As a food writer and stylist, Ellen Jackson knows how to bring food to life. This is unsurprising, given that she has spent 12 years as a pastry chef in some of Portland’s top kitchens.
Despite being drawn to food and cooking from an early age, Ellen never considered a career working in restaurant kitchens. It was only after earning a degree in English Literature and spending six years working in commercial publishing in New York that she decided to attend culinary school. An internship at local restaurant, Wildwood led to Ellen to make a permanent move to Portland. She spent the next 12 years working as a pastry chef in restaurants such as Red Star Tavern, Higgins, and Park Kitchen before moving on to pursue her career in food writing and styling.
Ellen has been a regular contributor to the Food Day section of The Oregonian, Edible Portland, and Fine Cooking magazine, in addition to authoring and collaborating on numerous cookbooks. These include The Lemon Cookbook, The Grand Central Baking Book, The Paley’s Place Cookbook, and The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook. Her newest book, Classic Cookies with Modern Twists, comes out this month.
Passionate about food and sustainability, Ellen has worked with a number of local businesses that share these values, including Ruby Jewel ice cream, Carman Ranch, Stone-Buhr Flour Company and Farmers Ending Hunger. She is a board member of the Portland Farmers Market and is currently writing on a cookbook to celebrate the market’s 25th anniversary.
How did you make the transition from pastry chef to food writer and stylist?
I was determined to go in that I was going to make a food writing career work. I had quit my job [at Park Kitchen], and knew that there was no turning back. Since I had worked in the publishing industry, I knew how to write and was familiar with how the publishing business worked. So, I had some sense of what I was getting into.
That year, the conference for the International Association of Culinary Professionals was in Seattle. I decided to attend, thinking it would be a good way to make some connections. I contacted everyone I could think of and set up zillions of appointments. There was lots of cold calling and letter writing involved. Eventually I got my first break, and then another break, and another. It all just kind of snowballed from there.
I have since pieced together all kinds of different jobs, including food styling, recipe development, article writing, cookbooks (collaborations and my own), and writing for both websites and marketing and PR firms. I’ve combined those various jobs to fashion a career that allows me to make a decent living and fill my time.
What does a food stylist do?
A food stylist is the person who makes the food look beautiful and irresistible for the camera. It’s amazing how you can prepare a dish so that it looks really great to your eye, but when you view it through the camera lens it doesn’t look like anything special. Maybe not even appetizing.
There used to be a lot of tricks for making food look better. Things like using motor oil on pancakes instead of maple syrup, which isn’t as thick and runs run down the pancakes too quickly, or using glue instead of milk in cereal, because milk has a blue hue on camera. People think this is how the business of food styling works still, but those kinds of substitutes aren’t used much nowadays. With digital photography, it’s easier to fix things. With digital photography, the experience is different. You’re not working from a Polaroid, or needing to keep food on the set under hot lights looking good for an hour. Now we can use natural and edible ingredients, usually the real thing. If it’s a photo shoot for a certain brand of honey, or potato chips, you have to use the actual product—the honey or chips. But, if it’s a photo shoot advertising a certain brand of chocolate sauce, the ice cream doesn’t have to be “real.” I have to use the particular chocolate sauce the photograph is advertising, but I might use Crisco instead of ice cream, since it’s tricky to work with and melts quickly.
Can you tell me about your new cookbook, Classic Cookies with Modern Twists?
As a pastry chef, I have no shortage of cookie recipes. The challenge that the publisher presented with this book was to come up with twists for each of the classic recipes. So I’ve got lots of familiar favorites in there, like chocolate chip, peanut butter and ginger cookies, with unexpected twists or additions. For example, there’s a snicker doodle recipe that I added cocoa powder and smoky chili powder too, to create a spicy chocolate snickerdoodle. There’s a section with filled cookie recipes. One of them is similar to an Oreo. I created a salted caramel filling for that. I also have variations on bar cookies and brownies, including sandwiching mocha-apricot ganache between two skinny brownies.
How do you motivate people to start cooking when it’s so easy to just go buy cookies at a store?
This is the issue that I hope is at the root of all of my projects in some way or another. We need to get people back into the kitchen, but it’s about baby steps. It’s about providing recipes that are accessible and don’t have a long list of ingredients. It’s about making sure those ingredients are easy to find, and providing tips for how to fit cooking into your day without disrupting its rhythm. I try to develop recipes that can be broken down into steps and completed over two days. And of course, it’s critical to create recipes that are so mouthwatering that people have no other option but to run to the kitchen to make them.
What influences your baking style?
Like anybody starting out in a new field, I leaned on my culinary instructors and my early mentors for inspiration. I had my own interpretation of their styles before I figured out my own. What I learned along the way is that I’m most excited about simple, fruit-focused desserts that allow fresh, seasonal, high quality ingredients to shine. I like buying the best blackberries or chocolate available and not needing to do a ton of them. I’m definitely more drawn to rustic and homey desserts than I am to anything very composed, or to cakes and pastries of a complicated or architectural nature. I like combining sweet ingredients with herbs, and adding unexpected elements to classic desserts. For instance, I have a recipe for a strawberry Pavlova with tarragon-infused whipped cream in the Portland Farmers Market Cookbook.
You are a supporter of eating seasonally. Why is this important?
I first became aware of seasonality and the importance of using local suppliers when I worked at Wildwood. But it wasn’t until I was the pastry chef at Higgins, and was responsible for writing my own menus and ordering my ingredients that the importance of sticking to what’s at your fingertips, what’s local and in season really hit home. Our region, the Pacific Northwest, is an amazing resource for food; there’s so much to choose from! Eating seasonally makes the local economy robust by keeping our food dollars in the region. It supports the growers who work so hard to produce food that is good for us and the environment. My time at Higgins inspired me to want to share with consumers the knowledge and tools they need to make responsible choices—about what they eat, the food they buy, and how those choices affect the health of the land and the local economy, as well as their own health and that of their families.
What is your take on Portland’s food scene?
I think that the food community here is very warm and encouraging. People work together and work to support one another. It’s not super competitive, but rather cooperative, inclusive and accessible. Many chefs have several different restaurants or businesses, and I think that they have the opportunity to branch out in this way because they’re creative, and scrappy, and it costs less to launch a new brand or business here. Of course it helps that the larger community is loyal, and open to new ideas, locations and styles of cooking. There have been so many exciting developments in the food scene recently. Portland has always been an exciting place to work in the food business, but over the 20 plus years I’ve lived here, it’s become barely recognizable. It’s such an amazing and dramatic transformation. And it just keeps getting more exciting as time goes on.