Armed with a tool belt filled with tweezers, baby scissors, water and oil bottles, food stylist Shanti Hinojos has a knack for not only making food taste exquisite but making it pleasing to the eye. Hinojos is the executive chef of Home & Family, a two-hour daily talk show on the Hallmark Channel. When celebrities visit the show to share their favorite recipes, it’s Hinojos’ job to make their dishes sparkle.
“I use a lot of toothpicks,” Hinojos says. She puts marbles in soups, so that the goodies underneath float to the top, and uses little wedges to prop things up. Plastic wrap and towels come in handy for stuffing, adding volume and height. “It’s similar to architecture,” she says.
After attending the University of California, San Diego, Hinojos studied fashion at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising before receiving her culinary training at downtown's L.A. Trade Tech, which gave her an eye for shape and structure as well as color.
“I’m a stylist on a lot of different levels,” Hinojos says. “Aesthetics are very important to me. I’m very particular about symmetry and balance.” In a way, you have to be, she adds. “Everybody eats with their eyes. If it doesn’t look good, you don’t want to eat it.”
Her nemesis is cheese. “It looks good for a minute and then once it starts to cool, it starts to coagulate and leeches oil and gets greasy and gross,” she says. Sometimes she’ll use a commercial heat gun, most often used for stripping paint, to melt cheese. She also has a blowtorch and a charcoal starter to make grill marks.
Of course, the food can’t look too styled, because then it looks sterile. “It’s definitely a trend right now for food to look a bit organic,” she says, “so you’ve got to stage that in some way, whether it’s with crumbs or wrinkles.”
Unlike food styling for a photo shoot, the guests on Home & Family actually eat the food, so it has to be both pretty and edible. At the same time, there are some foods, like ice cream, that simply won’t last, so Hinojos has to get creative. “I do flour and whipped vanilla frosting — it feathers like ice cream,” she says. She also uses fake ice cubes in drinks.
“When I think of styling food, I think of a vignette of what it feels like,” Hinojos says. If a particular dish reminds her of the South, for example, she'll make up a story in her head of what it’s going to be like and what the person is going to get from the image. She’s a big fan of decorative boards, props she picks up at a vintage store or simply makes herself, and added touches that are fun or cheeky. “It’s a creative process,” she says. “The funnest thing to me is when I really have time to do it properly.”
Before she got her job with Home & Family, Hinojos was a private chef for about a decade, working for A-list celebrities, film producers, big-shot music managers and the like. The pay was good but Hinojos often felt as if she was the hired help, so when a friend told her about an opportunity to work for a TV show, she jumped at the chance.
Starting out as an assistant to the main chef at the end of season two of Home & Family, Hinojos took over as executive chef for season three, in August 2014 (the show is now in the middle of its fourth season). Still, being a woman in the industry (and a particularly petite one at that) means that Hinojos often has to be extra assertive.
“Sometimes people will look to the man in the room, or they don’t think that I’m in charge because I look young,” she says. “It’s challenging, but I don’t know anything different. As far as I know, I’ve been a woman most of my life.”
Hinojos calls working on the show frantic, with production taking place 52 weeks a year. The last time they had a hiatus was July 2014.
“If you like sausage, or you like TV, never watch it being made. It’s a grind,” she says. Though the show isn’t live, it's taped as if it were, with minor edits done before it’s turned around the next day. “We don’t stop at all,” Hinojos says. “We just keep going.”
Given her previous career as a personal chef to the stars, Hinojos says working with celebrities on the show doesn’t faze her, though she was a little starstruck when Dolly Parton visited with her fried green tomatoes recipe.
“But she was so sweet. She touched my cheek and said, ‘Honey, what color is your lipstick? It’s gorgeous!’ I froze and awkwardly said, ‘NARS,’ which is a brand, not a color.”
Hinojos recently dipped her toes into being in front of the camera. She was a contestant on Cutthroat Kitchen, where she suffered a brutal snub by chef Simon Majumdar, who called her eggs “snotty.”
She then appeared on her own Home & Family show, where hosts Mark Steines and Cristina Ferrare sang her praises as she showed them how to make quail eggs. Hinojos was surprised when Majumdar turned up at the end of the segment, this time noting the eggs were fully cooked.