Laura Wright, aka @thefirstmess, tells #EnsemblExchange about “unicorn” food, the nostalgia in looking at pictures of food, and why she is underwhelmed with dessert.
Laura Wright is a chef and an award winning author and food blogger, focusing on seasonal, plant-based recipes. Her cookbook, The First Mess, contains beautiful recipes (both in terms of their visual appeal and taste) as does her blog, which goes by the same name.
We were lucky to have the opportunity to sit down with Laura to talk about food: making food beautiful, sharing food with friends and family, and why we love beautiful food photos. She was also kind enough to share some of her favorite tips for making food pop - both on your plate and in a photo.
Tips from Laura Wright.
Three ways to make your food pop.
1. A sprinkle of fresh herbs. Fresh herbs offer an instant pop of colour. If the dish already uses herbs, save some to garnish with at the end. If the dish did not use herbs, try something that won’t have a huge impact on the flavour, like a few sprigs of parsley.
2. A drizzle of olive oil. This is great, especially for creamy dishes. The contrast of the oil on top of the creamy base not only makes the dish look incredible, but the oil is functional and helps to carry flavors over your pallet.
3. Contrasting spices. Try finishing a dish with spices in a contrasting colour. Fresh cracked black pepper, or a sprinkling of bright red Aleppo chilies can also add a beautiful and appetizing finish to a monochromatic dish.
Our conversation with Laura Wright.
Could you tell us how you started sharing recipes and photos of your food?
I studied environmental ethics at the University of Toronto and went to culinary school at George Brown College, but I grew up in agriculture and farming, and I’ve always worked in restaurants and pursued food related endeavours. When I moved back to my home region of Niagara, I started working in a restaurant; it was wonderful but not terribly busy, and I found I often had extra time on my hands. I started searching for a creative outlet, and a friend suggested I start a website where I could share tips on cooking; she said she had learned a lot about cooking from me, and thought those lessons could be easily translated into a blog format for others to read and learn from. When I started, I did not know a lot about photography, so the website began as a place for me to practice and hone those skills. And it has evolved and come a long way since then!
Has the way you work changed since the arrival of Instagram?
Yes! Instagram has really changed the way I interact with people. Direct messaging gives people a direct, instant line of communication, and I frequently get messages from people asking questions in real time as they make one of my dishes. It has in some way turned me into a cooking questions hotline!
It has also changed the way I get to ask questions back to my audience. For example, I’m considering writing a second cookbook* but am not quite sure what direction it should take. I decided to pose the question to my followers in a InstaStory, and within 24 hours had been able to really gage what people are looking for in the cookbooks they choose to buy.
*Check out Laura’s first cookbook – The First Mess
So cool! Can you tell us what people want in a cookbook?
Absolutely! I think, when it comes down to it, lots of people are looking for the key to making “unicorn food” – those elusive dishes which are healthy, affordable, and you can make in 20-30 minutes using a single pot/pan with ingredients which are seasonal and readily available – both in terms of fresh produce as well as in terms of what would be on hand in a well-stocked pantry.
Why do you think people like to look at pictures of food on Instagram? Is it just that they like seeing pretty pictures? Or is there something there that is more intrinsic?
Of course, I think people like to look at beautiful photos, but it definitely goes deeper than that, and I think there are a lot of factors that are at work.
I think a lot of people are motivated by elements of aspiration and curiosity. They may aspire to be healthier or consume more vegetables, and may be curious about what they can make with certain vegetables or how to incorporate more vegetables into their routine. I publish a lot of healthy, plant-based food, so people who want to make healthier choices and create healthy meals, especially meals with more vegetables, are inspired by the photos.
I think there is also an element of nostalgia in food photos. When you look at beautiful pictures of food it can take you back to a time when you shared those foods with your family and people that loved you; a time when you were cared for. Whether that means looking at a food that was shared during the holidays or comforting everyday dishes, I think that food and photos of food evoke nostalgic feelings of coziness, being home, and being with family. Perhaps in your daily life you are lacking that connection, and the photos can serve as a reminder and a way to take you back. Or, perhaps you are at a point where you want to recreate those memories – with your own family or with your friends. In either case, there is a familiarity that comes with seeing certain food photos that transports you back to another time and brings about those memories.
Galettes with fall fruit always look great, but many dishes - especially the hearty, saucy dishes we gravitate towards in the cooler months - come out of the pot looking drab. How do you dress up a less than photogenic dish?
We are definitely in the season of very beige food, but I think it’s totally fine to embrace the beige! There are so many great fall and winter dishes that are shades of beige and brown; they come out with a gorgeous, glossy, creamy color, and I actually think that looks good.
However, there are lots of simple things that you can do that can improve the presentation as well as the flavor of these dishes. When I’m making a stew or risotto I love to use fresh herbs, and I always save some to put on top of the dish when I’m done, which instantly adds a pop of color. The other thing that’s great to do is to add a nice slick of olive oil on top of the dish before serving; the contrast of the oil on top of the creamy base not only makes the dish look incredible, but it’s functional and helps to carry flavors over your pallet and intensify the taste. Finishing a dish with fresh cracked black pepper, or a sprinkling of bright red Aleppo chilies can also add a beautiful and appetizing finish to a monochromatic dish.
How much of food do you think is visual versus how it tastes? Do you think the appearance changes the way people perceive the dish? And do you think appearance changes the way we taste our food?
I think appearance definitely changes the way people perceive the dish, especially with healthy food. You want it to look amazing so people want to dig in!
Making dishes with incredible color contrast has the power to magnetize people and draw them in; that’s half the battle! If you can do that, plus season vegetable dishes properly, people will be mesmerized and will want to keep eating.
When you’re working on recipes, how much focus is put into making something that tastes great, vs making something that looks great?
When I’m creating a recipe, it is always flavor first. I’m definitely tuned into the fact that I have to work to make a dish look presentable, but appearance is always secondary to taste.
Do you have a favorite ugly food/dish that tastes incredible? And a dish food/dish looks incredible, but only has mediocre flavor?
Ugly dish that tastes incredible? Mushroom risotto! It never looks good, but is always so comforting and delicious.
Beautiful dish that underwhelms with taste? I often find I’m underwhelmed by desserts. They can look so beautiful, but the taste often does not match.
What are you most excited about cooking this fall? This winter? And what dish has you counting down until spring and summer are here again?
This fall: Curries, soups, stews –I’m planning on making these and eating them for a few days. I love the carry over potential of cozy fall food! Right now, I’m working on a honey nut squash chilli with raw cacao powder, adobo powder, quinoa, and beans.
During the winter, I can’t wait to make my first pot of French onion soup, which I’ll add lentils to and eat with a ton of bread.
And for the summer - Anything with corn! I love fresh corn chowder, and freshly picked corn on the cob with salt is so sweet, tender and delicious. I’m already missing this and looking forward to next summer.
Do you have a favourite food photo? What makes it your favourite?
My favorite photo is an overhead shot of all these different varieties of cut heirloom tomatoes. I grew the tomatoes myself in my first garden in my first home with my partner. I had at least six varieties of tomatoes and I had cut them and placed them on a baking sheet so I could roast them to make tomato soup. They were lined up beautifully - I was about to drizzle them with olive oil and sprinkle thyme – and they look like jewels. The photo reminds me of how hard we worked to put the garden in, and how much effort it took to grow the tomatoes. I’ve been around agriculture my whole life, but there was something so special about doing it myself in my first home, and this photo symbolizes all of that.
Final question: It’s the last meal you can cook. What are you making, and what does the photo look like?
My last meal would probably be pizza; it’s one of my favorite things to make, it’s so relaxing, and I love making the dough. I don’t have a pizza oven but I put a pizza stone on my barbeque and it gets really hot, so the pizza comes out nicely crisp. I don’t know if I would spend a lot of time taking a photo if it was my last meal; I’d really want to focus on being present and enjoying the moment, not being on my phone. But I might do a quick live Insta-story (“Hey guys, making my last pizza!”) and then get back to the food. But yes, definitely pizza. It’s my forever happy food. I love making it. I love eating it. I love everything about it.
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