A Chat With…Quelcy Kogel of With The Grains

The task of introducing a fellow blogger, especially one you admire, is always daunting, and today’s guest is a blogger I’ve admired for a long while now. Quelcy is one of those people that makes you perk up and want to be better. A better writer, a better photographer, a better cook, a better partner, a better human. In following her work, I’ve pushed myself to pay more attention to the details, to become more disciplined in my approach, and to on the whole simply care more about both content and presentation. And that’s exactly why I wanted to interview her on here, to share her inspiring drive and creativity with you.

But first, let’s rewind..

Elizabeth Sensky_Interview with Quelcy KogelThe first time I met Quelcy was also the first time I tasted Quelcy’s baking, the latter event sealing the former with an extra dose of sweetness in my memory. The time was about three years ago. The place was Pittsburgh at a community dinner hosted by some friends. But more importantly, the cake was moist, chocolatey, delectable. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was going to be good. It looked wholesome and fresh (no synthetic colors or fondant to speak of…) and on top there was a perfect pile of edible flowers, plums and berries all lumped together in a scrumptious heap. Being a dessert fiend and an avid home baker myself, I couldn’t wait to try it. When we all finally dug in, I remember there being audible groans of delight throughout the room. I had to know more.

That’s when I learned that the creator of this marvelous treat (it was this cake, if you’re curious..) was named Quelcy and that she had a food blog called With The Grains. A blogger, too! How cool, I thought. (fan girl, party of one..) When I got home, I promptly looked up her blog and felt the pangs of professional envy wash over me. Not only was the blog tastefully put together, but the writing and photography was all. on. point. It’s rare to happen upon a blogger who considers every element with equal care and is able to execute each so well. So, naturally, I began clicking through the archives in voracious admiration. Ever since then, Quelcy has been a continual source of inspiration for me. I always love seeing what she’s cooking up (pun intended) and the thoughtful way in which she presents her corner of the world.

I’ll let Quelcy take it from here. She gives us her answer to the ubiquitous “so what do you do?” question, discusses her path to becoming a professional food stylist (among other things) and shares how she stays centered in times of doubt.

Happy reading!

With The Grains-Food Styling-Elizabeth Sensky-Amsterdam Bloggers

How do you describe what you do to those who don’t know you?

“It depends on the day” is my first response when people ask me what I do for a living. I’m a food stylist, event designer, photographer, writer, recipe developer, blogger and occasional farmhand. Of that list, “Food stylist” is the one that typically receives an upturned eyebrow. “A food stylist eh?” followed by, “So you put glue in cereal and make fake grill lines?” (It seems we all saw the same special sometime in the 80s or 90s that decoded the food styling world.)

As it turns out, no, I have not used glue for cereal. If you’ve ever seen food on tv or in print look especially appealing, then most likely there was a food stylist involved. I have a kit of tools (blow torches, sculpting tools, long tweezers, spray bottles, brushes, various oils, etc) and think of myself like a sculptor or an overgrown child who never stopped playing with her food.

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Photo by Adam Milliron.
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Some of Quelcy’s styling work for Modcloth.
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Quelcy’s styling work for Healthyish Foods.

How did you get your start in the world of food blogging and styling?

As I entered adulthood, I found myself facing an internal struggle: Quelcy’s insatiable sweet tooth versus Quelcy’s sensible knowledge of nutrition. This internal battle inspired me to start baking, so I could at least control the ingredients in my desserts. I’m a preservationist at heart, so blogging about my recipes enabled me to collect and share the stories and concepts behind the food.

A year or so into blogging, I ran into a photographer I knew and asked him to give me some pointers. We decided to collaborate on a shoot just for fun. I styled, he photographed, and our work meshed really well. Not long after, he hired me for a commercial shoot- my first professional food styling gig ever! I’ll never forget the client asking me what type of food I normally styled. “Cakes and desserts mostly,” I embellished. That was almost six years ago, and sometimes I still feel like I’m faking it until I make it.  

When did you realize you could support yourself with this work and how long did it take to get to that point?

For a few years after my first commercial shoot, I worked at a green-energy startup company. Whenever an interesting shoot would come up, I’d use a vacation day to work as a stylist. (Part of my role at that company was planning our corporate events, which is what led me to realize how much I love event design.) I eventually left that job to work for a small design-build company, since I wanted to be on a more creative path. That business was small and struggling and had to let me go rather abruptly.

Initially, I searched and applied for jobs, but I discovered that my new availability opened up more styling opportunities, so I made a decision to just go for it. It was risky, and I definitely sacrificed a lot to pursue a more creative lifestyle. In hindsight, easing my burden with a part-time job may have been the more sane option, but in many ways, I needed that huge leap. I may never have explored all the avenues I have come to explore or cobbled together so many creative services if not for necessity.

Only now, about four years into freelancing, do I really feel like I am hitting my stride. I once wrote myself a long journal entry about nearly overdrafting my bank account trying to buy avocado toast. I wrote it to a future version of myself, who I believed would be a very financially stable version of myself. I wrote it as a reminder of the intense challenges I had faced and because I wanted to be true to anyone whoever asked me about my business path. This route may not have been the most logical, and it certainly wasn’t easy, but I am really proud of my body of work and grateful to pursue so many of my creative interests.


Elizabeth Sensky_Interview with Quelcy Kogel

If anyone spends any length of time on your blog, they will see that you are intimately connected to farming, sustainability and knowing where your food comes from. This is especially apparent in your partnership with the “Urban Farmer”. How do you think of sustainability in your daily life?  I’m curious if it has ever felt like a burden, as another thing you must think about, or what that journey has been like for you?

Sustainability was ingrained in me without ever labeling it “sustainability.” I am the daughter of Midwestern farmers, who are as resourceful as they are religious. One of my biggest objections to the religion in which I was raised was how could we humans (and specifically that church) be so wasteful and disrespectful of God’s creation? (This partially explains why I now spend Sundays brunching and not sitting in a pew.)

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“The Urban Farmer” aka, Kyle.

One of my least favorite aspects of food styling though is how wasteful it is. We throw away food in such sickening quantities, so I often bring buckets to collect compost for “the Urban Farmer” to turn into soil magic. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is a less wasteful alternative. As resourceful as I try to be, the Urban Farmer, aka my boyfriend Kyle, always serves as a better example and often points to the excess of our modern comforts.

In Kyle’s ideal world, the grocery store would be stocked with local food only. As much of a local advocate as I am, this is a point of debate between us. I love coffee and chocolate and French wines. I appreciate the modern convenience and extravagance of driving to Whole Foods to discover rare ingredients, but at the same time, why must there be apples from New Zealand when they grow so close to the produce aisle?

I am far from an ascetic and not a complete gourmand, so maybe I still have more to sacrifice if sustainability doesn’t yet feel like a burden. However, my hunch is sustainability won’t work unless it meshes with our society, which is why we need better policies and more creative solutions. In any case, the idea of landfills fills me with enough guilt to pry my way into a confessional.  

Elizabeth Sensky_Interview With Quelcy Kogel

What do you hope people get out of your work?

Sweethearts-Cake-by-With-The-Grains-01On With The Grains, I hope people find an outlet, where they can appreciate beauty and be inspired to slow down and connect. Having studied architecture in college, I felt such pressure to find more than beauty in anything I admired or created. It had to have a strong concept and rules and systems. I finally came to appreciate the simplicity and reviving powers of pure, often inexplicable beauty (I wrote a blog post about it here). Sharing beautiful moments with others is what gives me meaning and forges memories.  

A thread through all my work is celebrating people and their stories. I want to make people feel special. When I write features for Design*Sponge, I tend to frame design within the context of the person, what makes him or her unique, how they contribute positively to society. I do this to encourage them because it can be so hard to see your own impact, but all the little ways we touch others really add up. One of the homeowners I featured wrote me to tell me he had shown his mother the home tour piece shortly before she died, and it brought him so much pride. I was so humbled by that response and still tear up thinking about it.

I’ve been following you for awhile now, and the sheer consistency and volume of work you produce is inspiring. How are you able to be so productive?

I am often guilty of comparing myself to others and thinking I’m not productive enough, so thank you for that perspective!  2016 was a huge year for me, but by nature of my work, I often jumped from project to project without giving myself proper credit. One of my goals for 2017 is to step back and celebrate my milestones. I bought myself a Passion Planner to help me take better stock of my accomplishments, to spend more time planning, and to hold me accountable to my goals. 

I went to Carnegie Mellon University, where the motto is “my heart is in the work,” and it must have stuck because my heart really is in creative work. So much of what I do really fuels my productivity. When my heart isn’t invested, my work breaks down. I learned that lesson the hard way. I was miserable but kept trying to slog through a bad business partnership. Finally, my sister asked me, “what does your heart say,” and just like that, I was able to answer, “it’s not in it.” Then I freed myself of that horrible relationship and found better avenues for my creative energy.

This is not to say I shirk responsibilities because of whims, but overall, I have to be invested in a project. I’m currently obsessed with Finding Your North Star by Martha Beck, which speaks heavily to this notion of listening to your essential self to unlock your truest potential. I’m also fortunate to have a partner who listens to all my ideas and pushes me to pursue them.

In very practical productivity terms, I use a mix of my Google calendar, my Passion Planner and an office wall full of color-coded sticky notes to represent all the work I am juggling.  

In times of doubt or overwhelm, how do you re-center and pick yourself back up?

I turn to my closest friends and to Kyle, all of whom have listened to my doubts and insecurities and allowed me to cry through the especially hard times. When I need solutions, they help me figure out my path. When I just need support, they’re simply there for me. I also write. With The Grains is often a place where I figure out my challenges through writing.

Kyle is also infamous for his “couch days,” which I have come to embrace. The main goal is to ignore work and to be as comfortable and lazy as possible, to curl up on the couch and put our projector and Netflix to good use. How else are we supposed to make it through two seasons of Fuller House? This year for Christmas, I gave him a “Couch Day Kit” which included wine, popcorn, pancake mix, slippers, pajamas adorned with a “Stay Home Club” patch and a slanket for two (possibly the most ridiculous and amazing invention ever).   

I also joke that my Julep is my Zen Master. If she is nagging me and whiny, then I know I have not met her needs, which are so basic, and I know I am off balance. Then it’s time for a walk to the park, so she can track down every last wayward softball.

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Quelcy with her adorable pup, Julep.

Do you ever feel pressure to find readers and followers for your blog? I think it is only natural to want an audience. Have you actively worked to find yours? If so, what did you do?

Indeed! This is a pressure I have been feeling a lot lately. On a techie level, when I switched from WordPress.com to a self-hosted WordPress site, it became more difficult for wordpress users to automatically subscribe to my blog, and my numbers plateaued a bit. I’ve always been more of the “build good content and they will come” school of blogging, but lately, I have realized I need to roll up my sleeves and work better to court readers.

I return over and over again to my favorite blogs for the quality of writing, as well as the inspiration element. I put a lot of heart and time into my writing and developing a narrative of the farm. My writing is meant to be a conversation, which means I need regular visitors, not one-offs. I’ve been researching email subscription options and brainstorming what specialized content I can offer subscribers. Overall though, With The Grains is my journal, so I’m not interested in investing all my efforts into content that will only be visible via a newsletter or a download. That’s just not the nature of my blog.

Elizabeth Sensky_Interview with Quelcy Kogel

And for funsies..

What are your favorite worldly pleasures that get you through the days? 

I love a good coffee and magazine session. There’s something about curling up and paging through real, tactile pages that inspires me.

Cute dogs on instagram also bring me a lot of joy. :)

When do you feel successful or satisfied? 

Good question! I’m not sure yet. Success has felt like such a moving target, hence my goal to step back and celebrate more. I find myself focusing on very adult goals I never thought would interest me so much. I want to own a home and be financially stable, which to me means a life rich in travel. I want to be paid fairly. Creative services, in Pittsburgh especially, are so under-valued. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “We would love to use you, but our budget is so small. Can you work with…” I want to be sought. This year I’ve had more interesting clients reach out to me because of my specific style. That’s very fulfilling.  

What’s the most recent thing you learned from someone else that really challenged you?

The Women’s March really inspired me, but what I found even more hopeful was seeing several of my female friends and role models taking action. Protests are so important and a symbol of our democratic system, but those efforts are in vain if the momentum stops there. I’ve seen friends and people in my social media feeds collecting donations for shelters, volunteering at food banks and writing letters to their representatives. It’s inspiring me to put my words into action too and to take a stronger stand on issues that are important to me.

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Where do you see yourself expanding personally and professionally next?

My big obsession is owning my own studio space. There’s so much potential in having a dedicated photo space, as well as a space to create. I make a lot of custom goods for events and long for an industrial space where I can sprawl out projects without worrying about getting paint on my floors. Having a space to store props and backdrops would also add some peace to my home life, which can feel a bit crowded at times.

The Urban Farmer and I have been brainstorming ways for us to overlap our passions even more. We launched a dinner series this fall and want to get some more events on the calendar. Additionally, we’ve also been toying with a few print publication and e-book ideas to promote beekeeping and agriculture through food.

Personally, I’m trying to be a kinder, more pro-active human being. I’ve been trying to do more random acts of kindness like buying an older neighbor a surprise gift certificate to our neighborhood cafe. I want to be a better, more vocal feminist and am looking into various volunteer outlets. Check back with me on that in a month or two!

Overall, I’m trying to put more of me out there, to take risks, to be less timid and to send my work to publications, to apply for opportunities, even if I feel under-qualified or intimidated. Life’s too short!    

What are your words to live by?

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” -Maya Angelou

This motivates me to make people feel special and to express my gratitude, but it also motivates me to keep my calm in stressful situations. I always want to maintain my dignity. My mom has always been such a strong role model on this front. Every Sunday, she faithfully delivers birthday and anniversary cards to people at her church and mails them to friend and family far away.

Also, I have this quote from Marie Forleo hanging near my desk: “Commit to creating joyfully, not stressfully.” It’s a really useful reminder to stay humble and grateful because even when I am overwhelmed, I have to remember I chose this, and I’m lucky.

Elizabeth Sensky_Interview with Quelcy Kogel
Photo by Tom O’Connor.

Want more of Quelcy? Follow her on all the things:


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Thanks so much, Quelcy! 

>>Follow up with more interviews with inspiring and fabulous humans!<<

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