EyeSwoon

  • A few qualities and pursuits have been driving forces in my life. For one, I am guided by aesthetics in everything I do. Beauty elevates the ordinary. Our eyes can’t help but linger over a thoughtful table setting, well-composed image, or alluring dish. And that brings me to my next preoccupation – I love, crave, and obsess over delicious food. This satisfaction absolutely extends to cooking for others. As a people-pleaser at heart, nothing brings me more joy than creating a meal for those I love. I relish the look on their faces as they savor their first bite, and the connectivity that fills a room when we are gathered for a meal. Finally, I am a curious creature, I am overly honest at times, and most of all, I’m a sharer. I love to pass along tips and provide insight into my creative journeys in hopes they will inspire others. For all of these reasons, I had yearned to create a cookbook for years.

    The making of a cookbook is a very opaque process until you are deep into the endeavor. I imagine everyone has his or her own approach, but I thought you might want to hear how I went about creating Cook Beautiful.

    From start to finish it was a 2.5-year undertaking that was exciting, eye-opening, educational, and challenging at times. I was fortunate to have concepted the book directly with my publisher, Abrams. Serendipitously, I had a meeting with my manager Karen Robinovitz just as she was wrapping up a rendezvous with the Abrams team for another client. We all got to talking and a tossed out a few ideas off the cuff – and suddenly, a book was born. My editor at the time, Camaren Subhiyah, helped guide me along. She shared what sells and what does not, (and the latter is apparently an entertaining book, since buyers do not know where to place it on a shelf). She drew out of me what I wanted and needed to say while simultaneously molding my ideas into ones that she, as a publishing professional, would sell.

    As I began to write my proposal, I also met with another publisher through a friend. I was eager to learn as much as I could about this unknown world and was taking any meeting I could. The perfectionist in me wanted all the information possible before doing a deep dive into my book’s every detail. Well, I could and likely should have walked out of that second publisher’s office with my tail between my legs, sobbing. Man, was she brutal. She literally said, “Why does the world need another book from a vapid blogger? With so many acclaimed chefs and successful restaurants out there, why would anyone buy your book? What do you have to say that no one else has said? What makes you special?”

    While her delivery could have been a little less harsh, I walked out laser-focused on honing in on my point of view. It took some pondering and massaging, but I finally got there. I am not just food. I am not just design. I am not just entertaining. I am not just lifestyle. I am a little bit of all of these things. First and foremost, I strive to create a delicious plate of food that shocks the palate with bold flavor. BUT — I love to make things look beautiful, too. My eyes inform all that I do. I am always looking for that moment of beauty. In the kitchen and around the table is where all of these overlapping passions unite. For so many years I believed you had define yourself by a single pursuit in life, but my breadth is my strength – and the cookbook would follow suit. It was to be an amalgamation of food, seasonality, and design. It would combine bold seasonal flavors with industry cooking techniques and food styling secrets the home cook was simply not privy to. Each recipe would not only be photographed, but it would also offer a presentation tip, or “swoon tip”, as we came to call them. These swoon tip are my arsenal of easy tricks to improve flavor and efficiency in the kitchen, as well as the meal’s overall beauty. Making food both delicious AND a feast for the eyes.  I believe flavor and beauty, taste and visuals are always working in tandem with technique.

    The next leg of creating my proposal was to understand the design of the book. I am a highly visual person, so once I grasped the general layout and scope, ideas began to flourish. I worked with Amanda Jane Jones on the proposal design and she is AH-MAZE-ING! She created the original Kinfolk magazine. Amanda conceived of such thoughful solutions, particularly the grid of images for the seasonal tablescape décor tips, which is one of my favorite visual statements throughout the book.

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    Together we also assigned a hue to each season. This color concept came about at once, as thoughts I had been mulling over suddenly crystallized. As I was establishing the idea for this book, I began to reflect on how the season dictates not only the produce at the markets, but also the way we feel and cook month to month. Scrolling through my Instagram, it hit me – the palette of my feed mirrored the season too. Pink and bright blues in the sea and horizon line surfaced in summer. Earthy tones like browns and yellows took root in autumn. Bright, crisp greens appeared as the delicate herbs and veggies returned in spring. And dark and moody hues reigned in winter. I knew I needed to express this transition visually in the book.

    As for the content, I wanted the images and recipes to be beautiful and inspirational but also accessible. My core philosophy is, with simple ideas and thoughtful planning, your results can appear far more refined and difficult than they actually are. My goal was to demystify the beauty. I would offer tips on how to elevate the visual appearance of your food – because the presentation of meals, in my humble opinion, is as important as the taste.

    At this point I began to jot down dish ideas. The goal was 100 recipes – 25 for each season. Many of these meals were ones I made often for my family. This exercise helped me see where I was recycling the same combinations over and over again. It allowed me to understand where I should push myself out of my comfort zone. This ideation process took awhile as I kept adding, editing, and taking away – so, eventually I decided to get into the kitchen and begin developing.

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    Since I started EyeSwoon, in the back of my mind, when everybody always says, 'What's your five-year plan?' I've always said, 'I'd love to do a cookbook. A cookbook would be my dream.'

    This was March of 2016, when we had temporality moved into a small apartment in the townhouse we just purchased. Previously I had always had these beautiful, open kitchens – and most importantly, kitchens with appliances in working order. By contrast, this apartment had a janky kitchen, including an oven that was 200 degrees off – and the whole thing was the size of a small closet. Nevertheless, this experience only added to the adventure.

    Development took place from March to June as I simultaneously took a 100-hour techniques course at the ICC, International Culinary Center. You see, when I signed the cookbook deal, I decided to invest in myself and finally enroll in that culinary program I always dreamed of taking. But this meant spending two nights per week, from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., in a professional kitchen, and all day developing for Cook Beautiful and shooting content for EyeSwoon. I am not complaining. It was INCREDIBLE to be so immersed in the culinary world. But man, was it exhausting.

    The development went like this – each night before bed I would choose four recipes to develop from my ongoing list, (a list that was more in the 200-recipe range at this point – editing is not my strong suit!). I would run to the market at 7:30 a.m. after getting Jivan off to school, then get into the kitchen by 8:30 or 9 a.m. I was fortunate to work with a few amazing ladies on this. They were culinary pros I could bounce ideas off of. They would write down exactly what I was doing, give things a taste, and offer advice and input. And anyway, let’s face it – cooking is more fun with another creative beside you. Many thanks to Dawn Perry, Cara Nicoletti, and Molly Shuster for their endless kitchen swoonery!

    We would develop three to four recipes with precise notes, documenting and timing every step of the way. I have always been an intuitive cook, so this scientific approach, I’m not gonna lie, sometimes took the joy out of creating. Also, in using this method, sometimes the food did not taste as good as when I was just “feeling” my way through. That meant at times things needed to be tweaked and developed again to get the recipe right.

    At the end of each day I reviewed my chicken-scratch notes, typed them up, and sent them to my kitchen companion so she could check clarity and consistency of language, (e.g. am I saying, “cook until golden brown for five minutes,” or “cook for 5 minutes, until golden brown” across all recipes?). Then I’d send to my editor for review. I also took iPhone photos of each dish I made and organized them a Dropbox folder for reference.

    Once I got through the 100 recipes and felt confident with how everything tasted, I needed to get the recipes tested. There are two schools of thought here. One, have friend and/or followers test your recipes, or two, hire a professional recipe tester. I was warned that using a professional yields better results. So, I hired two recipe testers, lovely ladies Pearl Jones and Molly Shuster, the latter of who tested the recipes she did not develop with me. The goal was for each tester to be able to understand and follow the recipe to an absolute T, without using any intuition at all. I created a form for each person to fill out so they could provide rigorous feedback on the directions, order of ingredients, ease of making the dish, how closely they followed directions, and of course, taste. THEN I went back and adjusted the recipes based on their input. Sometimes I remade the recipe altogether, to be sure their feedback produced the flavor profile I was after.

    At this point, I moved onto selecting my photographer, the amazing Johnny Miller, and decided on my styling and production team. Abrams really wanted me to food-style and prop-style everything myself, but I wanted to up the ante and work with a crew who would elevate the final product. I had been a one-woman show for so long – cooking, plating, prop-styling, and photographing. While I love each of these elements equally, I knew that for something as permanent as a book, I wanted to surround myself with epic collaborators who would both bring my creative vision to life, and also raise the bar.

    I had worked with Rebecca Jurkevich in the past and knew she was the best of the best in the food styling world as well as one of the kindest, most ego-less humans I know. Each and every image of hers I saw in Bon Appétit, I swooned over. She is repped by Edge Reps, who my dear friend Rob Magnotta handles. Rob also represents Johnny Miller and helped me pull together my creative team. He understood my vision, a vision that straddled lifestyle, food, and tablescaping – and he felt Johnny’s energy would be up for the challenge of ping-ponging between these worlds. My shot list was ambitious, to say the least.

    Next up was the propping and securing of surfaces. I considered working with a stylist to prop & drop – basically just pull all the props and then I’d do styling on-set on my own, but I knew our days would be aggressive. I would be in many shots myself, and pulled into the kitchen, running to the local farms and beach for lifestyle captures, and also pulled into styling. I needed to be able to bop around and act as the overall creative director. So, I choose to work with the uber-talented Rebecca Bartoshesky.

    I created a mood board with Jenna Saraco, who is on my EyeSwoon team, to represent the overall essence of each season. I have included the fall mood board here.  I am also linking to my Cook Beautiful seasonal Pinterest Boards — FALL,  WINTER, SPRING, SUMMER so you can trace the source of my inspiration. In making it, we strove to pull in the tonality of the natural world. I used coppers, rusts, and browns, plus natural-colored linens and rough-hewn woods, to mirror the vibe of the autumn. Rebecca then found props and surfaces to match each season’s hue and sent me a PDF to approve, including pricing so we could remain on budget – which we did not!

    I am including the surfaces mood board for spring here, too, so you can see how the process came about. Once we confirmed all the props and surfaces, Rebecca and I went through each dish and assigned overall styling notes. We also created a daily shot list, which I am including at the bottom of this post.

    We photographed the book over two 5-day periods. In late June of 2015, we shot spring and summer at my home in Amagansett. And then in early October 2015 we shot fall in upstate New York at Westwind Orchard, my dear friend’s farm. We then took a day off to head back to Amagansett, as winter was shot again in my home out east. The days were really long. Everyone stayed in my home, save for Johnny, who lives not too far from me. We woke at 6:30 a.m., were cooking by 8 a.m., shooting by 9 a.m. and usually shot until 9 p.m. I had a blast, I was exhausted, and I loved learning and growing and seeing the recipes and book take shape.

    On-site I had all of my inspiration images, mood boards, and recipe-development photos up on a white board for John and the two Rebeccas to reference. I bounced back and forth from the kitchen to the set to the bedroom to put on clothes and makeup to be shot in. We danced, we ate, and we created beauty. All the while, I learned SO much about myself. At the beginning, I was a little meek and passive-aggressive, saying to Johnny or Rebecca things like, “well, I don’t know, maybe we should pull back just a little” or, “do you think that maybe, ummmm, we should not use that linen?”

    I was so used to doing it all myself, and having things turn out the way I imagined them in my mind’s eye. I struggled with having others execute and being less hands-on. I was also afraid to be straightforward and say, “guys, I don’t like that, let’s move on.” I wanted to be thoughtful and kind and “nice”. It was not working. When you are trying to capture 12 food shots and five lifestyle shots in a day, you need to be direct. But, I learned. I got my footing and and as the days went on, we found our flow.

    Next up came the photo editing. That was a doozy – so much amazing content to go through. Then came writing the headnotes, chapter intros, “swoon tips” and décor tips. I began with writing headnotes that were deeply personal, share the story of a dish’s inception but also offering cooking techniques and suggestions that would help pull the reader in. Then I worked with Natalie Goel on my team initially to get further ideas down while ensuring the notes were both witty and snappy at once. I then worked with the amazing Jenny Comita on editing all of the copy, shaping it, and making sure each visual tip was concise and varied.  We had a blast together and she elevated each and every one of my words. Then came the final design with Amanda Jane Jones. Once the images and copy were placed on the page, there was a surprise round of editing. Here I had thought I was done, but once the words are laid out, there is often a spacial issue, and this was particularly true for me since I write far too much. So, at this point Jenny and I began hacking away at the pristine work we had pored over for months and months.

    Man, oh man was this a journey. It really does take an army to create a cookbook. I wanted to share my tangled tale and express extreme gratitude to the amazing creative team who helped bring Cook Beautiful to life!

Creative Vision for Each Season

My Notes, Verbatim

  • Spring

    LOCATION: Amagansett — indoors at dining table with green yard behind us OR picnic on grass OR on back deck

    OVERALL PALETTE: Pale greens – grass, leafty branches, herbs, touch of pinks (expressed in food – radish and chive blossoms)

    SURFACES: Marble, pale beechwood, pale green plaster or metal surface

    FLORALS: Chive blossoms, fig branches, cherry blossoms, succulents, green leafy branches

    DIY TABLE IDEA: Potted/gift-wrapped herbs

    LINENS AND COOKWARE: White Staub, white and natural linens

  • Fall

    LOCATION: At local farm in Amagansett or Upstate at Westwind in barn or outdoors with apple orchard and barn in view

    PALETTE: Brown earth tones, rust tones, yellow, warm creamy naturals, warm woods, orange, reds, metals

    SURFACES : metals, warm wood boards, plywood, natural linen

    TABLESCAPE & FLORALS: Wheat bundles, squash & pumpkins & gourds, amber vessels, herb-infused olive oils, (since roasting so much in fall), note of gratitude

    LINENS AND COOKWARE: Copper cookware, soft brown and neutral linens, brown leather cord

  • Summer

    LOCATION: Amagansett yard with pool in view – around fire pit in yard OR at the Bay Beach or Louse Point OR friend’s waterfront home in Montauk

    OVERALL PALETTE: White, blue tones, blue-greys, purple-pinks, pinkish nude, cool tones

    SURFACES: White plaster, grey plaster, grey driftwoods, white painted wood, cement

    FLORALS: Wild, wispy flowers, herb bundles – herbs in bowls, berries – blueberry bush – rosemary, lavender, sage, white blooms

    DIY TABLE IDEA: Lavender simple syrup in mini bottles, herb smudge bundles to keep mosquitos away. Candles in glass vessels with sand and thyme, water bottles with herbs and cucumber

    LINENS: Pale grey, soft blue linens

  • Winter

    LOCATION: At house at dining table – against white wall with garland behind or at dining table location

    SURFACES: Black metal, black plaster, slate, grey marble, dark grey plaster

    PALETTE: Dark greys, wine/plum, deep blues, saturated black

    TABLESCAPE & FLORALS: Olive branch – garlands – pomegranates – kumquats on branches, citrus, deep wine blooms, chalkboard spoons/names, [aper bags with menu and take-away nuts, mulling spices in little sachets

    LINENS / COOKWARE: Cast iron cookware, dark grey, black linens, black candles, brass accents

Fall Shot List

  • Day 1: Westwind Orchard

    • Monday 10.17
      Call time 10 a.m.

      • Autumn Chapter Opener: Vast Farm capture – showing the fall foliage and the barn in the distance – this will be a double page spread 
      • Fall Produce Overhead (LET’S CONFIRM IF WE WILL DO AT ORCHARD)

      4 FALL FOOD BEAUTIES (I AM OPEN TO SHOOTING SOME ON THE TABLE)

      • Cauliflower puree soup
      • Pan roasted chicken with shallots and dates
      • Roasted delicata squash
      • Apple cake
      • Roasted broccolini

      FALL TABLESCAPE

      • Overhead fall table without food
      • Overhead fall table with food + with hands reaching
      • Food details on the fall table
      • Fall table with the barn in view – Athena setting the table or tying the herb olive oils – apple ladders with string lights in view

      DÉCOR DETAILS (SOME OF THESE CAN BE SHOT IN AMAGANSETT ON A SET)

      1. Copper tabletop detail
      2. Herb infused olive oil – still life
      3. Brown kraft paper bag with quote – as takeaway – still life
      4. Napkin on plate, leather cord, with name card / wheat & herb bundles
      5. White mini pumpkin cluster – still life
      6. Apple or pear branches – still life
      7. Multi pillar candles
      8. Ceramics stack with natural linens and wood flatware – still life or on table
      9. Amber vessels with fall greenery and fall tone florals – from table

      LIFESTYLE

      • Athena prepping squash in the kitchen
      • Process ingredient shot (tighter capture squash)
      • Apple cake prep, outdoors – seeing fall foliage
      • Gathering produce at farm
      • Try cover option of Athena holding a finished dish – outdoors
  • Fall Prop Styling Notes

    • Roasted Pumpkin and Brussels Sprouts With Poached Eggs  – 2 small plates

      Creamy Cauliflower Soup With Watercress Pistachio Pesto   – on fall table + beauty – 2-3 shallow bowls

      Meyer Lemon Ricotta Toasts With Blistered Tarragon Grapes – multiples on board  + blistered grape shot

      Jerusalem Artichoke, Celery, and Pear Salad – 1-2 dark, shallow plates on wood

      Tuscan Kale Salad With Lemon-Tahini Dressing  – use Athena’s existing bowl

      Shaved Brussels Sprouts, Pine Nuts, and Green Olives – bigger scene/ process shot

      Delicata Squash Agrodolce – shoot upstate . beauty in serving size platter

      Roasted Cauliflower With Lemon Zest, Parsley, Capers, and Jalapeno – shot in creamy neutral dish – tone on tone shot

      Miso-Glazed Carrots With Carrot-Top Pesto  – big platter w/ negative space. Pesto on side

      Charred Broccolini With Tomatillo Relish  – shoot on sheet pan

      Wild Mushroom Risotto  – 2-3 different shallow bowls, linens + spoons etc .

      Orrechietti With Kale, Fennel, and Sausage  – single bowl – 3/4 shot ?

      Slow-Cooked Arctic Char With Acorn Squash and Cranberry Chutney – platter / larger styled scene

      Seared Black Bass With Smashed Potatoes and Black Olive-Rosemary Vinaigrette  – shoot in vintage copper pan

      Swordfish With Plump Raisins and Roasted Lemon-Olive Chutney  – 2 plates w/ bowl of chutney

      Cast Iron Pan-Roasted Chicken Breasts in Cider Vinegar Sauce  – shoot upstate . cast iron pan. on concrete floor

      One-Pot Stewed Pork With Butternut Squash and Walnut Gremolata  – single plated, ochre linen.  Wood surface. rustic

      Hangar Steak With Caramelized Endive and Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes  – single plated, dark + moody

      Apple Cardamom Bourbon Cake  – shoot upstate on stone wall, in cast iron skillet

      Pear and Hazelnut Tart  – shoot whole and cut into on stone counter, powder sugar

      Carrot Cake Trifles With Mascarpone Crème and Pecans  – shot into,  2 – 3 decorative glasses

      Athena packing list :

      • string lights
      • black, circular metal tray
      • wooden planks
      • glass vessels + votives that I purchased from last time
      • copper elements on loan from salt house market
      • jon pandolfi plates + bowls for the tablescape
      • rough linen runner + frayed napkins
      • existing glass bottles + ingredients for herb infused olive oils
      • brown paper bags printed with gratitude quote
      • cast iron pan for apple cake + chicken recipes

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