That Looks Good Enough to Eat!
Alumna Betsy Nelson found her career in restaurants and food styling
When Betsy Nelson (B.A. ’85) was an undergrad at the U of M in the early ’80s, she worked for the University hospital’s food service. At the time, she thought of it as a just job to help pay bills as she double-majored in psychology and studio arts, with thoughts of becoming an art therapist or a teacher.
Little did she know that her campus job would ultimately play a major role in her career—first as a restaurant pro, and then as a successful food stylist.
Nelson says she was drawn to psychology and studio arts because she is a creative person who loves both art and studying human behavior. But after college, Nelson found there weren’t a lot of teaching jobs available, and she deemed graduate school for art therapy too costly. Instead, she decided to expand on her college part-time job and began working at restaurants full time. She loved working with food so much that she never looked back.
One of Nelson’s first stints was as a line cook at Stonewings, the Bloomington restaurant where pioneering local chef Lenny Russo made his mark. It was the advent of California cuisine in Minnesota and Nelson was enthralled with the foods she was discovering for the first time, such as sundried tomatoes and goat cheese. After a year there, she went to Café Brenda to work with another pioneering chef, Brenda Langton, in a restaurant known for its vegetarian food and embracing the early days of the farm-to-table movement.
After that, Nelson would try her hand at large-scale catering, making meals for 3,000 people as an employee of Atrium Catering, the now-closed catering wing of the D’Amico restaurant business. (She remembers an event former Vice President Walter Mondale attended and how the Secret Service scouted the kitchen.)
Every job required Nelson to be creative and think on her feet. “No one said ‘Here’s the recipe, just follow it,'” she says. “It was more like ‘This is the food we have—make something with it.’
“I’m a really good creative problem solver,” Nelson adds, remembering all the times she had to shore up buttercream-frosted cakes that melted in the summer heat. Once, she even reassembled an aspic salmon that slid off its mirrored plate when a van driver mistook the delivery route for a NASCAR race.
Eventually, Nelson would work her way up to being in the head chef’s spot at the Aveda Spa in Osceola, Wisconsin, a job she held until 1998.
Nelson is matter of fact about the constraints that shaped her career. She says that sexism found in some kitchens and the unpredictable hours took a toll on her, especially while she was raising two young children. She was ready for a change.
Her brother—Minneapolis photographer Paul Nelson—suggested Nelson give food styling a try. Food stylists are a key part of food marketing and merchandising, making dishes or ingredients look luscious and inviting. And since Minnesota is a leader in the food industry, a freelance food stylist can make a living styling food for corporations.
“Food styling is about how food should look,” she says. “What does it look like when it comes out of the oven? What does it look like when it comes out of the garden or the refrigerator? That’s where having an art degree probably helped.”
The Nelson siblings did photoshoots to create a portfolio. Nelson also attended a food styling conference in Chicago, where she discovered that those gooey strands of cheese dripping off a pizza didn’t just happen; you have to use a steamer to soften the cheese and make it glisten. It was the perfect combination of food science and studio art. A second career was born.
“I tell people that food styling is like life support for food,” she says. “It’s about color, texture, and contrast.” She knows how to perk up lettuce, or make cherries look ripe. Scoops of ice cream with the perfect ruffle require a specially cooled studio, a lot of dry ice, and a custom scoop with an extra-long handle for the perfect amount of torque. She has created her own tools, including tiny vials with droppers that release a teensy amount of glue on the top of a tomato in need of a more attractive stem.
Nelson started as a food stylist before social media, and before people posting their meals in the portrait setting mode became a thing. (As she approaches her 60th birthday, she says she’s tried styling for TikTok videos and feels like that’s something for the next generation of stylists.)
Right now she’s branching out to other areas, including leading foraging workshops (she loves making cakes and waffles from the nettles she harvests in Theodore Wirth Park) and developing recipes. She’s also a certified herbalist and Ayurvedic chef. To mark this new direction, she got a tattoo of a motherwort—her favorite herb—on her right arm.
Nelson says these new paths energize her. “I think having to do a lot of different little things actually suits my personality and keeps me fresher because I’m always learning different things,” she says.
“I can go down those rabbit holes and I like that.”