Last week, I was invited to Batavia, IL to learn all about Aldi. If you read my last post, you'll know that I've never been to shop at Aldi before, so the whole trip was a wonderful learning experience and a great opportunity to educate myself and friends and family about the store. The trip was broken up into two days.
On the first day, I arrived in Chicago after a two hour flight and then another 45 minute drive to a picturesque little town right outside of Chicago. I checked into the Herrington Inn & Spa, freshened up, then it was off to meet the other bloggers! Via shuttle, we were whisked away to the distribution plant in Batavia that holds the Aldi test kitchens.
After the blind taste test, we were allotted a few moments to look over and sample a variety of different foods sold at Aldi. The Organic line has some great finds, like Honey Toasted Oats and the SimplyNature Line has terrific items like Fruit Squeezies (akin to the squishable apple sauce pouches that my kid is just head over heels for) and Vegetable Chips. They also had champagne and chocolate out and I have to say, I was one happy girl after that. The champagne had a wonderful dry and crisp taste that beat out my favorite big name brand. The chocolate was just heavenly. No waxy film as other brands and a deep rich flavor. I wasn't ready to leave the area, hello, nobody else was drinking the champagne, but we moved into another room where a beautifully laid holiday table was set.
Janice Stahl is a food stylist that comes from a Home Ec. major and has about nine years of experience in the food styling business. She has worked with some major companies and for some major chefs, which includes Tyler Florence. Janice also is an avid Aldi shopper and even uses Aldi food when catering events or prepping dishes for chefs! It was so lovely to listen to her talk about her profession, she was so animated not only about what she does, but about Aldi food itself. When someone is this passionate, it's not difficult to become excited yourself! Here are a few of the key tips I took from Janice and hope to incorporate into my own home this holidays:
- Pick a theme. Janice told us this adorable story about how her home's basement was accidently infected by mice, so to make light of the matter, she chose a mouse themed dinner!
- Use white dishes. Plain, white dishes allow the food to shine and tell its story.
- Buffet Style. This way people can choose what they want and then be seated, no forcing plates around a table or the awkward passing over a dish.
- Skewer items/Small Portions. People are more sociable when they can freely move with a small plate of food where everything is bite size!
- Signature Drinks. Small little drinks by the door that guests can grab as you take care of coats or the dishes they brought. It sets the mood.
- Clear Jars. Fill clear jars with candies or cookies. Looks chic and shows what's inside.
- Go thrifty. Buy funky jars, cans, dishes, cups, etc. for a fun twist. Use chalk board paint so you can easily label items!
My pictures wouldn't be quite as lovely without the wonderful styling of Janice. The white dishes take nothing away from the food. If anything, it enhances the shrimp, parsley, and cranberries on the side. Everything just pops! And the clear jars make wonderful centerpieces without getting in the way.
Our next guest speaker was Tom Enos, a talented photographer and probably my favorite part. I once had great aspirations to be a photographer and as one of the recipe writers on here, I'm all about learning the best ways to take pictures of food. Tom first started showing us real pictures that restaurants take that, well, make their food not so appealing, and then explained how easy it would be to fix:
- Use an off camera flash. The flash on your phone or camera can wash out food.
- Rule of thirds. Look at what you're taking a picture of total in thirds. A top, bottom, and middle. Not the usually half. It's more interesting.
- Use a stand in first. While your food is cooling or baking, use a stand in where you plan to take your picture so you can work on shadows and highlights. Then just pop the real thing in!
- Make your own backgrounds. Seriously. Use poster board, burlap, or my favorite, a blanket.
- Use a tablecloth. Are you a food-a-gramer on Instagram? Pull the corner of a white table cloth up to make a background and bounce light onto the food.
- Try different angles. Overhead, angled side, in your face. Something different in each shot, so it doesn't get boring!
Tom also gave us these great DIY camera/light helping tools, all of which you can make yourself. Using a cardboard white picture and a dryer sheet where you would put a picture is a DIY light filter if the sun or overheard lights are too bright. Take two white thick poster board pieces and wrap one side in silver duct tape. It'll stand on it's own to create a background or the silver side can help bounce light onto whatever you're taking a picture of! Finally, a small black thick poster board can help create a background or help keep too much light off your item. It's really easy to make everything and the items work well with even taking an iPhone picture. Trust me. Because our next stop before dinner that day was our own food styling and photo challenge.
Broken into three teams of three, we were given the same ingredients and the same rules: Take what your learned and make/plate a salad, main dish, dessert, and signature drink. Then, take a photo. My trio worked extremely well together for not knowing each other and we set off, using the spread in the picture above, to make a great meal! We opted for small servings, with bright colors because Janice mentioned how you want your guests to eat with their eyes. I'm going to brag a little. I made the dessert and our drink, both of which I would have gladly eaten on the spot. Three little spoons with just a bite of cheesecake rolled in different flavors and a chocolate strawberry drink! My teammates did great with their designs too and I wish I could take credit for how well the plates were styled on the tray, but I can't. Everything together looked beautiful.
I will however brag that I took the picture and did a quick edit on my phone! Yes, I did that on my phone and beamed like crazy when Janice said it could go on the cover of a magazine! See, I do listen and use what I learn! After all this hard work and collaboration, our team was announced the winner over dinner. Thanks to that win, I did my first Aldi shop for my home after returning home!
Coming off of our win made dinner even better. I indulged on Cranberry Cornbread-Stuffed Turkey Roulade, Beyond-Compare Brussels Sprouts, Butternut Squash and Cranberry Couscous, and a small salad. I was stuffed with all this delicious food made with Aldi items, so I took some Pistachio Lemon Truffles and Cookie Pies which are made with sweet potato filling back to my room to savor in solitude. I should mention the Inn turned down my room leaving me a huge cookie with cold milk. It was pretty easy to fall asleep with such a full belly! I was barely hungry until the following afternoon!
It was a wonderful, once in a lifetime experience that I'm truly thankful I got to go on. I learned so many great behind-the-scenes events that go on to make Aldi what it is from the food testing, to the styling, and how great photographer can help you eat with your eyes. Be on the lookout for my next post all about our store tour of Aldi.