Recently I sat down with George Dolese, a local food and prop stylist, cookbook author, and friend, over a few glasses of wine, a bowlful of dates, and herb and walnut oil marinated Manchego cheese.
K: So George, describe your job as a food stylist.
G: As a food stylist, you are responsible for making food look good and for how it’s presented.
K: And do you do that for advertising, film or TV…
G: I don’t do film or TV, I did some of it before when I was first starting out and then I concentrated on photography and for many years I was pretty much 100% styling for advertising and some magazine work and now it has switched to the other side where I do very little advertising and [I’m] heavy into the publishing end, public relations material, and some magazine work, but that’s kind of it.
K: When did you become a food stylist?
G: 1985. Twenty years ago last month.
K: Wow, so you’ve been doing this for a while.
G: Yes, I was just saying to someone that I can’t believe it’s been 20 years. It all started with a phone call I got from a photographer who had just finished Brooks Institute and she wanted to put together a food portfolio and she asked me to make a raspberry tart for the shoot. So I did that, and when I dropped the tart off I asked if I could hang out and watch her shoot. And then we did some test photos together and with that she got work in advertising and that’s how it started.
K: And what were you doing prior to that?
G: I had a catering company. And I was doing fresh foods for Neiman Marcus department stores in San Francisco and Palo Alto.
K: And what got you into cooking?
G: I have an aunt who raised me and she was really into cooking, and having people around to the house, it was at her house that Thanksgiving, Easter, family things always took place. And she kind of–as opposed to my mother who was a pork chop, meatloaf type person–ventured into other foods. I remember being 16 and eating bouillabaisse, which was something I couldn’t even pronounce then, but it was a great experience. And learning what saffron is, and all that, and she really exposed me to a lot of that. And then I went to UC Berkeley and did my undergraduate degree and I was thinking about law school. I took a summer off and went to Paris, and came upon La Varenne cooking school there. And then I decided to do that. So I went to La Varenne and…
K: And you got a culinary degree?
G: Yes, and then came back to the States and started the catering company.
K: So that was the first thing that you did in the cooking world?
G: You know, I started the catering company and then, about 6 months after starting it I got the call from the photographer, so I was doing some food styling and doing the catering. And after 5 years of that I decided to sell the catering company and go strictly into food styling. And I moved to Paris, and I stayed there for just over 5 years.
K: And you worked solely as a food stylist?
G: Solely as a food stylist and a prop stylist and did a lot of advertising, had a great time, it was a fun experience.
K: What are your favorite types of jobs as a stylist?
G: Definitely books. I love books with an international theme, and of course I love anything dealing with entertaining and life at home. That’s kind of a niche that I’ve been working in for the last few years.
K: What advice would you give someone who wanted to become a food stylist?
G: I would say do it. I’ve never assisted anyone, and many people feel like they have to assist, and I think you definitely learn when you assist, but my theory is either you have it or you don’t, and if you get in there and just succeed, line yourself up with a young photographer who’s starting and do test shots together. Use magazines as direction because when you go out to show your work you do need to be current and in step with what’s happening visually.
K: When did you write your first book?
G: My first complete book was Firehouse Food: Cooking with San Francisco’s Firefighters. And that was in 2001 that I started that project. After that was completed, Weldon Owen Publishing contacted me to see if I’d be interested in doing a book on Entertaining for Williams-Sonoma, a huge bible on entertaining.
K: And that book has been nominated for an IACP Award. [Which it won!!]
G: It has, and that’s a pretty amazing thing. That book was a huge project and so many very talented people worked on it. Great prop stylists and photographers and editorial people, art directors, it was really a great project.
K: It’s a beautiful book.
G: Thank you.
K: What do you like most about writing cookbooks?
G: I love the balance. I love when I’m out in the studio shooting and then I find myself in my office writing. It’s just calm and quiet, and I think about food. I keep a journal of things that I eat and ideas and when I get into writing, that’s when I can look back at my journal. I’ve read books on writing recipes and I have my own way of doing it, which I’ve kind of invented myself. It’s kind of very unusual, but it works for me.
K: So George, what’s your favorite snack?
G: My favorite snack would be Kettle chips, salt and pepper, crinkle cut, with a glass of red wine. Preferably Cotes du Rhone or a light California Pinot Noir. It’s pretty good. Simple and good. At the end of the day, that’s my martini.
K: What food do you crave? Is that it or is it something else?
G: You know, even though I travel a lot, and I’ve been fortunate enough to eat in great restaurants, I find that I crave a really good California burrito.
K: Really? Like a Mission burrito? The big kind…
G: Yeah, just like a grilled chicken burrito. And it’s what I miss when I’m out traveling and eating all the good stuff. For me, that’s comfort food.
K: What are your standby dishes that you prepare during the week? Like just throwing together dinner after work.
G: After work I like to do pastas, just some really good ingredients, and assemble them. It could be as simple as some great cappellini with capers and chopped tomatoes and olive oil and a little Parmesan. I make roast chicken all the time. I’m a big fan of Judy Rodger’s roast chicken that’s in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. It works on every stove. I think that that is a fantastic recipe and I applaud her for publishing it because we’ve all enjoyed eating the chicken at Zuni and I really feel that that fact that she put that recipe out there is very nice. And it works.
K: What is your guilty pleasure (food-wise)?
G: Let’s see. Guilty pleasure…probably ice cream. I can eat a whole container of Haagen-Dazs. Easily. In bed.
K: What flavor?
G: It’s going to sound boring, but vanilla.
K: No, I love vanilla. I’m a big vanilla fan.
G: It’s creamy. You know, I was into Dulce de Leche, but vanilla ice cream, there’s something so nice about it.
K: What was the first thing you remember cooking?
G: Julia Childs’ chocolate mousse from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In 1979.
K: How old were you?
K: That was the first time you cooked?
G: No, that’s the first thing I remember cooking. My aunt traveled a lot when I was in high school and we had an Italian woman who lived next door and she used to cook for me every night and that was incredible. She would make handmade tortelloni. She lived alone, she was a widow, and her kids were grown and out of the house so when my aunt would travel she would feed me. But on the few occasions when I was 15 or 16 and she wasn’t feeding me, I would make these weird concoctions of things that were in the freezer or whatever.
K: Just kind of throw some things together and see how it tasted?
G: Exactly. And it wasn’t always good.
K: Yeah, experiments in the kitchen?
G: Yeah. But I remember getting a copy of that book, that was the first cookbook that I ever owned. I still have it, the original one, and making the chocolate mousse as well as making…I think I made a liver pâté. This was when I was a student at Berkeley.
K: So what is your favorite cookbook?
G: Oh, that’s a hard question.
K: Or one of your favorites…I have many, so…
G: I would say the one that I really go back to, although I can say I’ve never cooked from it, but it’s one of my favorites, is by Rogers and Gray from the River Cafe in London, Italian Easy. I’ve been to the River Cafe and I’ve had very memorable meals there and when I read the book it takes me back to eating there.
K: What’s your favorite Bay Area restaurant?
G: Oh, that’s a tough one. I have a few.
K: Okay, talk about all of them.
G: I really love O Chame on 4th Street in Berkeley. I like it for its simplicity, consistency, atmosphere, and that it is unpretentious. Secondly, I would have to say the cafe at Chez Panisse, I’ve been going there since, well, the first time I went there was in ’78, and I enjoy it. I enjoy that Claire still works at the bar, and she was my neighbor when I was a student, living on Virginia Street, and it’s just kind of nice. It’s changed a lot over the years. It’s much more… I don’t want to say corporate, but it seems that way. But it’s still a very, very fun place to go.
K: What is your favorite farmers’ market?
G: Definitely San Francisco.
K: The ferry plaza?
G: Yeah, the ferry plaza. I love that place. I loved it when it was in the parking lot. It’s great in it’s new home. I have my favorites, breakfast at Primavera, the Mexican place…
K: That’s where we always go!
G: Yeah, it’s great.
K: I love that place.
G: And…then there’s a guy who comes, I call him Farm Boy, he comes in the summer and he sells corn out of the back of his Ford truck. And he has really good corn.
K: What is your most embarrassing food preparation story? And did you recover from it?
G: Yes. When I was living in France I had a group of friends and everyone worked in advertising and my friend Elane was CEO of Lintas Advertising, a huge operation over there. And it was his wife’s birthday, Beatrice. And so I had a dinner for 30 people, all people in advertising, and I made paella. And this was at a country house outside of Paris, and I bought the seafood that day, and everyone was all excited. Well, there was some bad shellfish and everyone got food poisoning. Me being the first because I tasted it while I was cooking it and got really bad food poisoning, like, the worst. So, fortunately everyone took it in stride and it was kind of humorous because they said that I was an American conspirator that had come over to poison all the French advertising executives. They kind of joked about it and they still joke about it.
K: But you all lived.
G: We all lived. And laughed about it. But it was definitely an embarrassing thing and it’s one of those things when you buy shellfish, it can be just one mussel that has a bacteria that will poison the whole pot. So you have to be careful.
K: Well those are all the questions I have for you. Is there anything that you wanted to say or talk about that I didn’t touch on? Food-wise? Bay Area food-wise? The Bay Area food scene?
G: Well I think we’re so fortunate to live here. I just think about in the immediate Berkeley vicinity, you know, like what Sketch is doing for ice cream down on 4th Street, bakeries…just the availability of good food.
K: We’re very lucky. And spoiled rotten.
K: As we should be. [laughs]