Executive Food Editor at Rachael Ray Every Day
Nina Elder got her start in magazines and found a passion for food along the way.
Rachael Ray Every Day: Did you always know you wanted to go into food media?
Nina Elder: I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer in magazines, but I did not always know that I wanted to go into food. My mom loves magazines, so there were always magazines in the house. We lived in the middle of nowhere Missouri—population 632 or 707, depending on the year—but in our house we had the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Time, Better Homes & Gardens, other women’s magazines occasionally, and also Yankee Magazine, which was my favorite as a kid. I loved magazines from a very early age, so my mom got me a subscription to Cricket and Ranger Rick and Cobblestone for me, so those were my personal magazines, which was exciting.
RRED: How did you start your career?
NE: I thought being an ad copywriter would be fun because I love puns and ridiculousness. I took one advertising class at Mizzou and... that was enough. It was taught by this grizzled old ad man, and I had to write some horrendous radio ad. I realized that perhaps that wasn’t my calling.
Then I switched to magazines. We had to work at the school newspaper for a semester, which people in the town of Columbia purchased. I was impressed that actual people were getting their news from us, a student newspaper. I never wanted to write about cops and courts, so I was put on the weekly beat, which other people called the “wussy” beat, but I didn’t care. It was the features and I enjoyed that. I got to pitch things, I once did a ride along with my trash men because I loved personality profiles.
RRED: Where did you go after that?
NE: I got an internship at Midwest Living working with the travel editor and occasionally the food editor, and then later I became the travel and features editor at Better Homes & Gardens. I worked on the travel stories that ran in the back of the magazine. I did a lot of health reporting. I had to do my own fact checking via fax!
I was always interested in food mainly because I like to bake. I talked my way into the test kitchen for tastings occasionally. I worked with the parenting editor to do snacks for kids and we would test them down in the kitchen. I still remember being taught how to behave in a tasting: you need to sit here and taste things and wait to be called on. It’s a professional, formal tasting, which is especially funny when you’re tasting kids’ food like Teddy Grahams on a fruit rollup towel.
RRED: Then what?
NE: Later I moved to Orange County, California, and worked for the Triple A magazines that they published. I was a features editor there doing mostly travel, but of course food is part of travel. I wrote one specific story about ice wine. Traditionally the grapes freeze on the vine and then they press them when they’re frozen, so it’s a very concentrated dessert wine. I thought it was super cool and wrote maybe a two-page story on it. That was my first hardcore food clip.
RRED: Then you went to Bon Appétit—what was that like?
NE: Bon Appétit was basically my food-media boot camp. I did almost exclusively food there, so that was really my on-the-job food media training. I was very lucky because I was working with people who’d been in the industry for 15-20 years—real pros. They were very generous with me, especially the people in the test kitchen. I worked on a lot of columns, then I did more features and chef interviews. I learned a lot about recipes, and chefs and the science of food and all that. I became a much better cook—a more curious cook, a more confident cook. I was there for seven years before the magazine moved to New York and basically got a whole new staff.
RRED: How did you end up at Rachael Ray Every Day?
NE: I was freelancing for three or four months, then I was started looking in New York for jobs and came to NYC on a scouting mission. There was an opening at Rachael Ray Every Day, and I got that job as a senior food editor and here I am, six years later, as the Executive Food Editor.
RRED: Do you have a favorite thing to cook?
NE: As far as baked goods, I’ll try almost anything. When I was younger it was cookies— they were kind of my gateway baked good. And I go through phases, like I made a billion tortes this summer. Now, I’ll start playing with things and add a different spice or a different fruit.
RRED: What changes have you noticed since you first started out?
NE: The big change is how ubiquitous food is at this point—everyone is into food. It’s definitely trendier. People in general seem to be more ambitious about cooking and more willing to search for ingredients and make things that are a little more out of their comfort zone. It’s funny to notice things that were trendy five years ago start coming back again.
RRED: Any thoughts on being a woman in food media?
NE: There are a lot of ladies in magazines, which is awesome in some ways and challenging in others. As time has gone on in food media and as food has become kind of cooler, there have been more men entering the field. I feel like there are more men in power than you’d think based on the fact that, in general, magazine publishing is largely female.
Once torn between photography and culinary school, Michelle Gatton found a way to blend her two passions into a successful career.
RRED: How did you begin your career path?
Michelle Gatton: Out of high school, I was torn between going to photography school or culinary school. I chose photography and got my degree, then moved to New York and got a job working for a photographer full-time. Even though my photography degree was more in the fashion realm, most of the photographers I assisted in New York were still-life photographers. I saw food stylists every once in a while and was always fascinated by how they worked—that was always in the back of my head.
RRED: When did you make the leap into the food industry?
MG: As time progressed, the urge to go to culinary school came back strong, so I did it. Then worked in kitchens for a while. While I was in culinary school, I had expressed my interest in food styling to my teachers and classmates. One of my classmate’s girlfriend’s boss’ neighbor was Victoria Granof, a very well-respected food stylist. She needed a new full-time assistant, and I, amazingly enough, became her first assistant for two years. Then I went off on my own.
RRED: As a full-time freelancer, what do your typical jobs look like?
MG: All my jobs are a bit varied, but everyone has something to learn from. One week can be pretty recipes while the next week is a national restaurant commercial. Motion can be much more intense with bigger stages and more people to answer to. Then it can be some conceptual still-life shoot, which gets you to be more creative and think broader. It’s just a lot of multitasking, being on your toes, thinking quickly, and being able to problem-solve.
RRED: What does your ideal job look like?
MG: There are definitely photographers that have a vision—they take it more as an art form instead of a pretty picture. Any time I’m paired up with a photographer who is passionate about what they do, of course I’m going to get more passionate about it. When the whole team is in it and wants to create something awesome, that’s what I respond to the most.
RRED: Before a shoot, do you run through the recipe beforehand?
MG: Unless it’s crazy complicated, most times I’m making it for the first time on set. I read through the recipes—I’m pretty adept at knowing what’s going to work and what’s not going to work and whether a recipe is solid or not. If I get eight recipes from Rachael Ray Every Day, for example, I’ll read through them and I’ll be familiar with them, but I’m not going to actually make it until I get on set.
RRED: Do you have any advice for women looking to enter the industry?
MG: With photography, it was always harder for girls, but food styling is more of a female-driven industry. As a photo assistant, you definitely have to stress that you are just as capable as a man to lift heavy things. You definitely have to be stronger and say "yes" a lot to make them see that. Food styling is more woman-focused. You just have to be focused and work hard and not sell yourself short—that’s the big thing.
Food Editorial Assistant at Rachael Ray Every Day
In her forties, Tara Holland made a career switch into the industry she’d always been passionate about: food.
RRED: Did you always know you wanted to go into food?
Tara Holland: I'm from the U.K., and when I was in middle school, we studied home economics and fashion—I loved both of them. But, long story short, my mum passed away and I wanted to go to culinary school, but had to get a job. I got my first full-time job at 16 and didn’t carry on my education. I just thought it was something that was never going to happen. I still enjoyed cooking as a hobby and I took it seriously in the sense that I’d do fancy dinner parties, but I thought that was about as far as it would ever take me.
RRED: I know you worked at Bloomberg at some point. How did you get that job?
TH: I was a flight attendant and there was one flight where everything was going wrong. I was very resentful on this flight because I didn’t want to be there—and at that point, I really didn't want to be a flight attendant anymore, period. So I was smiling to myself (probably manically), and I think I was the only one grinning on this terrible flight. A passenger tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I’m looking around and you’re the only one smiling. Why is that?” Something snapped in me and I was unprofessional for probably the first time in my life (and the last time!). I just said, “I don’t know why I’m smiling. Does anyone have a job for me?” Then another man said, “What’s your background?” I told him sales, and he told me to speak with him at the end of the flight. I was nervous, but I remember thinking this was my only chance. I went up to him in the pitch black and poked him and said, “You told me to come talk to you." He pulled out a coaster and wrote his name, his company's name, and the name of a Human Resources manager. That man turned out to be the head of Bloomberg's Europe branch, and he later went on to be the CEO of the whole company. How crazy is that? So I got an internship at Bloomberg, then after 6 weeks, they hired me permanently. And I still have the coaster!
RRED: How did this job set you up for food media?
TH: I went to the events side at Bloomberg and eventually the front-of-house. I managed vendors who brought in all the free food we provided—they did it before Google did. This started up my love of food again.
RRED: So how did you make your way into the food world?
TH: It’s almost like I was being teased back into the food job after the Bloomberg job triggered it. We moved to San Francisco, and my friends asked me to set up a U.S. office for their business. Part of that was targeting restaurants and going to food shows. You go and all the chefs are coming around, all the culinary students. I spent three years doing that and again it was like a tease back into the food industry. The turning point is that they pulled out of the U.S. and I ended up with no job and no idea what to do. My husband said “Why don’t you go to culinary school?” And I was like, do you realize how much that would cost? And he said I know and it’s going to be tight, but this has been your lifelong dream and I think it’s fate telling you to do this. Three times in your life you’ve been involved in food, but not really hands on. So I pulled the trigger. When we moved to New York, I went to the Institute of Culinary Education.
RRED: What was it like going to culinary school after working in the business world?
TH: I was the second-oldest student in the class, so starting to study again was really hard. It was much more academic than I thought it would be—lots of essays and research. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I didn’t want to not pass with flying colors. I worked so hard and was determined to get good marks. I passed with highest honors and I’m super proud. I actually can’t believe I passed with highest honors.
I knew from the start I never wanted to work in a restaurant, especially at my age. I suddenly realized I worked for one of the biggest media companies in the world and I had a huge interest in food and am a trained chef, so why don’t I marry the two together? Suddenly I had this idea to get into food media.
RRED: How did you get the Food Editorial Assistant job that you have now?
TH: I was lucky enough, through my culinary school, to apply for an internship in the Rachael Ray Every Day test kitchen and I did that and I got it. I just felt that it was a miracle and found that I had found the place in life where I was meant to be—at age 44! A couple of weeks later, Nina [Elder, the executive food editor] called me and asked me to interview for the Food Editorial Assistant position. I had no experience in writing or journalism or anything, so that was scary, but the job is heavier on test-kitchen work. I got the job, and the rest is history.
RRED: What’s the job like on a daily basis?
TH: It’s different every day. I don’t actually know what’s going to happen until the next day. Things can completely change because we’ll get stories in that we’ll have to drop everything and completely test or shop for. I can have a rough plan in my head what we’re doing, but then it will completely change and you just have to roll with it.
RRED: What didn’t you expect about this job?
TH: I didn’t expect that you’d still learn every day. I think that never changes. Whether it be a new product or recipe idea... even now I’m finding out new names of fruits that I never even knew existed. I thought that was all covered in school, but it’s actually not.
RRED: Favorite dish to make?
TH: I love rustic food. I love preparing soups and stews—comforting food like that. I love making colorful salads with exciting flavors and other fresh food.
RRED: Any parting thoughts about your career in food?
TH: When I tell people that I’m a Food Editorial Assistant, I can tell they look at my age. But I also think that it makes people admire me for making that big, bold decision because I do think that it’s slightly harder to do later in life. A lot of people have told me that it’s inspiring that I did that. That I could go along a whole career path and then just suddenly decide to switch. This is what I wanted all my life, so I think I’m more appreciative and more grateful. It just makes me happy, and I think you work hard when you’re happy.
These interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.