Get RecipeCook the Book: Sea Scallops alla Caprese
It's 6:30 a.m. and Bianca Henry makes a beeline to the coffee pot. She has just walked through the studio doors at NBC's Today show. Once she has loaded the coffee pot and heard it start to drip, she's off to the races. She'd better be ready, because action-packed only begins to describe her average day as the head food stylist at the number one morning show in the U.S. She is about to make Today's 5 million viewers drool over her cooking, although they will be oblivious to her presence behind the camera.
You're probably familiar with Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, Ann Curry, and Al Roker, but let me introduce you to the woman who brings every cooking and nutritional segment (there are 2 to 3 of them each show) to fruition: Bianca Henry. Did you think Mario Batali's savory scallops alla caprese looked delicious, or were you tempted to try Thomas Keller's juicy buttermilk fried chicken recipe? Thank Bianca.
She shops for most of the food days in advance (the Fairway on Manhattan's Upper West Side is her go-to), prepares it the day before the segment airs, and cooks it while most of us are still reaching for the snooze button. (While she always has "the chef's integrity" in mind as a top priority, "in the end it's all about the visual," so she occasionally tweaks recipes for the best on-camera portrayal. Unlike much movie food-styling, everything is edible). She makes the incredible roster of celebrity chefs who frequent the show look their absolute best, even if it means crawling on her hands and knees to inconspicuously deliver a stray tray of veggies to the table while the camera is rolling.
"The craziness comes in increments," she says, which makes it bearable. In fact, the high-adrenaline atmosphere and variety inherent in this line of work is part of what she loves about the job and why she has stayed with the show for 13 years. First she was a freelance food stylist with Today for six years and then she was hired as the first staff food stylist for the show in 2003.
"It's like a restaurant job, but opposite," Bianca says. It's high energy and pressure immediately in the morning, then, after the show ends at 11 a.m., the pace slows as prep for the next day begins.
She and her team, which includes a full-time assistant and a freelance food stylist, prepare for the following day, determining the mise en place for each segment that involves food. Typically, one segment has to be prepped three times for the live show: the raw ingredients assembly, the halfway stage (the "swap-out"), and the final product (the "beauty").
When the live show hits, these segments have already been prepped and practiced with the chef the day before. That is not to say that there is no spontaneity day-of, but the cooking segments that air live are a result of careful consideration and rehearsal, like the opening night of a play.
Performance is a recurring trait in Bianca's professional endeavors. She came to New York City from Alabama to pursue dance and became a waitress to pay the bills. Before long she had moved from the dining space to the kitchen and began honing her skills as she cultivated her passion for cooking.
In her late twenties, after six years of restaurant work, she enrolled in culinary school at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School (now the Institute of Culinary Education) and shortly thereafter became a part-time pastry instructor there, which she supplemented by freelance food-styling. While dance was the impetus for her move to New York City, cooking offered the longevity to keep her there.
When she began food styling in her early thirties, most food styling work was for print media, a much slower, more detail-oriented process than the fast-paced atmosphere of television where Bianca has found her niche. It was an era before the Food Network and before celebrity chefs on television. "Julia Child was it," Bianca says, "I could never have predicted how media would embrace food."
An intense influx of celebrity chefs and cooking shows is both good and bad, in Bianca's opinion. She is wary of uneducated and untrained people who gain automatic expertise by appearing in front of a camera. Conversely, her eyes light up when she talks about the potential of reaching the masses to spread "the good word about food!"
Her food philosophy is straightforward and accessible: "Use food that is pure and fresh and do something interesting with it." Interesting does not necessarily mean complicated; on the contrary, the most simple is often the best. Recently on the show she prepared roasted carrots: drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt, in the oven at 450 degrees, and the cast and crew of Today were astounded.
"It was phenomenal the response those carrots got," she says. "We've gotten so far away from food that something like a roasted carrot blows people away. It almost seems revolutionary when something tastes like what it is."
The Today show is in the midst of producing an online series, The Today Show Cooking School, in which Bianca will be the on-camera chef. She is excited about using these online classes as a vehicle to promote cooking at home again by showing people things they can do and boosting their confidence to put the apron on and have fun in the kitchen.
There has been a certain cultural shift in the past couple decades: while cooking shows and celebrity chefs have overwhelmed the media, preparing food at home has drastically declined. Bianca attributes this shift to the hypothesis that "our relationship to cooking has changed, while our relationship to work has increased. At work, you would never cut corners on an assignment, but when you get home and need to fix dinner you don't think twice about cutting corners." Grab fast food. Pop a frozen meal in the microwave. Priorities have evolved to favor work above everything else, people cut corners on what they put into their bodies and what nourishes them becomes an after-thought.
While her concern is evident, she is optimistic, and when asked to offer her advice for people who want to be in the food industry she replies, "It's a fabulous place to be." She encourages prospective chefs to get restaurant experience, to get in the nitty-gritty because "it will serve you better." She is adamant about building a base and keeping expectations about rising to instant stardom realistic. "There's not a chef in the industry who doesn't value experience."
Experience is certainly something Bianca can speak on with authority. She danced her way from a young artist to a successful food stylist, and she is in the process of writing a cookbook that will draw from an exhilarating career's worth of experiences.
The next time you watch Today, you'll know who is really in the kitchen.