Cookbook author Vanessa Seder in the food photography area at Relish & Co., a culinary design collaborative in Cape Elizabeth, where she works as a food stylist and recipe developer. Her cookbook, “Secret Sauces,” won an honorable mention last week in the Readable Feast Awards in Boston.

CAPE ELIZABETH — Vanessa Seder wants you to take her brand new, cleanly designed, gorgeously photographed cookbook and make it a complete mess. Go ahead, let it get dirty. Let the splatter from your miso and lime dressing, and your garlic, lemon and mint chimichurri stain the pages. She wants you to use the book, and use it often.

“If it’s stained, that’s a great compliment,” Seder said, sitting in the small studio where she and the other two members of Relish & Co., a culinary design collaborative, produce content for cookbooks, magazines, websites and social media.

This small space on Shore Road, next door to the new Rosemont Market, is where Seder (pronounced seed-er) and her business partners, photographer Stacey Cramp and art director and designer Jennifer Muller, developed Seder’s new cookbook, “Secret Sauces: Fresh + Modern Recipes with Hundreds of Ideas for Elevating Everyday Dishes.”

“Secret Sauces: Fresh + Modern Recipes with Hundreds of Ideas for Elevating Everyday Dishes.” By Vanessa Seder. Kyle Books, 2017. $24.95.

A front corner of the room, near big windows that let in lots of natural light, is dedicated to food photography. In the back, there’s a small kitchen used for recipe testing. Along one wall, bowls, plates and other culinary props fill racks, on standby for food styling.

Seder’s newish sauce cookbook (it was published last fall) won an honorable mention last week in the Single Subject category at the 3rd annual Readable Feast Awards in Boston, a contest that focuses on New England cookbooks and food books.

With this book, Seder has put a contemporary twist on the concept of mother sauces, classics of French cuisine. But instead of béchamel, velouté or Hollandaise, her modernized mother sauces are labeled mayo, vinaigrette, pesto, pomodoro, tahini, chili, salsa and ganache. Seder pairs each with a recipe and several extra suggestions for how to use it in day-to-day food preparation. And each mother sauce gives rise to other sauces with similar textures and flavors – thus, the spiciness of the mother chili sauce inspires both a Korean barbecue sauce and a green coconut curry sauce.

Seder’s sauces incorporate flavors from around the world – Latin America, Asia, Ethiopia, the Mediterranean and Israel. “I really wanted this to have an international feel,” she said. “It was really important to me. I like food from all over the world, and I think it’s a great way to bring cultures together.”

What makes this book especially easy to navigate are the simple ideas Seder offers for how to use each sauce, so that jar of Waikiki teriyaki you made last Sunday isn’t still sitting in the fridge a week later.

Stir the avocado green goddess dressing, for example, into shredded rotisserie chicken and spread it on bread with spinach leaves for a kicked-up chicken salad sandwich. Revive leftover rice by simmering it in that green coconut curry sauce, then top with meat, vegetables or herbs. Use Seder’s Quebecois maple butter on cinnamon toast, pour it over the top of a bundt cake, drizzle it over day-old banana bread or mix it with popcorn.

Maine food writer Kathy Gunst calls Seder’s recipes “approachable and inventive.”

“This is exactly the right way to present recipes to cooks who want to try new flavors but might not feel confident,” Gunst said. “Best of all, these recipes make you want to cook.”

RAISED ON CULTURAL VARIETY

Seder, 40, drew inspiration for the book from her lifelong love affair with food. She grew up in Los Angeles, where her family has deep roots – her grandmother was born there. She nourished herself on food from Mexico, South and Central America, Japan, Korea and China.

“I grew up eating crazy kimchi pickles and natto, a Japanese fermented soybean,” she said. “They eat it with breakfast a lot. It smells like dirty feet.”

A truck playing festive Mexican music drove through her neighborhood carrying a mobile bodega; she’d climb inside and buy groceries.

Food was a passion, but it would be years before Seder considered pursuing it as a career. She studied performing arts at Emerson College in Boston, where she cooked with her rice cooker in her dorm and introduced her less adventurous boyfriend (now husband), Jon, to new foods, including mango. “I’d come back from Chinatown with all this stuff, and it would terrify him,” she said, laughing.

Seder returned to Los Angeles for her last semester of college (she took improv classes at the famous Groundlings School there), but the city didn’t feel much like home anymore. She moved to New York City in 2000 to join Jon, and they got married. In 2003, she enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education, and found herself studying alongside all the bankers and businessmen who took a hard look at their lives after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and decided to pursue their passion for food.

“I took it very, very seriously,” she said. “Once I decided, I decided, and I did it.”

Seder apprenticed at New York restaurants on the weekends, including the original Blue Hill restaurant near Washington Square Park.

“I knew cooking was for me,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it. I read an article by this woman named Delores Custer – I can’t remember if she wrote it or it was about her. She was the mother of food styling. That was the first time I’d thought about food styling as a career choice.”

Vanessa Seder at Relish & Co., in Cape Elizabeth. The food stylist, recipe developer and author initially studied performing arts but later enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education. “I knew cooking was for me.”

Seder got a job assisting the food stylist for a short-lived morning TV show. She started by working for free, then began getting paid. Eventually, her boss gave her a shot being in charge of styling for a shoot. (And ultimately, she got to work with Custer on a job, “a full-circle moment.”)

Assisting a food stylist in the real world is “the only way to learn food styling,” Seder said. “There’s a whole science to how food ages and understanding light, understanding angle, understanding what works, what doesn’t, how to make it look realistic.”

While some people have a natural talent for it, hands-on experience is still a must, Seder said.

“When you’re getting hired as a stylist, there’s so much money and pressure involved,” she said. “You have to understand how everything works. You have to understand who’s on the set, why they’re there, what your role is, how to do take after take if needed. And there’s all different types of food styling – there’s styling for video, commercial styling, editorial, cookbooks, magazines, packaging. It’s all different, and you have to understand that before you get into it. And you have to know what tools are good.”

Seder got more training during a short stint at Good Housekeeping magazine. She was a personal chef for a family in Brooklyn for two years, and worked in production part-time at the Food Network, on “Emeril Live” and “Iron Chef America.” Eventually, she landed at the Martha Stewart Everyday test kitchen.

EATING ALL OVER NEW YORK

While they lived in New York, Seder and her husband soaked in food culture. “We’d take 12- or 14-mile walks and eat the whole way,” she said. “We’d do these eating-walking adventures. We’d start at our house, and we’d end up in Brighton Beach, which is by Coney Island, which is where the Russian section is. We’d have a beer and a pierogi or something at the end. But we’d spend the whole day.”

Ultimately, New York City life became too stressful. The couple considered moving back to California, or to Oregon, but they had visited relatives in Maine many times and decided to give it a try. In 2011, they moved to Portland.

Since then, Seder’s career as a food stylist and recipe developer has taken off. She’s developed recipes for Ladies Home Journal, Real Simple, Cooking Light and other publications, and worked as a food stylist for television and national brands. Seder met her partners in Relish & Co. when they worked together on the cookbook “Real Maine Food” by Ben Conniff and Luke Holden of Luke’s Lobster.

Seder also spends time teaching at the Stonewall Kitchen Cooking School in both Portland and York.

“I love teaching,” she said. “I love answering questions. It keeps me sharp. I like engaging with people and helping them learn something they may not have thought about before, whether it’s trying a new food, new flavor combinations, new ways to do things. How to cut something – knife skills. What to shop for when you’re building your kitchen.”

Seder and her husband live in the Deering Highlands neighborhood, where they still take “eating-walking adventures.” They walk into downtown Portland, eat one thing at each restaurant they stop into, then walk back home.

Some of Seder’s favorites are Central Provisions, Drifters Wife, Tipo, Yosaku and The Honey Paw. She likes Ten Ten Pie’s bento boxes, and the financiers at Standard Baking Co. (Tip from the Seders: Buy financiers, then walk over to Mount Desert Ice Cream and buy salted caramel ice cream. Make ice cream sandwiches.)

For the most part, the couple stays at home with their 5-year-old daughter, Katia. Seder makes a lot of Japanese food for her family, including sushi, miso soup and chawanmushi, a savory egg custard. Some days they pay a visit to Harbor Fish Market and have a poke night at home.

She doesn’t use her own cookbook much because she doesn’t cook from recipes. Pressed to name some favorite sauces she might prepare for her family, Seder names the Quince, Apple and Turmeric Chutney, the Grilled Artichoke Tapenade, and the Eggplant Zhoug served with spiced socca (a chickpea pancake) and feta.

“I like it all because I wrote it,” she said, touching a copy of her cookbook. “This is me.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.