Food Stylist To Stars Dishes On Culinary Tips, North Fork Fare

NORTH FORK, NY — Guests at an impromptu brunch in the backyard of Ulli Stachl’s Peconic home are treated to a literal feast — frittatas and fruits, smoked salmon and delicious tarts laced with the North Fork’s abundance of fresh fare.

Effortlessly elegant, the meal is representative of food stylist Stachl’s passion for preparing meals with a focus on locally sourced ingredients for family and friends — and a career marked by culinary excellence.

Stachl, a longtime chef, food stylist and consultant known for her delectable recipes whipped up on “The Dr. Oz Show” and other high-profile TV ventures, has long been lured by the siren song of the culinary canvas.

According to her bio on “The Oz Blog”, Stachl was born and raised in Vienna, Austria, “where her passion for food and cooking was ignited. Her love for quality and exotic ingredients grew during her 22 years as a flight attendant for Pan Am Airlines, where she savored the different flavors of the world at an altitude of 30,000 feet. Upon coming to States, Ulli trained as a professional chef with Peter Kump at the New York Cooking School (now the Institute of Culinary Education) where she graduated with culinary ‘cordon bleu’ honors.”

In her career as a food stylist, Stachl has catered to celebrities and personalities such as Sarah Ferguson, Lee Ann Rimes, George Forman, Al Roker, Kimora Lee Simmons and the cast of the Harry Potter series; she has styled for numerous celebrity chefs including Paula Deen, Cat Cora, Bobby Flay, Taylor Florence, Jeff Henderson of The Bellagio, “The Kitchen Diva” Angela Shelf Medearis, Take Home Chef’s Curtis Stone, and Top Chef’s Ilan Hall, her bio explains.

She entered the world of television working as a food producer for The Food Network’s Lighten Up. She’s also styled for The Rosie O’Donnell Show, and is currently the chief stylist and consultant for Anderson, The Wendy Williams Show — and The Dr. Oz Show, where Dr. Mehmet Oz has said he can’t start the day without her healthy granola.

Stachl’s Peconic home is an eclectic haven filled with not just the gleaming pots and pans she uses to whip up her creations and deeply hued earthenware bowls bursting with ripe tomatoes and fresh vegetables, but also yard sale treasures and artwork in every corner — including the pieces painted on driftwood she creates in her backyard “art house,” built by her husband Randy.

Tucked into a chair in her cozy Peconic living room, her dog Bodhi nestled close beside her, Stachl reflects on her early years. “I was the country girl, born and bred in Vienna,” she said.

Recalling the kitchen of her childhood, she said, of cooking: “It’s in the air, in your blood. I grew up with food.” Her mother, Stachl said, prepared meals with grains and beans. “My mom was one of the pioneers of health foods, amazing light years ahead of her time,” she said. “I grew up on the healthiest foods available. White bread was not something I ever saw. There was salad at every meal.”

On the flip said, her grandmother on her father’s side prepared decadently rich roasts, butter cakes and creams. “I learned as much from her as from my mom,” she said.

Even today, Stachl said, she prepares tastes of Austria for her husband and her sons Derek and Tate, including Viennese potato salad; she’s given her boys a copy of Marcia Colman Morton’s “The Art of Viennese Cooking,” rich with recipes and stories, to pass along the proverbial torch.

“It really warms my heart, and makes me so happy, that they both have a love of food. They love watching and learning from me and then, they go off and riff on their own,” Stachl said.

Beyond recipes, Stachl also believes in creativity in the kitchen. “I don’t go just by recipes,” she said. “To me, a recipe is a suggestion. I’m trying to teach people to go that route because being a slave to a recipe is detrimental to your sanity, number one — and also, you limit yourself. There should be a little bit of yourself in every dish.”

For example, Stachl says, if a recipe calls for parsley and there’s no parsley in the house? No worries. “Use what you do have, celery leaves, chives — use your imagination,” she said.

To those who want to learn, Stachl said: “To start cooking, don’t be afraid. Just do it. Mistakes are good things, you learn from them. I burned water in my exam at culinary school,” she laughed. “I put the water on and forgot about it. But I still graduated with a blue ribbon.”

After the New York Cooking School, Stachl, who said traveling “is in her blood,” began working on a cookbook for chef and award-winning food journalist Molly O’Neill, where she stayed until she was hired to work in television.

An opportunity arose through Lucinda Scala Quinn, author of “Lucinda’s Rustic Italian Kitchen,” and an executive food editor for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Stachl said. Quinn connected Stachl to Stewart’s former executive producer, who’d left to kick off Joan Lunden’s new project — and it’s with Joan Lunden that Stachl ultimately got her start in food styling for television.

Although she and her family were slated to take a trip to Hawaii that summer, she seized the chance and her television career was launched. “I still owe the boys a Hawaii trip,” she laughed.

In the years since, working with the Food Network’s Lighten Up, The Rosie O’Donnell Show, Anderson — hosted by Anderson Cooper — The Wendy Williams Show, and The Dr. Oz Show, among many others, Stachl became adept at whipping up “a gazillion dishes at the same time,” she said.

She’s also worked with high profile personalities including George Stephanopoulos and Ali Wentworth, Tony Danza and others, and has done segments on Good Morning America, The Today Show and Fox & Friends, Stachl said.

What’s great about her profession, Stachl said, is demystifying the art of cooking on television to make it more accessible to all. “What’s nice is when people realize that it’s not magic. It’s doable. And then they start cooking themselves.”

Along the way, Stachl has met celebrities who truly relish the art of cooking, she said. “Oprah is a kick ass cook,” she said. “Not only was she lovely but she knew exactly what she was doing. She had really worked recipes. That was a really, really nice experience.”

Also a good cook, Stachl said, was Gwyneth Paltrow. “She’s really a good cook, really good,” she said. And, she added, Stanley Tucci also possesses some cooking chops.

But the headliner of any show, for Stachl, is the food.

“Food doesn’t have to be complicated; it shouldn’t be,” she said. “I want the real thing, the genuine, fresh ingredients — let them shine. Make them the star.”

When she started as a food stylist, the industry was just emerging, Stachl said. “It was a new thing,” she said.

Describing a day at the office, Stachl said producers often meet cookbook authors and go through the book, often consulting with her to choose recipes to be featured on the show.

As a food stylist for television, Stachl can take a recipe that would normally take three hours to prepare and break it down into steps — all the while keeping in mind the time constraints of television. When preparing vegetable soup, for example, all the vegetables would be chopped up and sauteed in oil in advance, with broth added later. A second burner, she said, would have the broth simmering; next the dumplings or noodles would be added. The last step would to show audience the soup already done, all in the five to seven minute segment.

Stachl also buys all of her own ingredients and props and brings them to the show, including cooler bags, boxes of dishes, and utensils.

Working with Joan Lunden and her producers early on, Stachl said, “taught me everything I know now. They were old school, well-trained.”

She’s how to prepare tantalizing fare on shows that don’t have kitchens, where she’s had to cook up culinary masterpieces on a hot plate in the hallway. “I want people to see you don’t need a fancy kitchen,” she said.

Cooking in a small space was an art Stachl perfected as a flight attendant for Pan Am, a career she embarked upon before she found her path as a food stylist.

“I always worked in first class, in the first class galley, because I loved cooking,” Stachl said. “We cooked 7-course meals on the plane at 33,000 feet. It was good training for food styling because in those tiny galleys, you can’t go out and get something — so you improvise. Food styling is 75 percent improvising, working with your wits and then, making things look good,” she said.

Working for the airline, Stachl got a crash course in international cuisine, preparing everything from rack of lamb, to Japanese food, to South American dishes. Preparing dinner for clients in first class, she said: “Maxim’s prepped the food for us. It was glorious — rib roast, caviar, foie gras, champagne. We all got used to that lifestyle.” During her time with Pan Am, she said, she met a full slate of stars, including Mikhail Baryshnikov and Keith Haring. “It was an adventure. It was magic,” she said.

One former Pan Am flight attendant, she said, reminisced on social media about “the feeling of sitting in the jump seat as the engine was revving, and the airplane shivering when you started going, and then, the takeoff. She wrote it beautifully — that feeling, there’s nothing like it. It’s heaven.”

The memory of the day Pan Am ceased operations on Dec. 4, 1991 — a date forever ingrained in her mind — still stings, Stachl said. “It was really heartbreaking,” she said.

However, Stachl said, New York State helped to pay for her culinary education after Pan Am’s closure. “I was very lucky. And also, I found an occupation that I love. I didn’t think after Pan Am died that I would find something I loved as much as I loved flying.”

But, with her trademark indomitable spirit and ready smile, Stachl retrained, learning the ropes of food writing, travel, food styling — and also, cultivating her work as an artist; painting, she said, nurtures the soul.

Today, Stachl, who has a cookbook, “Not Your Mother’s Chicken Soup,” in the works, wants to help people find their own calling for preparing food. “I have learned that people crave simple, easy to prepare foods made with the freshest of seasonal ingredients,” she wrote in her book’s introduction. “More than that, they want ‘one dish wonders’ that satisfy the soul and soothe the beast after fighting the world in the daily battles called life.”

Food brings people together, Stachl said, inviting them to sit around a table and make memories. “People let their walls down because food touches them in certain ways, touches their hearts. Once they’ve had that feeling, it opens up the gates to let other feelings out. Just talking about food brings back memories, smells, images,” she said.

As a chef and stylist, Stachl said she revels in “imperfection. Perfection is boring. In my styling, I love when the edges are not perfect, not when everything is placed exactly at 6 and 3 o’clock, but when it has a flow— and that makes you relaxed and realize you don’t need to be perfect. You just need to embrace it, that this is who you are. Food is beautiful. You don’t want to be perfect. Look at a peach, an orange, they’re perfect the way they are with their imperfections. Just accept that imperfection is perfect.”

Working to Dr. Oz, Stachl said, is a delight, with the focus on healthy fare, not the excesses of television some prefer. “The man is brilliant . . . he’s so wonderful to work with,” she said. “He’s a scientist and a pro, and when you cook, he wants to understand exactly why, how and with what. He’s eager to learn everything. I have so much respect for him.”

Despite all her success on television and in her career, Stachl’s true happiness in life can be found around the kitchen table at home with her sons and her husband Randy, with whom she celebrated 39 years of marriage in October.

Her entire family has always supported her career, she said. “It’s always been, ‘If it makes you happy, go for it,'” she said. “There’s not one person in our family that wouldn’t support the other one.”

And it’s at her Peconic retreat where Stachl pursues her passion for art. Cooking and art, she said, “go hand in hand. You’d be surprised; most chefs are actually busy with other kinds of art — they’re photographers, painters. It’s just something you give from the inside, that’s a part of you, that you do with your hands, and the outcome is either something painted or sculpted, a photograph — or food.”

The North Fork, Stachl said, is also the perfect place for foodies. “When I cook, I don’t make plans, I don’t think, ‘I have to make this’ and then, go out and shop. I decide when I see what’s there. Wesnofske Farms has beautiful eggplant, zucchini, wonderful vegetables. Stacy’s Eggs — every day, gorgeous eggs. The Southold Fish Market, with fresh fish. The tomatoes, the peaches. The ingredients shine. The North Fork is heaven.”

The North Fork, Stachl added, reminds her in some way of Rio de Janeiro. “When you open the airplane door and the air — you feel almost like dancing. There’s something in the air that’s magical. It’s a wonderful feeling that just recharges you, makes you not want to leave.”

Her Peconic home is the place her family gathers for Thanksgiving. “When we cook together, it’s a madhouse, and it’s wonderful,” she said. “The boys bring their friends — that’s what life should be.”

And the North Fork is where Stachl and her husband headed to celebrate Valentine’s Day, where she prepared special meals including a smoked salmon, cream cheese and shiitake omelette topped with caviar; and a “perfect Valentine’s dinner” of pan roasted duck breast, blackened string beans with shiitakes and roasted baby potatoes — both accompanied by photos posted on social media along with Stachl’s trademark hash tag #randyeatswell.

Food, she said, is deeply intertwined in memories — every dish she prepares for her family is infused with love.

“Cooking is part of your life, your heritage,” Stachl said. “It’s your history. It’s sharing. It’s life.”

Here’s Stachl’s recipe for a special meal:

GOLD STAR CHICKEN SOUP EXTRAVAGANZA

By Ulli Stachl

“This deliciousness is a special occasion treat — perfect for your love on Valentine’s Day, birthday or a special occasion. It actually comes together quickly — no more than an hour and a half start to finish (no, I am not including eating time there —savor every bite). Make sure you get edible gold leaf; you can find it online,” Stachl said.

INGREDIENTS

1 tablespoon butter

3 chicken drum sticks (skin on, bone in)

3 chicken thighs (skin on, bone in)

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 large carrots, cut into bite size pieces

2 celery ribs, cut into bite size pieces

1 medium onion, diced

1 cup grape tomatoes

2 sprigs fresh oregano or 1 tablespoon dried

1 cup royal king mushrooms, halved or shiitakes, sliced

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

4 cups chicken broth

½ cup dry Vermouth

Toppings:

2 lobster tails, 4 oz. each

2 cloves black garlic, thinly sliced

Edible gold flakes

2 tablespoons fresh chives

Lemon slices

In a large soup, pot melt the butter, sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper and brown the pieces on all sides on medium heat, about 10 minutes.

Remove chicken and set aside. Stir the carrots, celery, onion, tomatoes, oregano and mushrooms into the now empty pot and cook, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes, until they start to soften.

Stir in the garlic, return the chicken to the pot and pour in the chicken broth.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer on low for 45 minutes.

Remove the chicken and set aside until cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, add the lobster tails to the pot and simmer on low for about 8 minutes.

Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove skin and bones and cut the meat into bite size pieces. Return meat to the soup. Pop lobster meat out of the shell and cut into thick slices.

Ladle the soup into serving bowls, arrange the lobster slices on top, sprinkle with black garlic, gold flakes, chives and a slice of lemon.

Serve to the one you love!

Yield: about 8 cups

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