Emily: Cooking and Plating Like the Pros

“I was always interested in cooking seasonally and sustainably but never truly figured out how to do it on my own until I gained confidence in my abilities in the kitchen.”

This week, we’re excited to check back in with Kitchen Hero Emily “Backattack” Backes from San Antonio, Texas. Last time we interviewed her was in 2014, and it has been fantastic to see her become a food styling wizard the last few years!

We are so happy to see how Cook Smarts has helped Emily and her boyfriend utilize a streamlined, efficient cooking routine that gives them extra time for creativity. From hitting up local farmers markets on the weekends to creating beautiful weeknight meals that they can enjoy with their eyes and taste buds, they have discovered cooking to be a true love language.

Find out how Emily does it all and what tips she has for you below!


Emily, you’ve been a part of our cooking community so long! We’re so happy to have such a supportive Kitchen Hero. How long have you been a member of Cook Smarts’ meal plan service?

My account says I’ve been a member since December 28, 2013. My sister and brother-in-law gifted it to me for Christmas so I would stop asking them to send me recipes.

When we last featured your cooking story, you impressed us with your cake decorating and outdoor cooking skills. Now you’re wow-ing us with your beautiful food styling! What made you get into food photography, and what tips do you have for anyone who wants to play around with food styling?

Food photography / styling is really something I fell into. I had always taken pictures of my meals and posted them on the Cook Smarts Kitchen Heroes Facebook page. When I met my boyfriend, who is a brilliant photographer, I was constantly asking him to edit cell phone photos I took. He politely offered to take some photos with his camera and we haven’t stopped since.

It’s pretty wild to look back and see what our photos looked like in the beginning. I think the best tips I can offer are to make sure you have good lighting and a good garnish. After we bought a mini light kit, our pictures have vastly improved. We both cook different components of the meal; I normally style the meals and he photographs them.

Now let’s give our readers a peek into your cooking routine. What is your daily / weekly routine like? How do you tackle shopping, prep, and food styling?

Every Thursday or Friday I put together the shopping list for the week. We are fortunate to live in a climate with the luxury of a year-long farmers market and fantastic vendors. Supporting local agriculture, small family farms and businesses are important to us. Because Cook Smarts is seasonal by design we can usually get about half of our groceries from the Saturday morning farmers market.

We take the time on the weekend to prep because if we don’t, we never have time or energy to take pictures during the week. We usually knock out the prep in an hour with two of us. On the weeknights, we figure out what we will be eating with our schedule and more often than not, we figure out how we are going to plate as the meal is in the final stages of cooking. We have a number of different backgrounds and accessories, and our rule is that if we pick up another styling accessory, we have to get rid of one after it is well used.

What do you love most about cooking?

I love cooking for people; cooking is my love language. I also love the rush of excitement you get when you taste something new and discover unfamiliar flavors.

What are the 5 kitchen tools that you must have in your kitchen?

1) Sharp knife
2) Oxo salad spinner
3) Good Tupperware – I prefer glass (with the exception of these small Rubbermaid ones)
4) Cast iron skillet and / or Dutch oven
5) Instant Pot (I don’t know how I ever lived without it)


“The beauty of Cook Smarts is that it’s so much more than a meal plan; it’s an organizer, a teacher, a community, a friend.”


How has Cook Smarts helped you to become a better cook and overcome your cooking challenges?

Before Cook Smarts I had a good foundation of knowledge in the kitchen but I wasn’t able to improvise. I was patching together recipes I’d pull off websites to create a meal plan, but that method never forced me to go outside of my comfort zone. I have learned how to use ingredients that, while growing up, I never even knew existed. I have learned how to mix different flavors and how certain profiles work together. I was always interested in cooking seasonally and sustainably but never truly figured out how to do it on my own until I gained confidence in my abilities in the kitchen.

If there was one tip you could give to anyone who wanted to try our meal plan service, but didn’t know where to start, what would it be?

Try the free trial! Cooking for yourself is a lifestyle change and you have to want to make it a priority but the benefits are also immeasurable. The first few weeks of stocking up your kitchen and pantry may seem daunting but like with anything else, you have to make sure you have the right tools to accomplish the task.

The beauty of Cook Smarts is that it’s so much more than a meal plan; it’s an organizer, a teacher, a community, a friend.

Is there anything else you would like to add to give our readers a better snap shot of you in the kitchen?

I work in a kitchen that is about 15 sq feet with limited countertop space. We work very hard to make sure the kitchen is organized and the tools we have are used frequently. Sometimes when we take a picture the kitchen looks like a hurricane blew through, but we are able to clear 2 ft of space to take a great picture. I definitely go through spells where my cooking journey is easier some days than it is others, but at the end of the day, the fact that we know what is going into our bodies, creates a balance.

And finally, what are your top 3 favorite Cook Smarts meals?

I’m currently at meal 497 so that’s tough:

1) Steak with Miso-Lime Butter (I would probably eat that butter off the floor and I’m a huge germaphobe.)
2) Summer Risotto (aka – drunk risotto) – For all my Fredericksburg peeps. Usually most of the wine ends up in us by the time it’s done.
3) Fusion meal of Mediterranean Grilled Cheese and the Tortellini Soup with Creamy Tomato Broth – This is my go-to camping dinner.


Thank you so much, Emily, for letting us be a part of your cooking process! We are so glad that our meal plan service has helped you gain skills and confidence in the kitchen over the years. We love seeing your creativity at work and are truly happy to have you in our cooking community. Keep doing what you’re doing!

To join Emily and cook meals like her favorite Steak with Miso-Lime Butter, Summer Risotto, Mediterranean Grilled Cheese, and Tortellini Soup with Creamy Tomato Broth, check out our meal plan service. You can get started for free!

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Emily: Cooking and Plating Like the Pros | Cook Smarts Kitchen Hero

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