Mimi Avocado Goes to School to Learn Food Styling and Photography and Tastes Her First SushiBurger


sushi burger from 26 Beach in Venice, CAWhen I was a young child in school,  my greatest joy was discovering something new to learn.    Every day was exciting then,  with new skills,  new stories, and  new ways of seeing the world. I would go to sleep at night anticipating that  the lessons of the coming day would transform  me from the familiar to a brand-new-me whose horizons now stretched farther than before.

my first grade class

First Grade at South Barre School in Vermont

In this spirit I took a leap and signed up for a weekend class in food styling and photography at MDR Photography.   It was like going back to first grade!    I have been using a point and shoot camera for years,   and only recently purchased a DSLR.   To learn a little about the more serious side of photography,  I went to Lynda.com to watch some instructional videos about photography and exposure,  just to make sure I wouldn’t be completely lost in the class.

Allison (Sushi Day) and  her boyfriend Son live in the area, so they picked me up and took me out for dinner on Friday night after I arrived at the hotel.  They were excited to take me to 26 Beach, a restaurant that has been in business for 29 years in Venice, Ca.    The sushi burgers served at 26 Beach are legendary… Rachael of La Fuji Mama (and my Avocado Sister)  practically swoons  when she describes the wonderful offerings of this delightfully artistic eatery…and  thanks to Allison and Son,  I’ve been craving another of those scrumptious burgers ever since!

Allison and Son

Sushi Burgers!


As for the food,  check out this California Roll Burger!  Snowcrab salad, avocado, picked ginger, nori & shoyu-wasabi-aioli with baby lettuce and tomato…all served on Angus beef  burger and butter-grilled home baked  bun!

sushiburger at 26 Beach


On Saturday morning I met a Camp Blogaway acquaintance,  Cynthia of What a Girl Eats,  as we were both trying to find Christina Peters’ Photography Studio in Marina Del Rey.   As we walked into the bright  studio we were met with warm hellos and breakfast treats.   Our food styling teacher, Denise Vivaldo  launched right into her presentations with hilarious side stories and tales  of her experiences in 30 years as a food stylist.  Her  Food Fanatics colleague, Tiffany Wu demonstrated how important it is to have an assistant who can anticipate the needs of the stylist and the desires of a client, providing “collateral food” for those just-in-case situations.

Food Styling and Photography instructors

Christina Peters, Denise Vivaldo,  and Tiffany Wu

We learned how to style pancakes,  a roasted chicken,   salad,  and sandwiches  that first day.  We began to appreciate  the practical and logistical aspects of food styling as well as the tricks and tips of making food look wonderful for the camera.  Denise shared insider business strategies  that only a seasoned veteran would know.   As a  complete newbie  I found  the whole day fascinating!

checking the pancakes

Are these perfect pancakes? If not, we make them look perfect!


Kitchen Bouquet for color

Not brown enough? Use Kitchen Bouquet!


syrup runs off pancakes

Freeze the syrup to make it drip off the pancakes just so!


building a salad

Building a salad for the camera

styled salad

Looks delicious, but styled food may not be edible!

styling a chicken

Never eat a styled chicken!

Our homework that night was to come up with a project for the next day… a fabulous food layout that we would  photograph.   Denise mentioned that she was looking for color,  so I decided to search for foods that would complement an avocado. (Big surprise, right?!)   I had to explain to the class that a beautifully peeled “naked” avocado is something special to behold!

peeled avocado

Perfect Naked Avocado (photo by Kristen Wogan Doyle of Dine and Dish)


That evening  I found the nearest Whole Foods store and searched  for colorful food  in the same way that I might coordinate accessories for a new outfit.   Gorgeous large plump shrimp, already cooked,   with plenty of pink color.   Golden  mango salsa with magenta red onion pieces and green cilantro.  And I found a few treats to buy as well!  (Ever tried Orange Ginger Almonds?  Yum!)

Sunday morning we all gathered back at the studio and listened with awe as  Christina  revealed  the mysteries of using DSLR cameras, and shared stories of  her life as a  commercial photographer.   Her explanations were  easy to follow and anticipated our questions…she even talked about using our IPhones for food photography!   Most of all,  it felt good to be learning something brand new…exploring something I don’t think about in my daily life, and becoming a “new me” who could consider food and  photography from a completely new perspective.

fake ice cream

We even learned to make fake ice cream …it doesn’t melt under hot lights and displays delicious toppings perfectly!

Each of us styled our own project,  trading ingredients and collaborating on the use of props from Christina’s immense collection.  All the while Denise and her partner Cindie Flannigan were circulating among the  class participants,  giving suggestions, helping to brainstorm and adding an extra level  of excitement to each of the projects.   Denise suggested that I separate the components of the mango salsa and then rebuild the salsa in front of the avocado using tweezers.

separating the salsa

Salsa is separated, avocado has been painted with vodka to keep it looking fresh


styled avocado ...first try

I thought this looked pretty good….

finished photo

Until Denise and Christina added their magic touches!


When the styling was finished,  Christina worked with each of us to photograph our masterpiece and demonstrated ways to enhance them using Lightbox and Photoshop.  We were able to take turns photographing each others’  layouts too!  It was a joy to work with a group who were so willing to share and collaborate.

photographing a food layout

Susan shoots her cocktail

Durey's Indian food

Durey’s Indian food and spices

Using Lightbox

Christina demonstrates digital enhancements


You can see all the finished photographs from our class projects here.    Christina’s photos of our class are here.

The weekend was lots of fun and I can honestly say that I truly was transformed.  I will never look at  another food photograph in the same way… and I’ll work much harder on my own shots  from now on!     If you’d like to explore Denise’s vast knowledge  of food styling,   find her book on Amazon.com!

The most important lesson of the weekend?   Don’t be afraid to try something new and outside of your comfort zone !One of the best parts of the weekend was meeting my classmates and learning about their lives and goals.   In the words of the famous song,  “Would you like to swing on a star?  Carry moonbeams home in a jar?  And be better off than you are?…”   YOU could be swinging on a star!  Go for it!



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