Welcome to our series A Day in the Life where we ask women we admire to share the daily minutiae of their professional lives, from the morning rituals that set them up for success to their evening wind-down routines. In this installment, we chatted with food designer and cookbook author, Mariana Velásquez, about her impressive career (she collaborated with Michelle Obama on her cookbook “American Grown,” no big deal), her beautiful new cookbook, “Colombiana,” and her best advice for anyone who wants to break into the food industry (psst… it involves a lot of schlepping).
You’re an award-winning recipe developer and food stylist whose work has been featured in the New York Times, Vogue, Food & Wine, and Bon Appétit, among others. How were you first drawn to cooking and what inspired you to pursue this path?
I was first drawn to cooking by watching the women in my family prepare food and host. Very early on I understood that it was them who kept our family celebrating together, but also kept our traditions alive. At 14 years old, I found out that one could have a career in cooking and then I was certain that was my path. Which then meant I could dedicate myself to something I truly loved and brought others close to me.
Your latest cookbook, “Colombiana,” celebrates the diverse mix of heritages, cultures, and regions that comprise Colombian recipes and rituals. What inspired you to pursue this book, and what do you hope people take away from it?
Initially, I wanted to explore how the roots and nuances of the food I grew up with influenced my food styling, cooking aesthetics, and sensibilities. But it wasn’t until a friend and client asked me point blank why I hadn’t written a book about Colombian cooking yet. That question at a bar in Fort Greene in Brooklyn made me realize I hadn’t been ready until then. And I hope that, with “Colombiana,” readers have an introduction to Colombian cuisine and get a glimpse of our culture. I am so delighted to receive messages from readers who have been cooking from the book and making the recipe their own.
Your portfolio is so impressive. You’ve collaborated on two books that received James Beard Book Awards, worked with Michelle Obama on her “American Grown” cookbook, and so much more. Of all the projects you’ve worked on, which are you most proud of?
What I am most proud of is to have upheld my dreams through adversity and difficult times and to have build relationships with some of the most talented creatives in the world of food around the world.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to break into the food industry and become a successful recipe developer and food stylist like yourself?
Assist people whose work you admire, schlep everything there is to schlep, do all the dishes and pay attention to all the details.
Now, let’s dig into your typical workday routine. First, are you a night owl or a morning person? When do you do your most important work and why?
I used to be a night owl until I married a guy who worked in morning news, so then quickly I became an early riser and it has been a revelation. The quiet time in the morning is such a gift. I tend to work best early in the day with a good cup of black coffee or on planes. These days planes are less so but a few cross-country trips have helped me meet deadlines.
What time does your alarm go off, and what’s the first thing you do upon waking?
I do my morning pages from Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” I read her book about five years ago and the morning pages which is a ritual of waking up, and before looking at the phone or anything else, you write three pages of a stream of thought. Whatever pops into one’s mind. And it is such a good way for me to begin my day. After that, I have warm water with lemon and a workout.
What does your morning, pre-work routine look like?
Morning pages, workout (run, walk, 54D, hot yoga), coffee, and straight to work.
What do you typically have for breakfast?
When I have breakfast, which is usually on the weekends, I have a crispy corn arepa with cheese and butter and fruit.
What’s the first thing you do when you get to your desk?
My desk is usually my cutting board in a photo studio. So I look at the shot list and make a plan. I look at my phone, scroll down to see if there is anything urgent, put it away, wash my hands and start cooking. I have found that keeping my phone in my bag out of reach helps me stay focused.
How do you go about developing a new recipe? What is that process like and where do you find inspiration?
I start from the end. I envision what it will look like, the color palette, the shapes, and the story I want to tell. I usually find inspiration in movies or the mood I’m in, the things I am craving and why. For instance, recently I was watching the film “I Am Love” and immediately I wanted to make a delicate fish stew with vegetables from the farmers market and serve it on a 1970’s style table with linens and silverware from that era.
Do you ever reach inbox zero?
In my work email, yes. On my personal… let’s just say my husband Diego cannot fathom the number.
What is your go-to work lunch?
If I’m home, I put things together from the fridge and leftovers; I adore having soup with crusty bread for lunch or crackers with salmón and kimchi. If I am on set, usually a big salad that I bring or, honestly, a ham and cheese sandwich with butter and pickles on baguette from the deli.
What are some work habits that help you stay healthy, productive, and on track to reach your goals?
Lots of water, no picking between meals, a glass of wine after work, and always try to get at least a walk or a stretch in the morning. Also, saying “no” sometimes.
What are you reading, watching, and/or listening to right now to wind down at the end of the day?
I am reading “Sasha Noodle String Theory,” a memoir by my friend Wanda Straw. I love her narrative and heartfelt story. I am also watching so many cheesy Spanish TV series it is embarrassing but I am fascinated by the custom design and sets.
What do you usually make for dinner after a long and stressful workday?
I don’t! I either order in or Diego, my husband, and I go out to dinner and have a stiff drink and something delicious. It is usually when I come home from work inspired and with beautiful ingredients that I will roast a chicken with vegetables and make a citrus salad, or I’ll fire up the grill (no pots and pans to wash) and cook anything I have sitting around.
When do you go to bed? What’s your “optimal” number of sleep hours?
I try to be in bed by 10 pm. These days that I have been on West Coast time, I have managed to be in bed by 8 pm and asleep by 9 pm, a true luxury.
What’s the most rewarding part of your day?
When I have upheld my vision and my goals despite all and any interferences.
Colombiana by Mariana Velásquez
From the book COLOMBIANA by Mariana Velásquez. Copyright © 2021 by Mariana Velásquez. Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission. Photos by Gentl & Hyers.