Nothing brings people together like a delicious meal - and Latin culture is certainly known for its more-is-more approach to food, friends, and festivities. This week, star food stylist Mariana Velasquez takes us through the sense of Taste and shows us what makes Colombian cuisine & entertaining just so special. One look at her new book COLOMBIANA will make you crave those vibrant flavors - and throw a party of your own. Read along for her expert tips on hosting the perfect dinner, creating the ultimate tablescape, and the power of red lipstick.
What is your hometown, and where do you live today?
My hometown is Bogotá and I now live in Brooklyn, NY
In a few words, please tell us about your work and your mission.
I am constantly searching for ways to celebrate the rituals of the table and bring in together all things beauty. Both my work and mission involve a thorough combination of cooking, photography, fashion and entertaining.
How do you weave in the visual and aesthetic into a delicious meal, and how does it enhance the experience?
When Im putting together a meal or a menu I always start by imagining the way the food will look and feel at the moment it is served. I try to envision the colors, textures and shapes coming together. I see the platters and their color palette to create a narrative with the only purpose of extolling the ingredients. Only then, I reverse engineer the flavor creation process. No matter how simple or complex the preparation, I appreciate taking the time to serve food in a caring way.
"...I always start by imagining the way the food will look and feel at the moment it is served. I try to envision the colors, textures and shapes coming together."
What is one of the most memorable food-styling projects you have done, and why?
I absolutely loved working in China for a month with very experienced chefs and cooks preparing the menu that would inaugurate a marvelous Zaha Hadid hotel. Their professionalism and reverence to food can only be compared to how exquisite and hyper designed the entire structure is. The chefs where very serious and strict about their processes. Since they have mostly worked behind the line, these professional cooks were not really sure why I was there in the beginning. It was both fascinating and challenging to find and create a common ground across language barriers and appetite appeal subjectivity. I was exposed to a whole new aesthetic and definition of sophistication and what deliciousness should be. After our first few shots they saw the true value of all the elements involved in shaping an image that enhances each dish’s best strengths.
What would you say are the distinguishing characteristics of Colombian cuisine?
More is More! With a country as biodiverse as Colombia, one can only say that we have numerous cuisines within our entire territory. Dishes and recipes that come together with humble ingredients and heirloom cooking techniques make up for generous stews and soups where everyone is welcome. I feel Colombian food really builds bridges across social and political gaps in our society. Hand shaped empanadas and arepas are a unifying thread that runs through all regions. A vast variety of tropical fruits are ever-present in street vendors’ cut up juices or roadside desserts and jams.
Food, entertaining, and conviviality play such a big role in Latin culture. What do you find unique about how Colombians entertain?
Indeed, across the country, where there is room at the table for 10, there is room for 15… Amplitude and generosity are palpable sentiments in the way us Colombians entertain. One of the particularities I love the most is how, no matter the home, when you arrive, you are always offered a tinto (a small cup of black drip coffee) right off the bat. When we enter someone’s home we don’t usually greet by saying the traditional hello in Spanish, instead we say “bueeeenas”, a humble greeting wishing good towards whoever is in the house we enter.
"Amplitude and generosity are palpable sentiments in the way us Colombians entertain."
In your book, Colombiana, you talk about the importance of a tablescape in Colombian culture – what elements make for a great one?
The predictable answer is great florals. But having a great canvas like a heavy linen or layered textiles can truly set a scene. I like adding unexpected pieces. Kitschy ceramics or vintage decor will go a long way. A great tablescape is one that speaks to the style of the host and feels authentic and balanced. You can see if something is forced or too rehearsed.
"...having a great canvas like a heavy linen or layered textiles can truly set a scene. I like adding unexpected pieces. Kitschy ceramics or vintage decor will go a long way."
Your book, Colombiana, focuses on the power of food to make memorable cultural experiences - what are your top 3 tips for making a celebratory meal memorable?
1. Enjoy yourself! hosting is work and if you don’t enjoy the process, don’t bother.
2. Keep it simple but make it delicious. Whether you are cooking or not, plan a menu with ingredients that will comfort all and has your guests going for seconds.
3. Plan the music. In my book I have a playlist that goes along with each of the menus. These celebrations are meant to tickle all the senses. Nothing better than a dinner party that ends in dancing.
"Enjoy yourself! hosting is work and if you don’t enjoy the process, don’t bother."
In a few words, what does beauty mean to you?
Confidence, trust and when in doubt red lipstick.
"Confidence, trust and when in doubt red lipstick."
What beauty lessons have you inherited, from your mother, family, or culture?
Moisturizer on knees, elbows and heels. Always wear a hat in the sun. Calendula balm in my purse at all times.
What are the highlights of your skincare routine - any products or ingredients you can’t live without?
SAMPAR, blemish roller, Santa Maria de Novella Rose Water, and SPF60.
Favorite self-care or mindfulness ritual?
Years ago I read The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron which is a book about awakening creativity. One of the daily practices in it are the Morning Pages. Once I wake up, before looking at my phone or even starting a conversation I write three pages of anything that comes to mind. Its a brain-cleansing way to start the day and open up my mind.
Favorite destination in Colombia?
The Sinú river valley, where towns like Santa Cruz de Lorica excel with stunning architecture and great history. Not to mention a some of the best combination of Lebanese and Colombian cuisines in the country.
Follow Mariana for more inspiration @marianavelasquezv
*All dreamy images from her stunning new book COLOMBIANA