he will always be there nudging me. Food is different. I am responsible for feeding people during the week and separately feeding my husband every single day. Truth to be told sometimes I forget about myself. Lately I started a new habit and I prepare a very large smoothie with coconut water, blueberries, banana, acaii, kale, plant protein and some superfood powder, such as wheatgrass, spirulina, pine pollen. This will help me feeding my body for the first part of the day at least.

Does workout help you to sharpen your mind? What do you do?

I don’t feel it sharpens my mind but it fills me with energy definitely. Last year I was preparing for a Spartan race with my husband that changed my usual simple running and some weight lifting regime. We now train and work with our own weight in the gym and do trail runs.

Are there any special foods or drinks that help you maintain your body’s well being?

Definitely. That morning smoothie. And juices.

MIND

Having a creative mind may come with a burden of being excited about too many things at once, do you happen to experience anything of this sorts? If you do, how do you narrow your focus?

It is interesting you ask me this. I did not think this is something that a creative mind has but I definitely find very very difficult to concentrate on one thing. I can’t narrow my focus, is something pops up in my head, I have to follow otherwise I lose momentum. Someone should maybe teach me how to deal with this. Any idea?

In times when you don’t feel it but need to get the work done, are there any “tools” that help you to “tune in” and keep going? Maybe music, books, podcasts or practicing mindfulness?

Music definitely helps me keep going. I would also lie down for a little while and think about the task and gather the power and willingness. Working all by yourself is really hard at times. Self motivation is definitely a necessity when my work has many many components that are not the most enjoyable and definitely tiring. For example cleaning and tidying up after myself :)

Do you have any morning or night rituals/routines? If you do, what they are?

I don’t mind waking up early but my morning has to start slow. I am unable to talk and do anything important for about 30 minutes. I will make my coffee, sit down and either watch TV or just stare, think and enjoy the drink.

In the evenings I like to spend a little time with reading before falling asleep. Reading in bed something I really love.

INSPIRATION

I know you love your garden and your market trips, I enjoy a lot when you show them in stories and can definitely feel the love even through the screen! But let’s imagine you don’t have a garden and only source of fresh produce is the nearest supermarket, would you still find the inspiration in that available choice or turn to something else to get inspired?

I would definitely be able to make beautiful dishes and photos but they would not be the same anymore. The freshness and beauty that is the most important for me would be lost. I would make dishes but those ingredients would not be able to inspire me.

I have no idea if I could find expressing myself in another way, but to be honest I never in a million years thought I could do what I do now.

WISDOM

What would be your piece of advice to an emerging chef and food stylist that is trying to get some audience?

Learn learn learn and practice practice practice. Work with something that you LOVE. That makes you happy, smile and say wow, even after many many years. Never copy others. Gather inspiration and find your own voice. You will not necessarily realize you found your own voice, because it will be yours and so natural to you that you cannot even realize how uniquely yours. And then others will tell you. This is what happened to me.