30 Questions with Victoria Ngai
Today, we’re interviewing Victoria Ngai. She’s a food photographer and recipe developer. In an exclusive interview, Victoria talks about her career, favourite food and more.
1. Hi Victoria! We’re delighted to have you for the interview today. Please tell us a little about yourself.
Hey, everybody! My name is Victoria Ngai. I am a home baker, recipe developer, and self-taught food photographer from Morgan Hill, California. I started Hungry Healthnut as a way to test out nutritious, allergy-friendly recipes. Over time, I began to explore my Cantonese heritage through food. I learned traditional recipes for some of my favourite childhood desserts, and soon after, I began to document recipes of my own. Now, the goal of my food account is to celebrate healthy eats and Hong Kong-inspired cuisine while I show my appreciation for food photography as an art form.
2. What inspired you to become a food photographer?
I’ve always had an artistic eye, so when I started baking, I noticed that the recipes that I found online were always accompanied by stunning and enticing food photos. After a while, I thought to myself “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if I could do that too?” Early on, I practised food photography by copying other food bloggers’ framing and compositions, but eventually, I began to develop my own styling techniques and experiment with colour theory.
3. What’s your favourite cuisine and why?
Cantonese cuisine is my favourite because there is a huge emphasis on sharing food with others, particularly family. For holidays and celebrations, my relatives and I always go out for dim sum or host a family-style hot pot dinner at home. Cantonese cuisine also gives me a sense of nostalgia. Whenever I got sick as a child, my mom would make me traditional oxtail soup, and whenever I visited my grandmother in Hong Kong, my brother and I would snack on Hong Kong-style pastries.
4. The top five tips for growing your reach on social media are…
(1) Develop a niche. For example, my Instagram feed showcases rotating colour themes and mostly focuses on Asian-inspired dishes and desserts. I also try to put healthy spins on popular foods.
(2) Utilise Instagram stories. Make sure to give your audience some behind-the-scenes content, and ask questions or put up polls.
(3) Stay engaged. Reply to comments, and leave comments on other creators’ posts.
(4) Join collaboration groups. Make friends with other foodies and promote each others’ content.
(5) Be patient. Growth takes time, so trust that your hard work will produce results.
5. What’s one piece of advice you’d want to give to someone who’s just starting out?
Use what you already have! Don’t rush to go buy new backdrops, props, camera lenses, etc. Fancy equipment won’t do you much good until you develop your compositional skills and styling techniques.
6. What’s one thing people don’t understand about being a recipe developer?
Recipe developers have to master two art forms: cooking and photography. I think many recipe developers are undervalued because people don’t understand how much time and effort it takes to master both skills.
7. How did you get into the field of photography?
I took an introductory photography class in middle school using my iPhone, but I never had time to revisit the field of photography until 2020. During quarantine, I had time to develop a passion for baking, and my interest in food photography followed naturally.
8. The secret to capturing professional photographs is…
Good lighting! Find natural diffused lighting so that your highlights and shadows aren’t too harsh. Also, think about the angle at which your light enters the frame. Personally, I like to capture side-lit and backlit photos to bring out the texture of the food.
9. What are the best parts and worst parts of your job?
Best: I love editing photos. My favourite tools are those that are used for spot healing and colour adjustment. I feel like a magician whenever I click back and forth between the before and after photos.
Worst: Failed recipes. I have to remind myself to be patient after investing time and ingredients into multiple rounds of unsuccessful recipe testing.
10. What’s the California food and culture like?
Because California has access to the Pacific Ocean, there are loads of seafood dishes such as fried oysters, fish tacos, and clam chowder. There are also a number of west coast food chains that are a must-try when in California: Mendocino Farms, Marianne’s Ice Cream, Boudin Bakery, Boba Guys, In-N-Out, etc.
11. What are the top three dishes everyone must try when they’re in Morgan Hill?
- New Yorker breakfast sandwich on an onion bagel from Main St. Bagels
- Chilean Sea Bass entree from Odeum
- Old-fashioned maple-glazed donut from Donuts & Things (Also try the cinnamon roll if you have room for it!)
12. Your recipes are delightful! Should we expect a cookbook soon?
Thank you! I don’t see myself publishing a cookbook anytime in the near future, but I will soon have all my recipes available online. The Hungry Healthnut food blog will be up and running by July 2022!
13. How do you develop recipes?
My first step is to research existing recipes to see what bits and pieces I can pull into my own. For example, if many existing recipes have a similar fat to flour ratio, I will likely keep the same ratio. For combining two foods, I may have to do double the research. I researched both pandan waffle recipes and crepe recipes when developing pandan crepes. Second, I type and print out a draft of the ingredients and cooking instructions. During the first round of testing, I follow my recipe and make notes of adjustments by writing on my printout. If I add an extra quarter-cup of flour, I write it down. If I leave my cakes in the oven for an extra ten minutes, I write it down. Then, I test over and over again until I am satisfied with the results.
14. How did Instagram become your favourite platform to showcase your culinary creations?
I chose Instagram because I knew I would have a good kickstart in terms of reach. Most of my friends are on Instagram, and they were my first followers and supporters. Now, I continue to use Instagram because the platform has introduced me to so many encouraging home-bakers like myself. I am so impressed by the welcoming and growth-minded community of food photographers on Instagram.
15. Can food styling be done on a budget?
Yes, yes, yes! The backdrop that I use only cost me $16.00 on Amazon. I also thrift all my dishes, utensils, and glassware from Goodwill. Last weekend, I bought four petite dessert glasses for only $3.40!
16. Is it possible to eat healthy on a budget?
Absolutely. Buying whole natural ingredients is cheaper than buying processed and refined foods. You don’t need to spend money on “superfood” products or green juices or supplements. Just focus on buying nutrient-dense ingredients that you can cook yourself. However, I do want to emphasise that a healthy diet should include room for so-called junk foods so that you don’t feel restricted.
17. Which are your favourite props and why?
My mini scalloped plates are food styling staples because they create beautiful lines that point toward the food. I also love using my matte plates because they soften harsh lighting, and they have imperfect edges that add a bit of character to every photo. Last but not the least, my hand sifter is a definite favourite. I use my sifter to transform mundane photos into exciting action shots in which I dust powdered sugar or cocoa powder on top of my desserts.
18. Which camera/gear do you use?
I use a Canon T7i with an 18-55 mm lens.
19. Which country would you travel to for its food and culture?
Greece! I love Mediterranean food for its abundance of fresh veggies and fruits as well as its simple cooking methods that really allow the ingredients to speak for themselves. As a big phyllo and honey fan, I also enjoy Greek desserts. Besides the food, I would love to experience the vibrant marketplaces of Greece and visit ancient ruins.
20. What inspires you to work every day and how do you work?
What inspires me to work hard is simply my own progress. I choose to practise my baking and photography skills because I like pushing myself to improve. To answer the second part of the question, Hungry Healthnut is a one-woman operation. I negotiate my own brand collaborations, I set up and tear down all my shoots, and I manage my Instagram account by myself. I am also currently designing a website for Hungry Healthnut on which I will publish my recipes.
21. What were the top five mistakes you made when you started creating content, and what did you learn from them?
(1) Shooting blind. I would take hours to get through a shoot because I neglected to plan out my photo compositions beforehand. During long shoots, frozen foods like ice cream or crispy foods like nachos would start to look less and less appetising. Now, I sketch thumbnail photos to reference during my shoots so that I can work efficiently.
(2) Not using props. Yes, the food has to look good, but more importantly, the food has to tell a story, and that’s where props come in. I use props to develop a scene and make my shots look more engaging.
(3) Shooting during the wrong time of day. I shoot during the mornings next to an east-facing window. I find that morning light produces soft shadows whereas afternoon light can be too warm and direct for my taste.
(4) Over-editing photos. Don’t ruin a perfectly good shot by over-tuning the colours and lighting.
(5) Posting with overly used hashtags. I realised that by posting with overly used hashtags, my content would become lost in a sea of similar posts.
22. What have been your biggest challenges, and how did you overcome them?
My biggest challenge has been my reluctance to give myself credit. It is difficult for me to recognize my own progress, and I can be hypercritical of my photos and recipes. I find myself treating food photography as a form of draining work rather than as a creative outlet. To address my mindset, I take a short hiatus from baking for Instagram. Instead, I bake food for my friends and family, and I try not to care about what the food looks like as long as it tastes good. Meanwhile, I also look back on old photos and give myself time to appreciate the work that I’ve accomplished.
23. A productivity tip that you swear by is…
Take breaks! Taking breaks allows you to come back with a refreshed attitude rather than become frustrated with yourself. During my breaks, I try to do something active like dance around or play with my dogs, Joy and Cumulus. I find it especially helpful to take breaks between editing sessions so that I can have fresh eyes before proceeding to the next set of photos.
24. If you only had $2000 dollars to start again, knowing everything you know now, how would you spend it?
$2000 would actually be more than my previous starting amount. Initially, I spent $479 dollars on a camera and lens, $37 on a T-stand, $38 on a tripod, and $16 dollars on a double-sided paper backdrop. I also used whatever plates and props that I already had at home. If I were to start again, I would buy a C-stand to take better flat-lay photos and buy unique dishware from small businesses. Next, I would buy a reflector and softbox lights to experiment with artificial lighting. I might also purchase an Adobe Lightroom subscription and sign up for an online photoshop course.
25. What’s one thing people don’t understand about being a food photographer?
Food photography requires more work than simply snapping a photo and calling it a day. Before shoots, a lot of effort goes into food preparation, shot planning, and food styling. Afterwards, food photographers have to clean up, cull, and edit their shots.
26. Which of your recipes would you recommend for our readers?
My bao recipe! Bao is a soft steamed bun that’s best eaten fresh from the steamer. I like to eat plain bao with garlic hoisin sauce, and I also like to stuff my bao with a savoury chicken filling or sweet red bean paste.
27. On cheat days, you can be seen indulging in…
I eat intuitively, so I do not have cheat days. I think labelling foods as “good” or “bad” can cause people to develop a negative relationship with food. Yes, some foods have more physical health benefits than others. However, the concept of cheat days used to lead me to crave only “bad” foods. With intuitive eating, instead of constantly craving what I can’t have, I often find myself wanting fruits and vegetables and lean proteins. Additionally, since I eliminated cheat days and started eating intuitively, I have had more reliable energy levels throughout the week.
28. Tell us your favourite photography hack that makes all the difference.
If you don’t have enough food to fill a bowl or cup, you can take a smaller bowl, invert it, and place it inside the larger vessel. Then, cover the smaller bowl with food and ta-da! This hack also helps style your food into a nicely-shaped pile. I love using this hack because I can fill my dishes up to the brim without needing to make a huge batch of food.
29. If you hadn’t been a food photographer, what would you be today?
I would be a doctor. In fact, next year I will be a pre-med biochemistry major at Columbia University. Right now, I am interested in anesthesiology, pathology, and orthopaedics, but I look forward to exploring other concentrations during the next few years.
30. One recipe you’d like to share with our readers…
Instead of making banana bread again, try turning those week-old bananas into banana mochi! These soft stretchy mochis are great as a snack by themselves or as an ice cream topping.
Time Taken (not including cooling time): 2 hours Servings: 8 Cuisine: Japanese Course: Dessert
215 g bananas (2 medium ripe bananas), 15 g brown sugar, 30 g white sugar, 1 tsp vanilla extract, 80 g water, 1/4 tsp salt
80 g white sugar, 10 g oil, 300 g water, 150 g glutinous rice flour, 30 g rice flour
60 g rice flour, 40 g cornstarch
Peel and mash two bananas. Add all ingredients from part 1 to a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir constantly until lightly browned (about 15 minutes). Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
Add sugar, oil, and water from part 2 to the saucepan from part 1. Mix thoroughly. Add glutinous and non-glutinous rice flours to the saucepan, and use an immersion blender to mix together until there are no chunks remaining. Brush oil on the inside of a 9-inch steaming dish (a heat-safe pasta bowl works as well). Place the steaming dish in a saucepan filled with 1 inch of water. Pour the batter into the steaming dish. Steam over medium-high heat for 30-40 minutes. The mixture should thicken and no longer be runny or separated when the steaming dish is tilted left or right. Remove from heat. Beat the mochi in a circular motion using a wooden spatula for five minutes. Let cool to room temperature.
Toast rice flour in a small saucepan over medium-low heat for a few minutes to eliminate any bacteria. Let cool to room temperature. Mix together rice flour and cornstarch. Sprinkle the mixture over the work surface. Dust your hands with the rice flour and cornstarch mixture. Place the mochi onto the work surface and sprinkle more cornstarch and rice flour on top. Knead the mochi dough for a few minutes. Then, shape the dough into a thick log. From one end, roll the dough into a 1 cm rope and cut the rope into smaller pieces using a floured bench scraper. As you continue to roll and cut mochi bites, generously dust them in cornstarch and rice flour, making sure they are coated where the mochi was cut.
Optional: After you have cut all your mochi, lightly toss them in a sifter to remove excess cornstarch and rice flour. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to three days or freeze in a Ziploc bag. Enjoy it by itself or with ice cream!
Calories per serving:
38 g carbs
2 g fat
2 g protein
- 215 g bananas (2 medium ripe bananas)
- 15 g brown sugar
- 30 g white sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 80 g water
- ¼ tsp salt
- 80 g white sugar
- 10 g oil
- 300 g water
- 150 g glutinous rice flour
- 30 g rice flour
- 60 g rice flour
- 40 g cornstarch
- Peel and mash two bananas. Add all ingredients from part 1 to a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir constantly until lightly browned (about 15 minutes). Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
- Add sugar, oil, and water from part 2 to the saucepan from part 1. Mix thoroughly.
- Add glutinous and non-glutinous rice flours to the saucepan, and use an immersion blender to mix together until there are no chunks remaining.
- Brush oil on the inside of a 9-inch steaming dish (a heat-safe pasta bowl works as well). Place the steaming dish in a saucepan filled with 1 inch of water.
- Pour the batter into the steaming dish. Steam over medium-high heat for 30 -40 minutes. The mixture should thicken and no longer be runny or separated when the steaming dish is tilted left or right. Remove from heat.
- Beat the mochi in a circular motion using a wooden spatula for five minutes. Let cool to room temperature.
- Toast rice flour in a small saucepan over medium-low heat for a few minutes to eliminate any bacteria. Let cool to room temperature.
- Mix together rice flour and cornstarch. Sprinkle the mixture over the work surface. Dust your hands with the rice flour and cornstarch mixture.
- Place the mochi onto the work surface and sprinkle more cornstarch and rice flour on top.
- Knead the mochi dough for a few minutes. Then, shape the dough into a thick log.
- From one end, roll the dough into a 1 cm rope and cut the rope into smaller pieces using a floured bench scraper.
- As you continue to roll and cut mochi bites, generously dust them in cornstarch and rice flour, making sure they are coated where the mochi was cut.
- Optional: After you have cut all your mochi, lightly toss them in a sifter to remove excess cornstarch and rice flour.
- Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to three days or freeze in a Ziploc bag.
- Enjoy it by itself or with ice cream!
For more inspiration, follow Victoria Ngai on Instagram.
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Shristi is an avid reader, recipe developer and wellness enthusiast. She’s probably making a mess in her kitchen right now.