Volume 17 • Issue 26 | Nov. 19 - 25, 2004

Danielle Custer was named one of the “10 Best New Chefs” in the country in 1998 by Food and Wine magazine. Currently she lives in Seattle where she is in charge of the gourmet food service at the Seattle Art Museum.

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

All in the family

Long-time Tribeca residents; an international food stylist and a ‘best chef’

By Mara McGinnis

A painter has an empty canvas. A writer has a blank sheet of paper. And Delores Custer has empty frying pans and plates.

Custer is an artist, but her medium is edible. Sitting in her cozy apartment on North Moore St. where she’s lived since moving to New York in 1976, Custer describes some of her experiences in working with food for 30 years.

She’s gone on The Rosie O’Donnell Show with Julia Child, “built” sandwiches in the Dallas Cowboys locker room, and made lunch for Aaron Copland in her home. (Her late husband was a composer.) She’s also worked on the set of many famous food commercials.

One of the world’s most experienced food stylists, she’s also one of few food styling instructors worldwide and has taught approximately 3,000 students over 15 years at the Culinary Institute of America and at The New School. Aspiring food stylists come from every continent to New York to take her courses and she has been invited to dozens of countries to share the tricks of her trade, which is essentially to “make food appear beautiful and appealing,” she says.

And tricky it is. Custer leads seminars titled “Things in Bottles, Cans, and Packages,” which is the prerequisite for her seminar on “How to Control Foods That Misbehave.” Three things a food stylist doesn’t go on location without are fun tack (for sticking things in place), cornstarch for thickening, and bisulfate to keep fruit from getting brown, according to Custer. One of her mentors, a food sylist named Helen Finegold, once told her, “Food is like children. It doesn’t like to behave in front of company.”

The trick, she says, is to look at food as a camera sees it. Photographers and food stylists appreciate each other immensely. And food stylists are grateful when prop stylists are involved in a shoot so that all they have to worry about it the food. Prop stylists, who Custer says get very little recognition for the important work that they do, select the plates, linens, flatware, and other props that might appear in the shoot.

Custer’s business card is a colorful close-up photo of French toast drenched in syrup, a perfect pat of butter just beginning to melt, garnished with perfectly red raspberries and coiled orange peel on gold-rimmed china.

“I denied it for many years,” says Custer about whether or not food stylists are considered artists. “But I do consider myself an artist. You go through the creative process. A painter who works in oils has to think about what they can and can’t do in that medium. I just happen to work with peas and carrots and I have to know when they’ll glisten and what colors will look good with them.”

Custer adds that the most valuable course she ever took was at the Rhode Island School of Design on the theory of color and says that she uses what she learned in that course on nearly every job.

Custer, who is 62, looks much younger than her actual age, and it’s surprising to learn that her daughter, Danielle, is in her late 30s. It’s not surprising however, that Danielle was named one of the 10 Best New Chefs in the country in 1998 by Food and Wine magazine and that she grew up watching Julia Child on television with her mom.

One of the highlights of Custer’s career was the chance to work with Julia Child on Rosie O’Donnell’s show. “Even while we were cooking together I was still learning. She liked challenges. We had to make crepe suzettes and she said to me, ‘Delores, I don’t know why they want to do crepe suzettes. I guess it’s for the drama of it all.’”

Naturally, Thanksgiving is Custer’s favorite holiday and the food-styling veteran has her own traditional dishes. One of those things is her corn pudding, which her daughter once put on the menu at one of her restaurants. “It warmed my heart,” says Custer. “Though she usually tweaks everything I do. She’s more upscale and I’m basic.” She also sends recipes out on her holiday cards every year. This year’s is a lime-coconut bar.

In between jobs, Custer is working on the definitive textbook on food styling, which she hopes to complete in the next couple of years. She also teaches recipe development. Chefs are not very good at recording steps in preparation for the consumer, she explains. Eventually, she’d also like to write a book preserving family recipes and food memories. “Recipes should never be a secret,” she says. “They are a wonderful gift.”

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