Chow Bella

Inside Food Stylist Constance Higley's Light-Filled Phoenix Kitchen

Kitchen Tours is Chow Bella's ongoing series in which we get up close and personal with the at-home chef's most prized space. We'll take a look at kitchens belonging to everyone from culinary giants and restaurant owners to everyday cooks and self-proclaimed foodies. Ditch the grocery list and forget the recipes: This time around, we're all about capturing a different kind of taste.

Constance Higley is crazy-busy. Depending on when you read this, she'll either be putting the finishing touches on a photo shoot for the debut issue of Spoonful Magazine, creating food pairings for a spread with Sonoma County-based Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Estates, making a meal for a Tablemakers blog installment, or collaborating with Le Creuset cookware in New York City for a dinner with Lowes Home Improvement. (Yes, you read that right.) But if you're lucky — and can shell out the $250 per head — you can catch the fine-art photographer in person when she teaches a food styling workshop in Scottsdale on Saturday, November 7.

Part of the craziness of Higley's schedule stems from the fact that the former wedding photographer turned food stylist turned self-taught cook has found herself in the midst of a slight career change. These days, the 29-year-old is focusing more on what's going to be in front of the camera than being behind it, working on recipes and cooking rather than just staging and shooting. And the kitchen of her 1930s-era Fairview Place home is the backdrop for it all: from prepping and baking to setting the scene and lighting a shot.

Higley and her husband, Blake, moved to Phoenix from Austin two years ago last August. They settled on the outskirts of the Encanto-Palmcroft neighborhood, in an area given the historic designation Fairview Place. Roughly between 15th and 17th avenues, with Encanto Boulevard to the north and McDowell Road to the south, the neighborhood is a hidden starter-home mecca with cottage-style homes and Southwest-inspired designs that range from about 900 to 1,600 square feet. 

The Higleys' home, on Laurel Avenue and Encanto Boulevard, is an approximately 1,600-square-foot original, built in 1936 with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a long, narrow kitchen — the kind of kitchen most historic-area residents have before they transition to a more modern open floor plan.

"I like the wall," Higley says of the off-to-the-side yet hardly hidden kitchen. "I know that it’s not really normal, but I like that it’s separated."

Because of its small size and the kitchen's exposure through an open "window" in the wall, Higley's home feels very dining- and entertaining-friendly. The living room features a bronze vintage-style bar cart (a yet-to-be-returned prop from a recent shoot for Urbana boutique, which may well make itself part of the home's permanent collection) near the open entry into the formal dining room. The dining room is made up of three grand pieces of furniture and an impressively curated photo wall, filled in every direction with family, friends, and the occasional printed quote. The dining room seats 12 at a long table built of rich birch wood, hand-crafted and designed by Blake. The table matches a nearby bar, which serves as a wine glass rack, record player stand, and multi-purpose table. The woodwork of both mirrors that of the nearby kitchen, which can be seen through an open doorway just to the side of the head of the table.

It should be mentioned that Higley considers changing her kitchen. A lot. She talks about putting in new tile and thinks about swapping out countertops. But what the self-taught foodie has been able to do with her space is also worth noting, particularly since it's one familiar to many Phoenicians living in the city's historic districts.

Initially, everything design-wise was "kind of just a cover-up," Higley says, while she and her husband, like many homeowners, decided whether or not to remodel.

"I prefer, aesthetically, a very clean, simple style," she says. "I fell in love with this kitchen because of the natural light. So, I decided, 'Even if it's ugly, it has good light.' It's been an ongoing process to try to figure out how to make it work."

And make it work, she has. What might otherwise be seen as a cramped kitchen instead feels like a carefully coordinated display case. Beautiful cake stands, marble cheeseboards, wooden cutting boards, and white matte plates  — all of which appear in any number of Higley's photographs  — are on display. In a kitchen so narrow the shelving is functional and intentional, it still feels inviting, with some open and some windowed shelves. 

In a food photographer's kitchen, plating is important. As such, Higley boasts an impressive collection of napkins and tablecloths, many of which aren't seen outside of her Instagram feed or styled shoots. She uses the cheeseboards and cutting boards on top of a whiteboard to create an eye-pleasing base and relies on neutral dishes that have no reflection for bird's-eye shots.

"I searched high and low to find these matte white plates, and then they discontinued them!" she says, point to two stacks of 12 large and small plates in the cabinet. She snatched those up from Crate & Barrel for about $2.99 each and recommends budding photographers do the same.

The devil's in the details, too, like the subtle appearance of a reindeer wine-stopper in late October or the decorative storage boxes labeled "Seeds" from Terrain and the aptly named "Recipes" from Rifle Paper Co. Higley's favorite piece is the fish-hook apron hangers, which she found at Anthropologie and had to fight her husband to get into her kitchen. 

"Blake was like, 'They're weird,' but I think they're funny!" she says.

Her favorite place in the entire room, however, is the kitchen table turned studio, which offers two walls of windows and plenty of natural sunlight to flood still shots. 

The table and chairs aren't particularly expensive or coveted — they're from Ikea and LexMod, respectively — but their addition creates both a workspace and homey feel, adding to the other Pinterest-enviable areas throughout the length of the kitchen. Trained in fine art, Higley still prefers film over a DSLR (or iPhone), and the way the light streams into the kitchen during the day is irreplaceable. In fact, finding good light is her number one tip for those who aspire to building a beautiful feed of food shots.

"Everyone has good light somewhere in their house," she says, adding that whether you're in your kitchen or a restaurant, you can have the prettiest plate, but if it’s too dark, the photo will never work. "Move to the good light. Even if you have to walk outside, always move to the best natural light.”

Higley has practiced professional photography for more than a decade. First, it was for destination weddings. She had just graduated from the University of Oklahoma and with her new husband entering medical school, she needed a creative outlet tied to a bigger paycheck.

"I'm very grateful for that time, but I always knew I wanted to move away from it," she says. "I always loved food; my husband is actually the chef. He would always cook for us, and I would just shoot it and style it."

After moving to Phoenix, she quit the wedding circuit, focusing on the studio in her home and a local dining scene that was on the upswing. She got a job working with Lauren Kelp (who since has relocated to Chicago, where Higley often goes to shoot) on a new project: Tablemakers

"She asked if I'd be her food editor, which was hilarious because I [didn’t] cook. At all. When we got married, I couldn’t scramble an egg," Higley says, laughing. "It's not a joke; I'm not exaggerating. It was so bad."

But Kelp insisted and Higley accepted, and thus Tablemakers was born.

"[Tablemakers] is not really how to entertain so much, but why it's important to entertain and the huge conduit for community that it is — just the act of bringing people into your home and inviting them in is such a big deal," she says. "We don't do it as much as we used to. It lets people feel valuable. You're being intentional with them. You want people to come over, relax and have a really good conversation."

Tablemakers turned into opportunities to shoot the food of the Phoenix chef scene, and Higley found herself in the backyards and restaurant kitchens of culinary well-knowns including Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis and Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar.

"I love getting to celebrate what these people are doing here in the Valley," she says. "There's so many incredible chefs here and people in the food industry, so I'm just trying to showcase what they're doing."

Thanks to social media and that iPhone in your pocket, food photography as we now know it isn't going away anytime soon. It's a big change from even five years ago, when the prospect of farm-to-table photography was in the back of Higley's mind but not something she was sure she could pursue. 

"[It] used to be very, very staged. Articifical lighting, artificial food. It used to just be about the final image for advertising, and it’s evolved so much over the past couple years," she says. "Now the goal is to tell the story from the farm to the table to the gathering, and everything in between and to really celebrate the entire process."

Now Higley is involved in all of it from creating recipes and cooking them to plating them and garnering not only "likes," but also photo spreads and partnership opportunities. Some days she's behind the scenes in the kitchen, some shoots she's holding the camera, and other times she's in the shot.

"I just want to create beautiful imagery, so whatever part I play in that I just want to create," she says, adding that she's been doing more with recipes than cameras lately. "You learn so much about working with other people, too. The control freak in me likes to be able to do all of it, but it's also nice to be able to step back and just focus on one thing."

"I mean, there are a lot of times where the food I make isn’t necessarily what I want it to be, but there’s more authenticity to the actual subject then there used to be."

It's a principle she applies not only to cooking, where she plays with making food she calls "attainable." Something "anyone can do. That isn't burdensome but still maybe more than your average Tuesday night," she says — but also to shooting food. Her advice for those just starting out? Don't be too careful and don't be afraid of a little mess. Buy a good base (like the cheeseboards or cutting boards she has in her own home) and play around with your food. Find the light, start simple, and embrace that you might have no idea what you're doing. After all, she didn't either, she says, as she scrolls through an email about a photo shoot opportunity in San Francisco. 

"What I notice people doing when they first start out is that they're very calculated," she says. "Everything has to be perfect and make sense, but in reality, it's better to just throw it all out there and loosen up. It works if it's messy."
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Janessa is a native Phoenician. She joined New Times as a contributor in 2013. You can connect with her on social media at @janessahilliard, and she promises you'll find no pictures of cats on her Instagram — but plenty of cocktails.
Contact: Janessa Hilliard