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Photos by Eric Wagner

Eat with Your Eyes: Kathleen Day

Food—it’s all social media and marketing these days.

Yeah? And?

Katalina’s had been around well before the social media boom, but it’s no coincidence to us that the beautiful food churned out of Kathleen Day’s kitchen is oh-so-’Grammable—and her doors are always revolving with new customers.

Well there’s a reason for that revered following: Kathleen is a born marketer and a maker.

With the aid of talented photographers, Day is a professional food stylist in her own right, favoring organic detail over material manipulation, and her ingenuity both helps current menu items shine, and becomes the inspiration for new ones.

“The food I style [and make] is intentionally imperfect,” she said. “To me, perfection denotes a pretension and doesn’t allow for creative discoveries and happy accidents. When I’m forced to come up with solutions to make food look better that don’t involve fake ingredients, I usually discover something that makes the photo unique but natural in the process. A lot of my recipes are developed the same way; if you look at most food cultures, this is how many iconic dishes are created—using innovation to create great-tasting food using only what’s available.”

She took a break after a busy brunch Sunday to let Stock & Barrel get a peek at her palate/palette:

When did you realize that food styling was actually a thing? Years ago, my first job was working for the corporate offices of Nordstrom in Seattle as a copywriter. I got to know the fashion stylists and would sometimes freelance as a stylist’s assistant. I threw a shower for one of my coworkers and, one of the fashion stylists was really impressed with how I displayed the food. She said that I should be a food stylist. When she explained what that was, I was blown away that I could get paid for doing something that I loved doing so much!

Often, I think it gets associated with using fake ingredients to make a menu item look better. In your words, it’s really about leaving a dish alone. How did you develop that ideology? If the food is good, you don’t have to do much to it. The same things that make a good photo make food taste good: contrasting textures and colors are what we’re drawn to in taste as well as visually. We’ve evolved to crave food that’s multi-colored and textured. And if you have a beautiful, ripe piece of fruit—let it shine on its own. I ask myself what would make it more mouth-watering. If it’s simply the ripeness or color, often all that’s needed is a spritz of water to convey dewy freshness. Lately, I love using Malden Sea Salt and coarse-ground pepper as the only garnishes and even as visual cues as props scattered in the background. Salt and pepper are what we naturally reach for to season our food, and they look great visually, too.

Imperfection and improvisation often lead to the best photographs. I don’t like something to look too perfect or “styled” or it has no personality. If something doesn’t look good through the camera, the food probably isn’t good in the first place. Sure, you have to use tricks and a few artificial ingredients once in awhile because of the time and logistical constraints of a shoot, but the fewer the better. I think people can always tell when something is artificial, even if it’s subliminal. We have evolved, after all, to find food that’s good for us attractive, and if something’s been manipulated so much that it’s inedible, I think we have a sixth sense about it.

You talk about being design-driven. Which leads me to this: Do you, as a marketer and creative brain, picture a menu item as a photo shoot even before you picture it just as a dish? Especially with the proliferation of social media, I’m always thinking of how a menu item will look when I start to brainstorm a new menu item. When it comes to developing menu items, taste comes first, but then I ask myself if it will be identified specifically as Katalina’s when you read the ingredients or take that first bite. If the answer is yes, there’s usually something unique about the item that will make it stand out visually as well. I’m always amazed at the quality of photos my customers take with no professional lighting, styling or photographer. It makes my job so much easier, and I’m always rewarded for thinking about a dish visually beforehand. 

I think it’s fun that the person making the food is also in charge of how it’s presented. Do you relish in that dual role?  I really do. They say do what you love and you’ll find success. My role creating menu items and concepting advertising and marketing—the biggest creative components that play into my role as a restaurant owner—really do combine all of my passions and my experience. The first word people usually use to describe me is “creative.” The biggest challenge I’ve had to overcome is addressing the fact that running a successful restaurant is about 80 percent left-brained—administrative and people management—and 20 percent right-brained—the creative aspects of cooking/menu planning and branding. When I first opened, I pictured myself cooking and interacting with customers all day long. There are some owner-operators who do that, but I’m of the philosophy that in order to grow a business, you must focus on the big picture and empower your team to do what they do best. In working for big brands like Nordstrom and Victoria’s Secret in senior-level roles, I learned that in order to systematize and grow, you must optimize all areas of the business, so that’s meant focusing less on the creative, which is my inclination, and more on areas like human resources and financial planning. I now use the creative like a carrot on a stick. I’ll tell myself, if I better systematize inventory or automate onboarding, for example, then I can do another photo shoot or create a new menu item. The creative is the work that doesn’t feel like work, but I wouldn’t be able to do it if the administrative aspects of the business behind the scenes weren’t also the focus.

My dream job would be cooking, creating new menu items, decorating the cafe and planning and executing new campaigns all the time. Unfortunately, that’s not how you run and grow a successful restaurant.

Do you feel that Instagram is integral to the success of some restaurants? Obviously, the food must be good, but with everyone out there trying to find the most ‘grammable’ dishes, it does play a part, no? I think Fox in the Snow is a great example of someone who’s developed a unique brand look and feel and agency-level marketing primarily through social media. Historically, a business would rely on more traditional advertising like print to position itself so well. But as I alluded to, food won’t look good if it’s not really good. I think restaurants who have attention to detail in one area, such as how their food tastes, usually pay attention to details in other areas, too, and that’s what’s integral to a restaurant’s success—paying attention to all the details, so many of which go on behind the scenes. I feel like the (false) perception may be that if you have a good social media presence, you’ll be a success. It’s actually the opposite: If you do everything else right, your social media will be a success. As with the photography, the food comes first.

Do you take photos of your food when you’re out and about? Or just at your joint? I take photos of food if it’s truly unique such as when I travel internationally (to post) or if it might influence a future menu item (to reference later). I think there are so many people taking pictures of so much food that it’s become ubiquitous, and I have much too much on my plate, such as Katalina’s photos, to focus on creating the unique POV that a good feed requires. However, I really admire some feeds from local food bloggers and, again, am amazed how great their photos are without a stylist or professional lighting. They keep the bar high and I’m always inspired. Flowers and Bread and Dough Mama do a great job with presentation, plating and overall execution, and manage to do it consistently and regularly. It’s difficult to keep that up. They focus on quality, homemade ingredients, so it’s not surprising. They let the food sing on its own.

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Travis Hoewischer

I've been working in journalism in central Ohio for more than a decade, and have been lucky enough to be a part of (614) Magazine since the very first issue. Proud to live in a city that still cares – and still reads.

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