Inspiring biz lady Diana Yen, owner of The Jewels of New York — a food photography, styling, and recipe development studio — captures luscious yet naturalistic scenes of seasonal home cooking. With her highly-trained design eye and an appreciation for everyday objects, Diana pursues her passion for sharing meals with loved ones. “It feels great to nurture and help others,” Diana notes. “It’s a way to take care of the people around you and nourish them. And everyone feels so happy when they eat.”
The desire to share her signature meals with people everywhere also motivated Diana to write her cookbook A Simple Feast: A Year of Stories and Recipes to Savor and Share. Though she can sometimes get lost in her work, Diana makes a point of celebrating creative achievements outside the food industry, and always returns refreshed and ready to tackle problems. “Usually the answer is simple and has been right in front of you the whole time,” she says. But the cutest inspiration comes from Cleo the bunny, who helps out by disposing of food scraps generated in the studio. The advent of smartphone photography — which made Cleo a star — also allows non-photographer types to have more fun with photos. “Everyone can afford to experiment and be playful,” Diana adds, which is exactly what she’s after in all things. —Annie
Photography by Mia Mueller-Schoell
What’s in your toolbox?
The most important thing is my chef’s knife. I always make sure it’s the first thing I pack up for a shoot, along with a cutting board. I love the Misono knives — they’re basic, functional, and affordable. I bought mine from Korin in NYC. It’s such a treat to shop there because they teach you how to sharpen your knives on a water stone to maintain them. At the studio, we have a bunch of knives from Mercer — used at culinary schools — that are inexpensive, so I don’t need to worry much about maintaining them.
The second most important thing for me is my iPhone and Canon EOS Mark II digital camera. My work is visual, and documenting food as we’re prepping is super important. I love snapping quick, behind-the-scenes photos on my phone for social media, and then I do hi-res finished dishes on my Canon. At first, having a fancy digital camera was the most important thing as a blogger. But over the years, the iPhone cameras have gotten so great (especially when paired with a filter app like VSCO), that you can end up taking equally beautiful images with less fuss. There’s no need to lug around heavy equipment. I love that anyone can take amazing photos with their phone now without technical photography knowledge or investing a lot of money. Everyone can afford to experiment and be playful.
The rest of my toolbox is filled with odds and ends — things that aren’t crucial for food styling but are great to have on hand, especially when I’m doing detail work. It looks a bit like surgical equipment. I always have a stash of long styling tweezers, styling wax to hold things in place, fake ice cubes, Q-tips, Windex, and cloth gloves. And a clean apron!
Fill in the blank, “When I’m in my studio, I feel ____________.”
“When I’m in my studio, I feel relaxed and inspired!”
What is on the top shelves of your inspiration library right now?
A bunch of cookbooks: Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi, At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen by Amy Chaplin, issues of Kinfolk Magazine, The Kinfolk Home book, and the Halloween issue of Martha Stewart Living (my favorite!).
How do you keep yourself organized?
I’m not a naturally organized person, so I find that daily lists are key in helping me to prioritize tasks. Lists have also helped me to break my day into segments, and I always feel satisfied when I’ve accomplished 75% of what I set out to do that day. I can get lost in my work, so I try to balance things out on my calendar and make sure I spend time with friends and loved ones, take yoga, attend events, and gain inspiration outside my primary interests. Having fun doesn’t seem like it should be something you need to plan, but it’s super important when you live in a city where most people feel pressure to be overworked.
If you could have one superhero (or magical) power, what would it be and why?
If I could have a magical power, I’d want to be able to help heal people. It feels great to nurture and help others. Since I don’t have a magical power, I’d say cooking comes pretty close. It’s a way to take care of the people around you and nourish them. And everyone feels so happy when they eat. It feels great to cook and share with people.
What is the best advice you have ever received, and what is the one piece of advice you would offer to a young artist, maker, or designer?
When you start a creative business, it’s easy to get wrapped up in your vision for things. Someone told me that if I wanted to make it in NYC, I couldn’t only think like an artist — I would have to learn to recognize business opportunities and the needs of my clients if I wanted my studio to make it. Creativity comes naturally to me, but the business side is something I had to teach myself.
Everyone always says that artists have the hardest time putting a price on their work and constantly undervalue themselves. It took a long time for me to shift myself out of that perspective and see that what I had to offer was something valuable.
How do you combat creative blocks?
I take time off to get inspired. I usually step away from the food world and dive into other areas I’m interested in such as music, gallery-hopping, or looking at fashion. I usually come back refreshed and able to solve the problem from another perspective. When I spend too much time thinking ideas over, I tend to complicate them. Usually the answer is simple and has been right in front of you the whole time.
Where do you like to look or shop for inspiration?
I love visiting the galleries in Chelsea or on the Lower East Side when I have time. If I’m working a lot, I’ll go to a bigger museum like MoMA or the Met because I know I’m guaranteed to be inspired. I also love to visit my friends’ shops and studios. I’m lucky to know lots of talented people and feel inspired when I see their work. Some of my favorites are: Creatures of Comfort, Quarry Jewelry, SAMMA Jewelry, COS, Rachel Comey, and Totokaelo. I also love home stores like John Derian and ABC Home. And flea markets are the best! Chelsea is great, or the ones in Brooklyn.
If I can get out of the city, I’ll take the train up to Dia Beacon or visit the farm at Blue Hill Stone Barns. It’s nice to go someplace where there’s more space for your mind to wander.
If you could peek inside the studio or toolbox of any artist, maker, designer, or craftsperson, whose would it be and why?
I think the people behind Astier de Villatte are making amazing things. Their products range from ceramics to incense and candles, and everything is wonderful! It’s sophisticated, playful and French, but also a little off…which is why I love it. They’re not as focused on making practical things; the objects are romantic and evoke sensuality. I’d love to hang out and cook for them sometime!
What’s on your inspirational playlist at the moment?
I love listening to 60s reggae — it’s upbeat and soulful and perfect to cook to. Desmond Dekker and Alton Ellis are amazing. When I’m feeling chill or miss California, where I’m from, I’ll listen to Joni Mitchell or Cat Stevens. I try to listen to new music, too, and whatever my friends send me on Spotify. Lately, I’m listening to La Femme, Cults, Dirty Art Club, and Shintaro Sakamoto.