Dinner party by the pool

Get tips from a food stylist and create a summer menu that's as easy as it is beautiful

Margo True

"People should have fun with food. They shouldn't be controlled in their cooking." Not exactly the words you might expect to hear from a food stylist, someone who spends her working hours making sure every morsel on a plate looks absolutely perfect for the camera. But Valerie Aikman-Smith ― who's done everything from creating the elaborate historical banquets in Titanic to baking flawless pizzas for California Pizza Kitchen ads (and who styles for Sunset too) ― has a laid-back approach to preparing her own food at home. Arugula for salad gets measured in loose handfuls, not cups; recipes change as she makes them. "I just do everything to taste," she says.

On a recent hot summer day at her house, high up in the Hollywood Hills, Valerie put together an easy menu of peach salad, fish fillets on garlic toast, and ice cream doused in espresso. The house, built by Harold Levitt in 1959, has truly cinematic views that sweep from the chunky white hollywood sign to the Griffith Observatory and, far away below, the tiny skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles. Floor-to-ceiling windows around the dining room fold back, turning the space into a sort of enclosed patio ― with the pool sparkling just a few feet from the table.

Maybe the view is partly responsible for Valerie's relaxed attitude as she cooks. If you can't find a certain ingredient, "use what's available," she says in her soft Scottish accent (she grew up on the coast west of Glasgow). "Don't get upset. Just substitute and enjoy." She's using peaches for her salads today, but any plump, juicy stone fruit would be fine. Now she's building loose, tilting, free-form towers with the fruit, some snowy mozzarella cheese, and herbs. "You've got to think 'breezy summer day,' " she says. "Go with the instinct of it."

Being a food stylist, she approaches anything she makes with a keener-than-average awareness of beauty as well as flavor. Her peach salads have shape and motion and color; her fish on toast is no beige blob, but a crisply browned fillet on a thick slice of grill-striped baguette, set on deep green arugula salad with yellow and red cherry tomatoes. And there are little touches she applies especially for the camera: basil and mint leaves tucked into the peach salad at just the right angle (normally she'd just layer them in); a tiny blowtorch to crisp the fish's skin an even golden brown, and no pan juices to mar its burnish (she typically drizzles them on before serving); cooled espresso to pour over the ice cream, so it won't melt into unattractive froth. But that's just primping for showtime, to smooth out the rough edges that a camera would spotlight. In the kitchen and around the table, the spirit of Valerie's cooking is carefree.

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