Vicky and Stella: A Serious (Eats) Love Story

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[Videos: The Serious Eats Team, Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

At the Serious Eats office, there's one thing we all know: Vicky and Stella are platonic soulmates. Can it feel a little exclusive? Sure. Are they the office cool girls? Pretty much. Do some of us wish we were part of their club? Yes, yes we do. But do we hold it against them? Never. Their friendship is inspiring, and seems about as rock-solid as their respective skill sets are impressive. But it would be an understatement to say that wasn't always the case. Three years into working together, our visual director and pastry wizard rehash the birth of their love story.

[Graphic: Tim Aikens and Vicky Wasik]

Stella Parks, Pastry Wizard:

I refused to work at Serious Eats for three years.

I'd started with a weekly column back in the olden days, circa 2011, but gave it up after about six months because the demands of my actual job (full-time pastry chef) were already at odds with the demands of my future-job (cookbook author), interfering with the pursuit of my dream job (pajama-clad work-from-home internet columnist).

Periodically, Kenji or Ed would call me up to try and wrangle me back into the fold, but I found it easy to decline—especially as the years spent writing my cookbook stretched on (and on (and on)).

I didn't have the bandwidth, technically or creatively, to put out the volume of content Serious Eats wanted from me, particularly on a subject as complicated as baking! And besides, I lived in Kentucky, which made the logistics a nightmare.

Even if I could take the job, they'd either have to hire a skilled baker to execute my recipes for step-by-step photos at the Serious Eats test kitchen in New York, or hire a local photographer to capture the process at my kitchen in Kentucky. Either way, hiring me meant hiring someone else, creating a cascade of expensive redundancies.

We all knew it wouldn't work, however much we wished it could, and so that recurring job offer became the sort of toothless invitation bandied about by tipsy acquaintances at a dinner party.

"So fun to meet you, we should do it again sometime!"

Vicky Wasik, Visual Director:

I hated the idea of her.

I’d been working at Serious Eats for about a year and a half when the culinary team decided to expand by adding a pastry expert to our staff. A job listing went up, feelers were put out, but one name kept popping up: BraveTart.

I had questions. "Who is this BraveTart person,” for one. And, ”Why doesn’t she have a real name?"

I wasn’t familiar with her earlier column on Serious Eats since it ran before my time at the company, but Kenji and Ed wouldn’t stop ranting about how perfect she’d be for the job. The hitch? She lived in Kentucky and had no plans or desire to move to New York. But they were persistent, and continued to engage in "what if" discussions.

How would this work? Sure, Kenji had set a precedent of working remotely from the Bay Area and doing all of his own photography, but that wasn’t the case with Stella. Our site relies on pretty rigorous testing and step-by-step photography, so hiring Stella would be a huge headache, particularly since we didn’t have the budget to hire a full-time photographer to work with her down in Kentucky, either.

The next thing I knew, I was being asked, hypothetically of course, if it was possible to have someone come in to the test kitchen for one week a month to shoot the full month’s worth of recipes.

Sure, it was possible, but the idea of having to completely change my workflow and dedicate a full week to one person’s photo needs seemed crazy to me. (Mind you, I was, and still am, the only full-time photographer on staff.) I hemmed and hawed, but made my opinion clear: we needed to find someone based in New York! I didn’t know what a BraveTart was, nor did I care to find out. It wasn’t personal—I just didn’t want to deal with the added hassle.

Needless to say, I lost this particular fight. I was now promised to someone I’d never met for five days a month for the foreseeable future.

Stella:

"This is not going to work."

It was February, 2016, and I’d ostensibly just started the first day of my new job. But instead of working, I'd walked a safe distance away from the Serious Eats office so I could rant to my husband on the phone.

I had five days to knock out photos for 15 recipes, but whatever day-one momentum I'd found came grinding to a halt when the whole office decided to waltz out for lunch, taking their photographer with them.

I'd already mise-d out my recipes for the day, so there wasn't a thing I could do ‘til she got back.

At that point in my life, I was so indoctrinated by restaurant culture that the idea of a lunch break was neither expected nor welcome. It felt like being grounded, and besides, lunch hadn't been a daily feature of my life since high school.

Who had the time?

The company-wide, lunchtime ground-stop notwithstanding, the day was off to a rough start. While I was baking, the photographer kept wandering off and it felt like I had to constantly corral her to finish the task at hand.

When she managed to stick around, she was chatting me up with the most ridiculous questions and, more importantly, it seemed like her attention would always drift to the wrong thing. Developing skill as a baker is all about learning to recognize the right visual cues, like the golden brown ring at the edge of a lemon meltaway, not the powdered sugar falling from the sieve.

The purpose of food photography is to showcase good technique, and I didn't see the point in getting distracted by the pretty-but-meaningless moments along the way.

Vicky:

My first impression of Stella was, in a word, focused.

She mostly kept to herself while she got the lay of the land, but I did my best to be welcoming—inviting her to go out for lunch with me and some other team members, asking a lot of questions about what she was baking, and engaging in small talk between shots. But she was determined to bake like a fiend—she wanted to get 15 recipes shot that week!

For context, prior to this, my schedule usually had me on set doing photoshoots two to three days per week, with the remaining days dedicated to the rest of my responsibilities: editing all of the photos for the site, assigning projects to freelance photographers, researching stock images, and planning future photoshoots.

I needed any moment of downtime between shots to resume my computer work—I couldn’t afford to fall a full week behind on all my other duties. There was no way I was going to stand by her side the whole time to be at her beck and call. Since my desk was within eyeshot of the kitchen (read: IN the kitchen), it seemed pretty safe to walk away, especially considering that everything she made needed at least 20 minutes in an oven and then 30 minutes of cooling time.

Man, I thought, baking is boring.

I told her to let me know when she needed me, but I found myself constantly waiting and checking in with her only to realize she’d gone on to the next step without me. Speak up, lady!

It was pretty, though. By the end of the week, my general grumpiness about this whole situation was being replaced by appreciation and (gasp!) even excitement about photographing sweets. Colorful candied pistachios, bright lemon bars, and cascading powdered sugar?! A photographer’s dream!

Don’t get me wrong, I love to shoot a big old sizzling steak as much as the next gal, but this was a whole new world to explore since we’d never had a dessert person on staff. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Stella:

"What if we did a herringbone pattern?"

From where I sat on the floor of the Serious Eats test kitchen at 6pm, it seemed clear that Vicky Wasik was the sort of photographer who hated food in general, and me in particular.

All we had to do was make and photograph a simple, lattice-topped pie. This was a complicated recipe in and of itself; all pies are two recipes in one, with a crust and filling doubling the opportunities for something to go wrong.

The problem wasn't making the pie, the problem was capturing step-by-step photography of the process without compromising the results. A lattice pie is essentially a sculpture made from buttery clay, a dough that softens to mush if it sits too long in the glare of camera lights while the "artiste" searches for the right angle. The act of weaving dough needs to move at a natural pace; if the process is drawn out, the dough may crease or break along the folds.

And even when everything else is perfect, once a pie goes into the oven some things are given up to chance. There's no recipe that can guarantee some juices won't bubble through the crust at an inopportune spot, or that it will brown evenly from edge to center.

It's a tall order on its own, and food stylists are famed for making dozens of fruit pies just to get a shot of one perfect slice. A pie can look great in real life, yet not measure up on camera, much less look inviting enough to inspire readers to jump up and bake one at home.

But given the demands of my weird, cross-country commute, we only had time for one pie. That meant one shot to get it right, no mistakes.

Everything was ready, including the overhead camera that necessitated my position on the floor, and suddenly she was suggesting we reinvent the wheel.

This was summer 2016, well before Instagram rockstars like Lauren Ko would turn the baking world upside down with mind-bending lattices and weaves. At the time, a herringbone crust had never been done before.

There was no tutorial; I was armed with nothing more than her outrageous idea and my refusal to walk away. I figured any lattice is a pattern, and all patterns are predictable. Herringbone could be done, it could be predicted, it just needed some thought.

In the end, it took both of us to crack the code, but we did it; first with numbered strips of parchment paper woven on the floor, and then, very carefully, with real dough on a real pie.

It took an unbelievable amount of time and patience, and required a lot of clear communication, and still more patience. But looking back, it was the first time I saw Vicky as equally committed to a project, as my partner. Not only that, but it was her ambition and curiosity that drove us, challenging me to take a risk and try something new.

During the hours it took for the pie to bake cool, we ran out for a pizza and a bottle of wine. It felt like a date; we talked about our past and our families and our work, our favorite TV shows and music. And by the end, I'll admit that I had decided she was pretty cool.

It didn't hurt that the pie looked amazing, and that no one had done anything like it before.

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Vicky:

I consider myself a pretty pragmatic photographer. Even though I strive to make every photo beautiful, I truly believe that the food comes first. That means no unnecessary props, and no manipulation of the food in order to make it more "camera-friendly."

I’ve shot enough time-sensitive dishes—the kind that have mere moments before they completely deflate or lose a vital texture—to know that efficiency and speed are key. That said, I’m not a cook, so I rely solely on the food stylist or recipe developer to make sure I know what to look out for. I ask a lot of questions, which I know can sometimes come off as rude. "Is it supposed to look like this?" or, "Is there any way to make this...less beige?"

There are times, however, when I just can’t help myself, and the herringbone lattice was one of them. I knew she’d hate me for suggesting it. We’d been shooting pie all week and if there’s one thing I’d learned about pie dough, it’s that it is very unforgiving and time-sensitive.

But if she was going to own me for five days a month, I was damn sure going to insist we make some baller photos, even if that meant spending two hours on YouTube watching a guy weave some reeds together to understand the pattern.

I highly suggest this activity to anyone trying to lead a team building workshop, or even, as in Stella’s and my case, those going on a first date.

chocolate dipped biscotti

Stella:

I may be the one explaining the step-by-step process of every recipe, but the truth is Vicky has explained a lot to me about how people learn. She's the one who notices the steps I gloss over, asking, "Wait, what was that?" or, "Is that important, or are you just being a snob?"

Often, it's the questions she asks during our shoots that become the basis for the whole post; points I thought self-evident, or too boring to even unpack ("So, can you freeze raw scones?" or, "What is that stand mixer thingie you keep adjusting?").

And, real talk, her demands cravings have all too frequently led to new recipes being developed for the site (here's looking at you, gingerbread ice cream and pear galette). The kid's got good taste*!

*Except for the time Vicky forced me to dip innocent almond biscotti in chocolate. It was gross. But I did it for her.

All is lost if I can't explain to her why I need a certain shot and what exactly I want said shot to capture. That's forced me to get over a lot of my own shyness and introversion. I've learned how to explain when the camera's focused on the wrong thing, and that it's my job—not hers—to provide that direction.

Other times, she's there to remind me that baking is more than a fixed set of steps leading to a predetermined destination, but rather an experience filled with all sorts of lovely moments worthy of celebration, moments that make baking fun: the undeniable satisfaction of showering powdered sugar over a fresh batch of Mexican wedding cookies, drowning a coconut cake in glossy caramelized white chocolate ganache, or swirling cherry whipped cream over a chocolate cherry cake (a video we shot, in our pajamas, at my Airbnb just because it was too pretty to ignore).

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Vicky:

Once Stella and I opened up to each other, the rest was, as they say, a piece of cake. We both finally admitted that neither of us were particularly thrilled about our arrangement, and the beauty of our relationship is that we both completely understood the other’s reasoning.

We could communicate and understand our own and each other’s limitations and frustrations, and it was never adversarial. We just knew that, in the end, this was a partnership, and for better or worse, we needed to make it work.

But really, we did more than "make it work." I convinced her that a shot of falling sugar was necessary for the recipe. She trained me to recognize the hallmarks of a perfect crumb, so I could focus on what made a bread or cake or scone successful. While she used to be repulsed at the idea of taking a break from baking even to eat lunch, she now gets as excited as I do to shut down the set for 20 minutes to create a perfectly dark environment for a timelapse of bagels baking in the oven.

Because of extenuating circumstances (a longer story for another time), Stella and I found ourselves working out of rental apartments and kitchens for the better part of a year. Imagine being able to roll out of bed, walk next-door in your pajamas to an Airbnb, have coffee and some freshly baked cake ready for you, and spending the day taking photographs while hanging out with someone called BraveTart, all as part of your job. Jealous, huh? Well, it wasn’t always cupcakes and rainbows (although a lot of the time it literally was cupcakes with rainbow sprinkles), but it certainly forced us to get cozy and comfortable with one another.

These days, we’re more like a happily married couple than annoyed colleagues. I now look forward to every Stella week more than anything else, and not just for the unlimited desserts.

Stella:

At the end of the last day of my first trip to Serious Eats, Vicky gave me a hug goodbye, and, to be honest, I thought it was a trap.

I was raised in the south, so I can be as aw, shucks, let's hug y'all! as they come—at least in social circumstances. But on the heels of an extraordinarily long and frustrating work week, from the arms of a born and bred New Yorker who kept her cool gaze behind the camera lens, I didn't understand.

At best, I saw it as a gesture of goodwill, and at worst a calculated social signal so no one at Serious Eats could say she didn't give our peculiar arrangement her best shot.

Three years later, almost to the day, I can see that suspicion was just my insecurity talking. I was out of my element in every way: hundreds of miles from home, living out of a suitcase, making the transition from restaurants to food media, working in an office building for the first time, and having to do so alongside a stranger in the fairly intimate environment of a kitchen.

For a week every month, we eat at least two (and often three) meals a day together, commute to and from work together, spend 40 hours in the kitchen together, and countless more shopping together (groceries! props! laser cat!).

It’s given me a chance to see that Vicky’s the sort of person who can be professionally skeptical, personally warm, and frank about both. It’s those qualities that have let us develop a friendship beyond the confines of our job; my time with Vicky is extremely structured due to the nature of my commute, but at the end of the day, when we should be sick to death of togetherness, we so often wind up grabbing dinner, or a drink, or midnight gelato, because while we may been working together all day, we still need a bit of time to be friends.