I just say yes a lot because you never know where it's going to lead.
Bonnie Matthews Illustrator, Cookbook Author, Food Photographer
I went to art school and I was always fascinated by typography and how things were laid out … in art school I studied graphic design, not illustration. And I just decided, you know, I’ve always loved kids’ books, I’m going to teach myself how to paint. I always drew, ever since I was little, but I never really developed a specific style. I kind of built on what I knew, which was a love for animals, and so pretty quickly I developed this style and I started marketing my illustration. When I was an art director I would get post cards in the mail from photographers and illustrators so I kind of knew how they were marketing themselves. And I got some work.
I did that for a long time, and I did some kids’ books and some shows and mostly print stuff. That was great, and then the economy tanked, though. All my bread and butter work… I used to have regular gigs, you know? Like Prudential health had a newsletter for all of their insurance subscribers, and every quarter I would get this great newsletter of fun spots to draw and that was gone, all those types of things. So then I’m like, shit what am I going to do?
That’s when I started working part-time at Trader Joe’s. I went to the doctor and I was really heavy at that time and I knew with my family history that I needed to take better care of myself. I worked three days a week at Trader Joe’s, part-time. Long story short, I met this guy Kenny who was one of my customers. He was a personal trainer and he was like, “It looks like you’re losing a little weight!” and I was like, “Yeah, thanks for noticing, I appreciate it!” He was a personal trainer and he’s like, you should come work out with me, I’ll show you how to lift weights. To me, lifting weights was punishment for the heavy kids that didn’t do well on those presidential fitness tests in high school. He goes, “Look, if you come and pay up front for a month of training sessions, three days a week for a month, and if you don’t lose two inches around your waist and some pounds, I’ll give you all your money back.” I didn’t have a specific number but I wanted to get below 200 because I was way above that. So, it worked! I ended up losing 130 pounds.
I got home one night and I was just exhausted. I was feeling really good I had lost a bunch of weight, but I’m like… my life is ridiculous. Here I am, I’m 46, I’m single, I’m working at Trader Joe’s. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it was like 19 bucks an hour, if that. My life was crazy, and I had no identity with illustration anymore and I was also feeling weird in my body, like even though I looked good, I was like, who the hell is this? People were looking at me differently; it was odd. It was also strange, too, because I lost some friends over it. They tried to sabotage — and I’ve learned this from other people, too — that they liked me the other way because they didn’t like that I had this control and this strength.
So this night I got home, I was like I gotta figure this out. I don’t want a boss again, I don’t want to go back to college, what do I do? I was freaking out. I was like, maybe I should just e-mail Oprah and share my story, at least start there. Sure enough, I guess I wrote a really solid e-mail through their comments section on the website and just wrote from the heart, and said I was never into fitness, I never was into healthy food, I was afraid of going into the gym because it was like punishment for me, and now I love it. And literally four days later, the Dr. Oz people called. The producers at her show forwarded it to him because their producers were looking for content for new segments. At the time, he had this thing called the Truth Tube. The producers were like, “We love your story; we want to see what you look like.” I’m like, “Awesome! Wait ’til I get home and e-mail you, you’re gonna die!” Because it’s pretty remarkable, the pictures side-by-side of me at my heaviest to the leanest.
I went up to New York and I met with them, and what they really liked was that I didn’t do it with protein stuff, that I did it with healthy real food that I created myself. I used to live in D.C. and go out and eat all the time, so I had all these yummy flavors in my mind, then I’d try to reverse engineer, like how can I make something creamy and rich, like with a nice mouth feel, but without tons of butter and lots of cream? It was this fun creative thing. So I got on the show and they put me on Truth Tube and they looked at my blood pressure and all of the stats, they took my blood and everything, looked at 10 years of my medical records to prove that I hadn’t done any kind of weight loss surgery. They really did their homework.
I hadn’t met Dr. Oz yet; they wanted him to look surprised when I actually got out there; they hadn’t even shown a picture of me or anything, just the before picture. Dr. Oz was the coolest! He was so excited, like genuinely excited and he gave me this big hug. It ended up being a double segment. Instead of five minutes, it was nine and a half. The first part of it was about how I literally changed my health and then the second part was my recipes. It was fun because I got more animated, like I felt more comfortable talking about the food and we were both tasting stuff and he was like, “That’s really good!” And then he was like, “Well, I have a surprise for you. We love you, and we want you to be part of our team. We’d like you to be a wellness warrior blogger for us.” I didn’t even know what that meant and I just said, “I would be honored to.”
On the blog, they put a direct link to my Facebook page and all these people were e-mailing me, “I saw you on TV, you inspired me, I’m going to start cleaning out my kitchen right now…” I’m like, “This is so awesome!” It’s literally exactly what I wanted. I wanted to help people. I know what it was like to walk in their shoes and to not be able to put your pants on without holding on to something. The stuff for Dr. Oz was not a paid thing but I knew it was a stepping stone and an honorary thing. And 17 million people saw that segment, it turns out. They’ve re-aired it like four times that I’ve seen, so it’s kind of fun.
I met this guy at one of these health food shows and this grain, freekeh, he wanted to start growing it with me and be a business partner. That’s a way that I can make some money and still coach people for free on Facebook and talk to them on the phone and encourage them about healthy cooking — this is perfect. I was going to be the face and the brand person for freekeh. I ended up literally creating the look of the brand and the packaging. This is the perfect thing for me, to create some recipes with this freekeh because I love the stuff and it was really yummy and it was something that Dr. Oz had talked about and people knew about it but nobody could get it. So, I self-published that cookbook and we started giving it out at trade shows and to TV people so they would have us on for segments.
But then I’m like, “I’m going to start marketing it in California and I’m going to move out to California.” We had gotten it into seven of the regions of Whole Foods and we hadn’t gotten it into the west coast, which is one of the hardest ones to get in because it’s so large, they wanted to see how the other territories went first and if it sold well there then they would take it in California. So it worked out. It was perfect timing and then the stuff on social media really started taking off because of my food blog and this book. That’s when Skyhorse Publishing called. They said, “We saw your stuff online and we saw your stuff about Dr. Oz and we really liked this freekeh stuff. Do you want to do a freekeh book with us? We have an ancient grains series of books and we’d love to have you do the freekeh one.” They had one on chia and they had one on quinoa, and I was like, “Oh, that’s brilliant!” I was all excited thinking – this is great, this is going to help, they’re going to have distribution that we didn’t have because it was just us. That’s really going to help the grain and the awareness and everything and help our brand on their dime, not ours. So it was like a win-win.
It ended up that Skyhorse really liked my photography, they like that I cook, they like that I was a graphic designer, so all these things in my life were kind of coming together. So they were like, “Will you do a grilling one?” and I’m like, “I don’t grill but I’ll figure it out!” I think that’s the pattern in my whole life – I just say yes a lot because you never know where it’s going to lead. Like, do you want to be on the Dr. Oz show? Sure! Do you want to do this? Sure! You just never know. Same with these cookbooks. Finally they asked me if I wanted to do this Trader Joe’s one because they knew about that part of my life. That’s why I had the part-time job — because this was coming in the future. It all kind of weaves together.
The first couple of books I literally did give a lot of the food away. I cooked it correctly at first, the real way without weird sauces! I gave it to this homeless guy who lives at the park and he’s a really nice guy so I would literally go up there with my little ice chest on wheels and give it to him and his dog Lucky, so that was really fun. He really appreciated it.
But it is funny all the fake things that I do. It’s not as fake as like fake food, but there are so many chapters that have diced ham, so I’ll literally get ham from the Ralph’s salad bar and stick it on top of something, take it off, rinse it off, set it aside, put it in the next soup. If I can cook one roast and shred it for a couple of recipes and cube some for the soup chapter and slice some for another chapter, I can cannibalize those pieces and not waste a lot of meat. The good thing with the desert chapter is we stopped even putting the sugar in because unless it was something that was going to look caramel-y, we didn’t need to. So that worked out really well, too because then I wasn’t going to eat it or even taste it!
A lot of the Fix-it and Forget-It books are sort of similar so I try to save and freeze some of the meats. If I know there’s going to be beef bourguignon kind of thing in a book coming up, I’ll freeze it and then try to fluff it up a little bit, you know? With more sauce. That’s where the funny part comes in because the dollar store has soy sauce, and BBQ sauce, and all these nice-looking rich brown sauces that look like a red wine reduction! I’ll sort of fluff it up a little with that to make it look fresh and delicious. And balsamic vinegar is a good one, too. That works really well for like a nice brown sauce. But other than that, it’s pretty real.
I’ve got the systems down, I’m shopping smarter… I’ve created this way to shop at the store. Like, I’ll literally read and shoot a whole chapter within a couple of days so I can keep all the like ingredients fresh and ready to go for the whole chapter and then be able to throw them out or freeze the rest or whatever and just keep rotating out. Because that’s the other thing, if you’ve got a chapter of 25 salads, it was like $160 worth of produce that I had to shoot and use within a certain amount of time. Otherwise, it’ll be a waste, right?
A lot of these books are 150 recipes, some of them are 275 recipes. So, you want to have enough fabrics and enough different place settings to make the pages look interesting for the reader. I like doing the composition and figuring out the colors and the textures and what’s going to go well with this and that. I’ve started to get smarter with that, too. When I finally got one of the Fix-It books from the publisher, printed, I saw that they had cropped in a lot with the photos. And I was like “Oh. Shoot, ok, well, I don’t need to worry about the background as much then.” So I started thinking if I crop in, then I don’t need to worry about the background and I don’t need to worry about having a big salad bowl in the back, I can just focus in the food and a little blurred something in the background, even a potato back there, or whatever. I have these hard muffins and hard rolls — they’re hard as a rock, but they look fresh and delicious. Especially if they’re slightly blurred out in the background!
If something is a really gross-looking recipe, like a grey beef stroganoff kind of thing, there’s just bland grayness there… How do you make it look delicious? Especially if there’s like four of them in a chapter, it’s hard. When I get the manuscript, if it’s a larger one, they’ll usually have 500 recipes in the book and they say, “Select any recipes you want, as long as they’re kind of evenly distributed throughout each chapter.” I’ll create a list and read through thinking, “All right, these four look so similar but they need them spaced evenly.” If there’s, say, six beef and barley soups, I know I have to do at least three of them because I have to make it look even in the book. With that in mind, they look almost identical, I’m going to do a different background color, I’ll be sure to do one that’s a bowl, I might do something that’s straight down to make it look different than at an angle, stuff like that. And make sure to have a different secondary item, like a little piece of crusty bread so it looks different. Even if the recipe’s almost identical, not only will I change the place setting or the angle, I’ll also kind of highlight something that’s in the soup and bring some of the vegetables to the top, to make it look a little different, even though it might have the exact same carrot and basic mirepoix in it. That’ll at least make it visually different even if it has the same ingredients. Or maybe I’ll put a little bit of it on a spoon and put it above the bowl and focus on that instead of the bowl.
I’m in this weird transition now because I feel like I’ve learned a skill that might be marketable. Like, ok, now what? It’s this reinvention… do I do a podcast and teach people how to do what I’ve done? Because it’s a pretty solid system of how to shop and how to meet a deadline. You might be the best photographer in the world but if they want you to do your own book or even somebody else’s, how are you going to cook that fast to do 150 recipes in a month? A lot of people still have a day job or kids or whatever... how are you going to do that? So, I sort of feel like that’s a marketable skill.