The sweet smell of chocolate and peppermint filled the air as Julia Choi kneeled to open her oven door, revealing a pan of brownies with pieces of red and green peppermint candy scattered on top. It was 4:30 P.M. and the fall daylight was still streaming in through her NYC apartment window, illuminating her teal blue walls. She placed the brownies on her windowsill to cool. Next to her tiny kitchen is a large white cabinet holding stacks of kitchen tea towels, an assortment of glass jars, and props such as a bright yellow can of San Marzano tomatoes used to style her food photographs for Instagram.
Today Choi is working on making one of the eight 15-second videos for Food & Wine magazine’s Instagram account. The “how-to video” will consist of a compilation of several images with animated colorful text covering how to produce a ‘Food & Wine Holiday’ recipe. Choi is in charge of taking photos every step along the way, and then editing and stringing the photos together to produce the video. She has already completed her first contract of five videos for them.
Choi, at 30 years old, has never been a photographer or food stylist. She has no experience in the digital realm of food. But since starting her Instagram account, @juliatheeatsplorer, in early 2014, she has built a following of 1,145 users, and in September, was commissioned for two contracts with Food & Wine to produce videos for the magazine’s Instagram feed.
Choi has always been in the world of art, whether that be in food or music. Growing up in Seoul, South Korea, Choi first moved to America at the age of fourteen to train and study to be a concert violinist. “A lot of people were doing the same thing,” commented Choi about parents in Seoul sending their children to boarding school in America. Her sister, Helen, too was sent to music school at a young age.
Although playing music was something Choi enjoyed, it wasn’t her passion. While studying pre-med briefly at New York University (NYU) in 2003 she knew that she wanted to do something more–something else with her life. While working in advertising for food companies such as Dunkin Donut and Quiznos, she started her first blog, prettyjuliathings.com. There on her blog, she wrote and posted photos of the things she made, such as: pasta dough, cookies, cocktails, and French pastries such as Palmier, a puff pastry shaped like an elephant ear.
“It was amateur,” says Choi. She didn’t have many readers or followers at the time but that didn’t matter. The blog was a place for her to channel in her creativity and a place for her to keep doing what she was passionate about–baking.
“I thought I wanted to open my own bakery,” she says.
When Choi was younger and her parents weren’t home, she used to sneak into her mother’s kitchen. She would flip pages upon pages of her mother’s Korean cookbooks and try (or pretend) to recreate recipes from the books. With her cousin, they built little sandwiches out of crackers and biscuits with ham, sausage, and egg inside. Choi was always interested in food and even at a young age apart of her knew that this would be something she would grow up doing.
When Choi started her blog, her parents’ recognized that this was something that she was good in. They encouraged her to enroll into culinary school and to take baking seriously. In 2011, Choi enrolled into the baking and pastry program at the world-renowned cooking school, The Culinary Institute of America (The CIA). There at The CIA, she spent a year and a half learning baking and pastry techniques. On a week-to-week class basis, she learned how to prepare pastries such as chocolate éclairs, pies, and croissants.
In a jersey gray dress today, Choi recalled her restaurant days after the CIA. She externed at the famed Jean George restaurant in NYC and at the Bouchon Bakery in Rockefeller Center, before working for a year at Gramercy Tavern as a pastry cook.
At Gramercy Tavern, she endured 60+ hour workweeks. She walked into work everyday at 2 P.M., where she prepped her pastry station. At 5 P.M., she worked the pastry line for dinner service until break down at 12:30 A.M.—on most nights she left at 2 A.M.
“Restaurant work to me wasn’t something I could do until I’m 40 or 50,” says Choi rubbing her big toe onto her cowhide rug. “The hours were long and the work was physically and emotionally draining.” Like most cooks, the only time she had a break during her 12-hour shift was at family meal–a communal meal, shared and cooked by staff members to eat. The staff had half an hour to eat before they resumed their shifts.
It wasn’t until after having worked at Gramercy Tavern for a year that Choi decided perhaps the restaurant life wasn’t for her. She revisited her home in South Korea and rethought of what she could do with her culinary degree besides restaurant work. “I needed time to rethink how I can do what I love [cooking] but in a more sustainable way.”
Bright, vivid, and colorful square photos of French pastries, hanger steaks, and farm fresh ingredients are what you’ll on Choi’s Instagram today. It was during her time in South Korea that Choi started her popular Instagram account. “I took pictures to remember what I was experiencing, and also to share with my friends and family.” It was then that she considered two careers: public relation in hospitality or food styling. “They were a mix of aesthetics of business,” and both were opportunities for her to work for herself.
“PR is too cut-throat, I’m not a people person,” says Choi of when she moved back to New York earlier this year. “PR is more about restaurants and food styling is more about food.”
While staying at her parents’ NYC apartment in Greenwich, Choi started visiting the Union Square Greenmarket every day–it is a ten minute walk from her home. “I would walk through the market and see what is good.” During the spring time she would lug ingredients such as dainty little chamomile flowers, crisp ruby, green rhubarb stalks, and fragrant bouquets of herbs home to prepare her meals with. Soon enough, she started taking pictures of her meals and of all the seasonal ingredients she hauled back home. She made it her goal to keep taking pictures and posting on Instagram in hopes that people and companies will take notice of her photograph and hire her as a food stylist.
Within months, her Instagram gained a lot of followers. After every one of her pictures, she hashtagged almost a block’s length of trending words to catch people’s attention. Eventually popular users’ took noticed and featured her photos onto their accounts where they may have tens and/or hundred of thousands of followers.
“Once they put a link to their feed, they [users] will find you,” says Choi. It was also during this time that Choi knew that she had a shot at becoming a food stylist. One day on her Instagram newsfeed, she saw that Food & Wine was looking for a multi-media manager. Choi jumped at the chance to apply. She submitted her resume and Instagram pictures as part of her portfolio and hoped for the best.
A week later she got a call from the Food & Wine team with a proposal for an Instagram video project, she accepted.
Today, amongst finishing up one of her videos for Food & Wine, Choi is on call as a food stylist. After landing this project with Food & Wine, she is slowly building up a clientele and is working from her apartment while still maintaining her Instagram.
Gazing out the window where her pan of brownies is still cooling on the windosill, Choi says. “It’s taken me this long. No matter what I become, I have to be a stylist. Even if I wasn’t using Instagram, I would still be styling food. It doesn’t matter what medium [I use], I’ll just be styling, no matter what.”