A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

People of NKY: Just how many ‘food stylists’ do you know? Here’s one to get to know — Jeff Martin

By Ginger Dawson
NKyTribune reporter

It is Jeff Martin’s goal in life to make food look good. I mean REALLY good.  

Jeff in his backyard all ready for the 2019 Covington Garden Tour

Like celebrities and Hollywood types who hire a person whose job it is to preen a sow’s ear into a bedazzled silk purse, Jeff does this for food. He can make a dead fish look like something you can’t believe you’ve never had the chance to taste before. Really.

A food stylist. Now, how on earth does one learn how to be a food stylist? How does one even figure out that this is something to be?

I guess one can go to school for such a thing, but I think the path to success in this profession varies with every single person and is far from a direct route.  

Inexplicably, I have known several food stylists in my life. I have always thought that this was odd. I mean, how many food stylists do YOU know? It strikes me as being as unusual as having five close friends who are astronauts.  

I probably need to get out more.

Growing up in Green Township in Hamilton County, Ohio, Jeff started on his path to this career after he graduated from LaSalle High School.  

He didn’t know he was on a path — he didn’t really have any particular plans. He was mostly interested in cars.  

In fact, he had access to three cars in high school: a 1976 Pontiac Transam, a Toyota 4 X 4, and his brother’s 1983 Mustang, which he actually drag raced at Edgewater Raceway west of Cincinnati. His brother did not know this at the time. If he still doesn’t, and if he reads this, he does now.

Jeff in his office. Great wall sculpture!

With no thought of going to college, Jeff went to work for his dad at the family business, National Office Systems, selling office supplies and furniture. This was located on Fourth Street in Covington, right next to where Molly Malone’s restaurant is today. 

This was Jeff’s first introduction to Covington — around 1989. Sometimes, during that era, things could be a little interesting with the street population.

The front door to the store was in an alcove. It was reasonably secluded. While this was a nice weather buffer for customers — after hours, it was an even nicer sanitary facility for non-customers.  

It was one of Jeff’s jobs to clean, and this included the alcove, naturally. Fortunately, this first impression of Covington didn’t put him off. He was to end up buying a house there 16years later.

I can’t help but think that this experience also caused him to re-evaluate his thoughts about college.  

A couple of quarters at the University of Cincinnati’s Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning got him started. It was not an exact fit, so he transferred to Kent State in northeastern Ohio.

There, he explored the possibility of studying psychology but moved quickly to graphic design.  He graduated with a degree in this in 1993.

In the early to mid-nineties, the graphic design profession was going through quite a transition. Veteran artists and designers, after long careers in the old-school traditional techniques of drawing and painting; relying on paste-up boards and exacto knives, found themselves being sidelined for computers.  

A sampling of some of the winners of the food styling and photography competition in Santa Fe.(Photo provided)

If you couldn’t get square with Photoshop, you were out the door.  

Not being saddled with this misfortune, Jeff moved to New York City two weeks after graduating.  It was perfect timing. He was in the right place at the right time.

Working at small design firms, he was on the ground floor of developing websites for major corporations.

Websites for Citibank Credit Card and the first Audi TT Roadster were a couple of his projects then. The Audi TT site innovated with using Flash Player action graphics, something that was brand new.

The last couple of years he had his own business, Pindrop Studios, where he worked extensively with clients during the dot-com era. The wild market speculation in this new frontier made the ride crazy. Naturally, the bubble popped on everyone involved and Jeff decided to move back to Cincinnati.

The work of Jeffrey Martin Food Stylist LLC, photographed by Larry White Photography. Hungry?

Now, during all of this, Jeff has been a cook. He loves to entertain and prepare food for people.  

At one point, he actually prepared a Thanksgiving dinner for twelve people in his six hundred square foot apartment located in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. To add to the complexity of cooking in a postage stamp, in which the door to the kitchen had to be propped open to get the turkey into the oven, the upper kitchen cabinet fell off of the wall during cooking! True to form, he made it all work anyway.

In Cincinnati, he continued on in graphic design. He worked at RGI Design Group and was an art director for Xavier University for a couple of years.

He settled into a nine-year stint as an art director at Landor Associates, a branding company.

It was during this time that Jeff started thinking more about food.

In 2007, he enrolled in the Midwest Culinary Institute (he still had a full-time job at Landor).  
If that was not enough, he started his own cake business, Le Sucre. He provided specialty cakes and cookies for weddings and parties, among other things.  

Weird cakes were his specialty. A UC Bearcat, the Metropolitan Museum in NYC (complete with miniature Jeff Koons sculptures on the roof) and the Starship Enterprise are a sampling.

He ran this business and worked at Landor simultaneously for about five years.  One of his quotes: “I am NEVER not busy.” 

I believe it!

Another beauty by Jeffrey Martin Food Stylist LLC, photography by Steve Paszt Photography

It was during a business meeting with a photo editor from Bon Appétit, a fine food magazine, that opened the door to a new direction. Seeing his interest and affinity for food, the editor suggested that he might want to become a food stylist.  

This resonated. Never one to be afraid of change, even if it entails risk, he did exactly that. 

In 2012, Jeff left Landor and closed the doors on Le Sucre.  

At that same time, Jeffrey Martin Food Stylist, LLC went into action.

His clients are restaurants, grocery stores, manufacturers, publications and anyone else who needs to have food look good in their advertising and marketing programs.  

He has been very successful and stays REALLY busy. He does on-set work and is available for any location in the United States.

In addition, Jeff is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.  This organization was founded in 1978 by, among others, Julia Child and Jacques Pépin. There are several divisions in this organization, one of which is food photography and styling. Jeff is the chairperson.

During their annual conference, this year in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Jeff innovated the idea of having a photography and food styling competition to be held at the same time.

He developed a website for this and solicited entries from 194 countries.  

He received 215 responses from 13 countries. One hundred and twenty-five of these culinary professionals were on hand at the conference and twenty finalists won in five categories. There was one overall winner.

It was a huge success. It upped the attendance at the conference and became a new business for Jeff. Food Photo Affair, LLC will be having its own conference in October 2020 in the south Napa Valley in California.

You ARE hungry! A StickSammich! Jeffrey Martin Food Stylist LLC, photographed by Alias Imaging.

Now see, 215 food stylists world-wide does make them a somewhat rare commodity. It IS weird that I know several. 

I knew it!

On a more local scale, Jeff lives in the Mutter Gottes Neighborhood in Covington. He and his partner Jim bought a house there in 2005. Naturally, it was the kitchen that sealed the deal in their choice.

They share this house with George and Gracie, their crazy (in Jeff’s words) dogs.

Jeff was the first president of the newly formed Mutter Gottes Neighborhood Association in 2018 and chaired the neighborhood’s first participation in the Covington Garden Tour.

Jeff likes the fact that Covington is walkable and has a sense of community. Fortunately, his first impression with his father’s office supply store on Fourth Street did not put him off.

When I asked Jeff what lessons he had learned in life, he said “Don’t be afraid to take risks,” and “Slow down, don’t rush.”
The first lesson I believe. 


The second one I need convincing of, at least the “slow down” part!

Ginger Dawson writes about the People of NKY — the neighbors you need to know and people you need to meet and understand. The feature appears periodically at the NKyTribune. If you have ideas for subjects please share them with Ginger at ginger@fuse.net.

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