When I tell people I’m a professional food stylist—I cook and style food to be photographed—their first reaction, without fail, is one of wonder and amazement. (Runner-up: Is the food edible? Answer: Usually!)
I often take the cool factor of my job for granted. I get to work with (and take home) food, I get to collaborate with talented and creative people, and sometimes I get to see my work in the wild: in a magazine, on TV, and on packaging in a grocery store. (Still working up to my Times Square billboard!)
What people don’t know about food styling is that a solid 60% of the job is grocery shopping. How a final photo looks and feels is decided by what I buy: the color of the lettuce, if the herbs are flowering or not, the particular brand of bacon that renders more fat, cute carrots from the farmers market vs. mega supermarket carrots. Even how the cashier throws the perfectly shaped hot dog buns around like a hacky sack at a picnic determines how good the food looks.
So I pay a greater-than-average amount of attention to groceries and I am always keeping mental notes about the best places to buy certain things. The biggest non-negotiable: where I buy fresh basil.
Basil is without a doubt the most difficult herb to keep fresh and looking picture-perfect. It’s delicate and super sensitive to temperature, which means its leaves can turn limp and black overnight if stored improperly. It is seasonal (hello, summer!) and hard to find year-round, like in mid February, when I’m trudging through the snow on the way to a photo shoot that’s celebrating recipes for warmer days.
That is why, for all my personal and professional basil needs, I buy a potted basil plant and I only look for it in a surprising place: the garden section of the hardware store!
In Brooklyn, where I live and work, there are a few independent hardware stores that keep a great inventory of plants. I can reliably find a healthy basil plant at a hardware store that’s more lush and leafy than any slim, flimsy plastic package from the grocery store—you know the one, with two sprigs of basil barely squished inside. And to top it all, basil plants at the hardware store are the same price, if not a little cheaper, than those wasteful packets of basil from the grocery store that are one-fifth the size.
Basil plants last perfectly fine on the counter, saving me precious refrigeration space when I’m working in a photo studio without a ton of room. After the photo shoot is over, someone is always excited to take the plant home, and for good reason—basil is famously easy to take care of, grows abundantly in direct sun, and makes your kitchen smell great.
So if like me you love a good bargain and better basil, pay your local hardware store a visit for a beautiful pot.