Meet Melissa Hamilton & Christopher Hirsheimer

Location: Lambertville, NJ
Age: Over 50
Marital Status: Both Married
Education: School of Visual Arts (Melissa) and Liberal arts college in the San Francisco Bay area (Christopher)

In 2006, the FOFriends left Saveur and moved to Lambertville, NJ, where they set up shop in a former newspaper office. The “Canal House” as they call it, started as a studio where the two would style and photograph food, design and illustrate cookbooks for clients.

“At the studio, we always stop for lunch every day. One of us will get up and fix something or bring something from the night before,” says Christopher. “We began writing down what we were cooking, and that’s how it all started.” Now, Melissa and Christopher publish three subscriber-based cookbooks each year, filled with their seasonal recipes. They have no marketing department telling them what to cook—and no investors—and that’s the way they like it. That’s the way their fans like it too; in just a few years the books have gained a cult-like following.

“We laugh that at the downturn of the economy, we said, ‘let’s start own business!’” says Melissa. “But, we think that appealed to a lot of people, that we were creating something ourselves.”

They’ve “followed their bliss,” and each day they follow their appetites. Their mission? To inspire other FOFs to do just the same.

Where are you from?

Christopher: San Francisco, but I’ve lived all over.

Melissa: Pennsylvania, just across the way from where we are now in Lambertville, N.J.

Were you from foodie families?

Christopher: Both of us come from families that were interested in food. I was in California at the birth of Chez Panisse—that was a huge influence. My father was a businessman and we traveled in the Pacific-Rim—I lived in San Francisco, Hawaii and Australia. Melissa’s mother was French so that influenced her.

Tell me a little bit about your career path.

Christopher: I was one of the people who started Saveur magazine. Before that, I had a few restaurants. I never went to culinary school. I went from a kitchen to editorial, and now I’m back in the kitchen. Both Melissa and I think of ourselves as terrific home cooks, and that’s our message and mission. We want everyone to cook at home. It’s so satisfying and empowering.

Melissa: I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York. Also, I had a catering business and worked in restaurants for a while. Ultimately, I was drawn to food styling. I knew I wanted to do editorial and not commercial work because I wanted to encourage people to eat well. I was always on the pursuit of eating well, cooking well and turning other people on to those things.

Did you two meet while working at Sauveur?

Melissa: A friend suggested we meet because of our mutual interests, and we lived in the same neighborhood.

Christopher: At the time, I worked at Saveur and Melissa wanted to get in to food styling. She asked for advice. I had eaten her food at a restaurant and said, ‘well you already are a food stylist, you don’t need to learn, just go do it.’

Melissa: Christopher’s photographs and her style started the natural look movement—not this plastic artificial look in food photography. She had seen how I plated food, and that’s why she said to me, ‘you already are there.’

Christopher: Then, a number of years later, the timing was right and I asked Melissa to come and work at Saveur. We loved working together.

Tell me about the transition from Saveur to Canal House.

Christopher: Eventually we decided we’d start a photo studio together.

Melissa: We design, write, photograph, illustrate our own books… and other people’s books too. We’ve grown the studio it in a very organic way.

Why did you leave the city? Isn’t that the hub of the food world?

Melissa: One of the great things about being out of the city is that we have a full life here with the local community of farmers and producers and we also have room to spread out. We have a balcony where we grow tomatoes, peppers and herbs.

Tell me about your books.

Christopher: We like to cook seasonally; we like to eat seasonally. We decided to publish subscription-based cookbooks that come out three times a year. We have 8 books.

Melissa: Each book handles just enough recipes for that season. When the season is changing, a new book comes along. Your taste is changing, too—you suddenly want rich, deep flavored stews when just a month before you thought you’d never get enough of tomatoes and corn.

Christopher: The books are what we are cooking now. We are not trying to think something up. It’s all in our control, we design the recipes and shoot the food. We don’t have any marketing people saying ‘that won’t sell,’ so we are able to go with our own gut.

Do you still take consulting work or do you now primarily focus on your own books?

Christopher: We’ve slowly cut down on that because so much of our time is spent on the books. We still do take on projects though because a lot of times we love the people and we can’t say no. We consult for Bon Appetit as their “seasonal cooks.” We adore them. As long as they’ll have us, we’ll do it.

Both of you do everything—photograph, write, illustrate and cook? Or do you have different strengths and weaknesses?

Christopher: You could say that Melissa does the illustrations and I do the photography but we confer with each other about all of it. It’s wonderful to have a good partnership—there’s nothing like it.

What are your other hobbies?

Melissa: Traveling.

Christopher: The fastest way into a culture, though, of course, is food. The minute off of the plane, you eat something. We went to Italy for a month and rented a house and cooked. All of that went into our next little series—”A Year of Italian Cooking.”

What else are you working on now?

Christopher: A big book called “Canal House Cooks Everyday.” It will be published in the fall. It’s based on our e-mail “Canal House Cooks Lunch,”—every day we send out an image and a little caption of what we cooked for lunch. We don’t include recipes—it’s just meant to inspire. The big book will be based on those e-mails.

Where do you do your grocery shopping?

Christopher: We shop locally—farmer’s markets and butchers. But out here, when the fields have gone quiet, there’s nothing to put in the farmer’s market. So we shop and cook differently.

Melissa: We’re not eating asparagus or strawberries in December.

Christopher: We’ve also made a friend of our local grocery store, Shop Rite. It’s a normal grocery store, but within it we’ve been able to find wonderful things.

Where do you purchase your cooking equipment?

Christopher: A lot of it is inherited. We love Williams-Sonoma and Crate and Barrel. The Spanish Table might sell the most beautiful paella pan. We believe in investing, although we are not gadget people. For instance, I took home the pepper grinder and we didn’t bother getting a new one for the office—we just grind our pepper in a mortar and pestle.

Melissa: You’ll probably ask us what our favorite knives are, but you know, Chris will pick up a cutting knife that came from one of the kids’ camping trips—it’s dull as a butter knife—and there she is chopping onions. Or, we might pick up a beautiful Japanese razor sharp. If we don’t have something, we’ll find another way to get what we need.

Christopher: If you love food, and you love to cook, nothing gets in your way. If you have wonderful things that make the job better or get better results, we believe in that. But, if all you can make is a piece of toast over the fire, do it. It will be more satisfying than buying something from a fast food restaurant.

What do you use for styling your photographs?

Christopher: We use what we have. We love old hotel silver and we love simple, white plates because food looks best on them. But we don’t want to say these things because we want to encourage people to use what you’ve got. If you have plastic plates, that’s cool too.

Do you have a favorite restaurant?

Christopher: We love coming into New York and getting a bowl of pho in Chinatown or living large and eating at Eleven Madison Park.

Who do you guys cook for?

Christopher: We both have families and we both love to cook for them. Melissa’s daughters are learning to cook.

How do you get inspired?

Christopher: Our appetite. If you pay attention, you’re always craving something.

Melissa: And if you satisfy that you can keep your girlish figure, like we manage to. When you identify what it is you want, and you can satisfy what you want, then you’re not overeating.

What advice do you have for other FOFs?

Christopher: Follow your bliss. We had an idea and we made it happen for ourselves. We didn’t have the deepest pockets, we didn’t have investors and we didn’t want them. When your children are grown and you don’t have such family responsibilities—your life just opens up. It’s a great time of opportunity.