Food52 Life

Behind the Scenes of the Genius Recipes Cookbook Cover

August  5, 2014

Today: Look, a Genius Recipes cookbook! Go behind the scenes on the cover shoot, and get to know how we shoot food at Food52.

All of our styling at Food52 is a little different from what you might see at other food editorial shoots. Because we have a home-style kitchen with just one oven and 4 burners, we rarely make more than a single batch of any recipe we're shooting -- and even halve them when we can. This means a number of things: We don't waste a lot of food on "swaps"; what you see is what you get; and it needs to look good! Because we don't roll with a backup plan.

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For the cover shot of the Genius Recipes cookbook (available for preorder now, and coming to stores near you April 2015!), we considered some excellent chicken recipes and other favorites from the book, but settled on the be-all, end-all of genius recipes: Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter. I sometimes think it's the reason we launched the column, plus it's something both the meatless and meat-lovers can enjoy, and it's a looker. Or, it has potential to be -- but for some reason, it wasn't always easy to photograph.


We've shot and reshot this recipe for the site a few times over the years, and were never totally happy with the results. The first time, back in 2011, we were still working with a variety of photographers and figuring out our style. The second, we were rushing and only had a batch of sauce in a jar -- no onion, no pasta. (What were we thinking?)

The third time, we were getting closer -- pasta, onions, a pleasant amount of saucy mess. But Amanda and Merrill still thought that the Genius cover needed to have more warmth, more home-like elements -- since this is a cookbook that will be full of recipes you want to keep within arm's reach, not a cheffy tome that you admire from afar, whose spine you never crack. Our editors and designer at Ten Speed were fans of test shots with a lower angle, and the clean white plate against a modern-looking, gray-blue linen and backdrop. We were too.

Behind the scenes Genius Recipes cookbook photo shoot

So, with our mission clear, James Ransom and I set out to play. (James is the brilliant, superhuman photographer behind Food52 and Provisions, and he also shot everything in the Genius Recipes book.) I had only prepared a single batch of the sauce with half a large onion in it (it's the little saucepan resting on the crates below the surface in the Instagram above). Because we all know the best stylists like to throw caution straight off a cliff. 

More: Get 5 essential tips from the man behind the camera and never shoot a dull, underlit food photo again.

James and I fussed over props to find the proper coziness factor (check out the pile we accumulated on the right side of the surface above). Then I boiled some bucatini, tossed it in sauce, and piled it on the plate. If you're wondering about my pasta styling "technique", it involves picking up small tongfuls of sauced pasta (usually 2 or 3 in succession), holding them high, then inelegantly draping and swirling them on the plate, till the pasta piles above the rim and looks like it would feed a hungry person. Critical ingredients (here: onions), if they don't naturally fall into eyeline, are nudged into place. If the pasta starts to look dry, I paint on more sauce with a basting brush, a Q-tip, or a paintbrush if I am prepared; in low moments, I use a finger. That's it. There were versions with and without cheese -- guess which one we all liked best.

Pre-order Food52 Genius Recipes: 100 Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook on AmazonBarnes and Noble, and Powell's -- and tell us: what recipes have changed the way you cook?

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From our new podcast network, The Genius Recipe Tapes is lifelong Genius hunter Kristen Miglore’s 10-year-strong column in audio form, featuring all the uncut gems from the weekly column and video series. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • witloof
  • Anna Hezel
    Anna Hezel
  • mcs3000
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    Annelies Zijderveld
  • Joy Belamarich
    Joy Belamarich
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


witloof September 10, 2014
To answer the question "What recipes have changed the way you cook?" I would have to answer Amanda's peach tart. The crust {flour, salt, sugar, oil, milk, and a little almond extract, whisked together and patted into the pie tin} can be traced back to an old edition of Fannie Farmer, and it is brilliant. Once I discovered a pat in pie crust, I never looked back! I now have a reputation for making excellent fruit tarts.

That Marcella Hazan tomato sauce recipe is so good. I've served it to company and I've made it for myself for dinner countless times.
Anna H. August 6, 2014
Totally beautiful—I love the cover!
mcs3000 August 5, 2014
Genius cover choice. Awesome to read how the behind the scenes. Can't wait for the book, Kristen + James! Make sure you visit SF.
Annelies Z. August 5, 2014
Nicely done, especially the description of the pasta on the plate swirling technique. It sounds a lot like how dinner comes together over here.
Joy B. August 5, 2014
This gives me butterflies.
Kristen M. August 5, 2014
kasia S. August 5, 2014
Wow, this is exciting news! :D

I dream about Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter, and every time I make it I love it even more.. I'll be making it this weekend again, truly a little life changer :)
Kristen M. August 5, 2014
Thanks, Kasia! In the end, it was unanimous that this was the recipe that needed to be on the cover of the book.
Pegeen August 5, 2014
Great article. Love reading about the details. Thank you and mazeltov on the upcoming book!
Kristen M. August 5, 2014
Thank you! Working with James is the best -- shoot days are fun around here.
Taylor S. August 5, 2014
That contrast between serif and sans-serif is everything.
Sarah J. August 5, 2014
So new! Yet so classic. All at the same time.
Kristen M. August 5, 2014
That fontage is the work of Emma Campion, our awesome designer at Ten Speed.
Alexandra S. August 5, 2014
This is so exciting!!!
Kristen M. August 5, 2014
Thanks Ali! We're pretty excited!
Sarah J. August 5, 2014
I love all of the details in this cover shot, no matter how simple it looks. Like that hunk of Parmesan cheese slowly entering the background like a hulking cruise ship ready to embark on a cheesy, saucy journey. I want to be on that ship when it sets sail.
Kristen M. August 5, 2014
Come sail away with cheese.
Anna H. August 6, 2014
Yes, what Sarah said.
molly Y. August 5, 2014
this is absolutely gorgeous!!!!!!! so cozy. i love it!!!
Kristen M. August 5, 2014
Thank you Molly!!
Catherine L. August 5, 2014
I love seeing the evolution of the Marcella sauce! Can't wait for this book.
Lindsay-Jean H. August 5, 2014
Kristen M. August 5, 2014
It's sort of crazy. I'm pretty glad we finally decided to add pasta.