By Xina Giatas
A triple threat, Melina Hammer is The Stylist Co-op’s food stylist, photographer and cook. If you weren’t hungry before checking out her work, you’ll certainly have a grumbling belly after!
Melina’s images are authentic and honest- you can sense crunch, juice, char and richness throughout her imagery. Along with her smart use of lighting, Melina styles her dishes with original propping elements- genuine pieces and textiles collected from all over the world.
Melina’s Instagram is a constant source of inspiration for both creativity in the kitchen and a strong appetite. When she isn’t busy making you drool, she can be found foraging for wild food and settling nicely into her new country home, soon to be bed & breakfast upstate.
Full portfolio: melinaphotos.com
How did you come to be a food stylist & photographer?
My path in becoming a stylist and photographer is a little unexpected. I was a metalsmith for the better part of a decade and used ancient techniques to create mythology-inspired pieces for collectors around the world. NYC was a different culture after 9/11, and ultimately I found myself faced with making too many compromises day-to-day to support my art. I decided to reframe my creativity. Having always loved food, I thought I could adapt my fine art background - a rich relationship to textures, connection to how shapes and colors relate to one another - to editorial food stories. One thing led to another, and after a lucky mentorship with some food greats I found my stride. Even though I let go of my identity as a metalsmith - which I deeply loved - I found perhaps my greatest love of all: sourcing incredible foods, cooking & styling them for editorial and ad commissions, and now, I have plans to host pop-up events and a b&b in the country, where people can come sit at my table and *eat* the food I love making.
What are your favorite types of jobs?
My favorite jobs are those where the client trusts my creative process and empowers me to create it start-to-finish. Often that means I’m writing a column as a broader narrative to accompany recipes, which correspond to the images I photograph, after cooking and styling the food and props. Despite the fact that these projects are major undertakings, I love sourcing objects to tell a certain story, and creating the platform to explore a particular type of cuisine or food. Perfect example - devoting myself to the romance of Hand Pies in the holiday issue of Sweet Paul magazine.
What is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is creating the undeniable “Need! GET IN MY BELLY!” effect. When an audience drools, I know I’ve done well. The other best part is eating the creations once a shoot has wrapped, since whatever I use on set is real food, and recipes are almost always delicious. (Thank you, awesome clients!) Another great part of my job is knowing exactly where to get unusual or amazing fresh ingredients. I’ve taken to stocking my pantry with many esoteric vittles and can throw a wicked party on a moment’s notice.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
I’m inspired by so much! Finding people via Instagram has - of course - opened the world up. JoMarie Pitino and Evan Funke and their incredible work making handmade pasta. My wild salmon fishermen friends Driftersfish and their tireless labor in grand, pristine Alaska to bring sustainable salmon to people’s tables. Scratching the tip of the iceberg in learning more about food fermentation - a true art, a way to preserve seasons, and incredible portal to health benefits in big, funky flavors. Nigel Slater’s and Diana Henry ’s poetic words and food. Photographer greats such as Andrea Gentl - half of the duo Gentl & Hyers - showing how beautiful the elemental can be. Love the food Steve Pearce styles, ever since I began. Every single thing he does makes me hungry. I am so grateful for regular inspiration and (almost) never running out of ideas.
Sustainability is very important to you. What are some of starter tips for going green in the kitchen?
I grew up with a mom who recycled or reused almost everything (sometimes to my chagrin). Needless to say, sustainability is very important to me. To broaden your own consciousness repertoire, here are some things you can apply in your daily routine: - I reuse plastic bags that make their way into my life (they also happen to be recyclable - yay!) and try not acquiring new ones by having fabric bags on-hand to schlep groceries or tools, or whatever.
Any aromatic veg scraps left from food prep - onion & celery ends, bones, carrot peels, parsley stems, etc - go to a large ziplock bag in the freezer and get made into a lush overnight broth when it’s full. I use the broth to boost flavor in cooking grains & beans, as well as for sauces or soups. The best part is this - I use a slow cooker to make it, so it’s completely hands-off! And your house will smell amazing as it brews. Freeze the strained+cooled stock in ice cube trays and pull from it as you need.
Since I produce so much organic matter, at the beginning of the year we decided to try a vermicompost setup in our apartment. Turns out to be pretty fascinating stuff, and the result is incredibly nutrient dense compost. If you have container garden aspirations (I’m now gardening in a bigger way - we just bought a house upstate!) this fertilizer will make your basil and tomatoes go bonkers. If that’s further step than you’re ready to tread, check out your local neighborhood community garden and bring your scraps there.
Whenever shopping these days, I try to buy products with the least amount of packaging. That stuff just gets tossed! Now that I have seen where much of that packaging goes, I can’t unsee it, and I don’t want to contribute to it any further.
Ideally, where would you like your career to be in ten years?
In ten years, I see myself having written another book with vibrant, drool-worthy pictures, highlighting what it means to eat well every day. I also see leading workshops on cooking since food is the center of everything - bringing new & punchy foods into people’s repertoires, and hosting people at our dreamy upstate getaway.