Kansas City chef Beth Barden just finished a job she never anticipated having: food-stylist for the new coffee table book "Queer Eye: Love Yourself, Love Your Life."
Like the "Queer Eye" television show, which recently wrapped filming its third season in Kansas City, the book is full of lifestyle advice, with pearls of widsom ranging from how to select the right cut of denim to what your go-to meal says about you.
The "Queer Eye" approach to grooming and decor isn't about superficial self-improvement, Barden says. It's about transforming people, inside and out.
"It's really like: 'Let's go into your house, let's talk to you about why it's like this,'" Barden says. "Like, 'Why did that not get finished?' or 'Why is everything piled in a corner?' or 'Why are you still wearing the same cargo shorts from 1976?' And 'Why do you have a beard that you are hiding behind?'"
Barden's restaurant, Succotash, opened as a makeshift brunch spot in the City Market in the early 2000s, before that was prime real estate.
"I started with a place that I basically opened for the price of a used car and a $25 electric plug-in home stove," Barden says.
The business grew up with her: Succotash moved to a roomier location with a professional kitchen, upgraded service and lines out the door. She specializes in stick-to-your-ribs brunch food, loaded up with fresh fruits and veggies.
Barden came to the Queer Eye assignment with no food-styling experience and an unconventional aesthetic. One of the signature items at Succotash, which she's offered since the restaurant opened, is an 8-layer rainbow cake striped with neon shades of turquoise, orange and chartreuse.
"Food should make you happy," she says. "You set a plate down and for whatever reason, you should react to it viscerally, either because of the color or the way it's plated. It's always, to me, like kind of a wink and a smile.... and if something is too precious, it's just not my jam."
Barden bonded with the "Queer Eye" food and wine expert, Antoni Porowski, over the lingonberry pancakes she serves at brunch. The two just clicked and became, as Porowski put it at a press conference here in town, "fast friends."
She started out catering meals for the cast and crew while they were shooting in Kansas City (details on local show content are still under wraps). Little by little, Barden became part of the team, doing some personal chef work for cast members and testing recipes for Porowski’s upcoming cookbook.
Being asked to food-style a major publication took things to another level.
"I naively thought, 'Okay, sure I can do this, no problem, I'll do it. I have an opportunity, I'm in,'" Barden recalls. Then, after saying yes, she started Googling and realized what a specialized area of expertise food-styling was. It spooked her.
So she arrived on set with every tool of the trade she might possibly need. In the end, the only sneaky food-stylist trick she used was propping up pasta in a bowl with a makeup sponge. The servingware and decorative items in those shots are mostly things she really has in her house or restaurant.
The food looks decadent, yet approachable: There's a picture of a carrot cake slathered in mountainous frosting with a slice cut out of it, traces of crumbs left behind in its place.
The "Queer Eye" experience changed Barden in a profound way.
"I'm 51. I've been doing the same thing for 17 years and the evolution of my restaurant and my career has been really organic. It hasn't left a lot of time for me to think about what I want to do or where I want to be," she notes. "This allowed me to push myself within a grouping of people who are at the top of their game. I was invited to something that I never expected to be invited to. And once I got there, I was asked to stay."
It was meaningful in a way that she can't quite describe, other than to say she's grateful.
"It was not intentional," she says, "but I think that truthfully I got the best 'Queer Eye' makeover of anyone."
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Succotash had a full bar, and did not make clear that Porowski’s cookbook has yet to be released.
Gina Kaufmann is the host of KCUR's Central Standard. You can reach her on Twitter, @GinaKCUR.