Kristina Rice

Kristina Rice, food stylist and chef, not only knows how to make a chicken taste good, she makes it look so good that television viewers open their wallets.

Rice has appeared on the Home Shopping Network (HSN) with top celebrity chefs including Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Cat Cora, Roy Yamaguchi and Todd English. She works on- and off-camera with the chefs, preparing food and demonstrating cooking products for live television.

Her opportunity to be on TV came when the on-air talent didn’t know the breast of a chicken from its wings. Off camera, Rice desperately tried to get the woman to display the chicken properly. “I’m just like, ‘Turn it around, turn it around,’ ” she remembers. “And then I’m like, ‘You know what? I can do everything but push the button for this girl.’ And they said, ‘Well, do you want to do it?’ and I said, ‘Sure!’ ”

She’s been working as a food stylist for more than 13 years. Answering an online ad for a job that turned out to be working with Puck on HSN, Rice was hoping for a flexible, part-time job schedule while her children were small. But when she started getting more offers from more chefs, she started her own company, Saute4U.

“If your product or your food is going on the air, my job is to make your product shine and my guests shine,” Rice explains. “So, it’s ‘prom day for the pressure cooker,’ or it’s prom day basically for whatever product that you’re selling.”

A graduate of Pinellas Technical Education Center (PTEC) in St. Petersburg, Fla., Rice was a Culinary Arts contestant at SkillsUSA’s 1986 nationals.

“During the competition, they hand you a packet, and in that packet you have a certain time frame. In that time frame, you need to accomplish answering all the questions, breaking down the recipes accurately, finding your fine ingredients without waste, making it in a timely manner. And, making your presentation is a key part. That is every component of what a food stylist does.”

Another competition experience helped when she first appeared live on the air. Nervous and nine months pregnant, Rice remembered something she’d learned while training for the Chapter Business Procedure contest: “If you get through the first 90 seconds, you’ll be fine.”

Then, she says, “the baby did a back flip and the host stopped, because I stopped.” Asked if she was OK, Rice replied, “Yeah, I’m fine. I just have to get my son’s foot out of my lung and we’ll be all right.”

In that down-to-earth moment, she connected with her viewers and says sales shot from about 500 per minute to 1,500.

Knowing how to improvise

Connecting with viewers and having a sense of humor helps in live television, where the occasional “oops” is inevitable.

“I’ve burned things when I’m doing cookware. I think I made a grilled cheese sandwich, and I fried it because I kept flapping my jaw,” Rice laughs. “I forgot that the burner was on high. I was saying how you don’t need to cook it on high and ‘blah, blah, blah,’ and I flipped it over and it was blacker than coal.

“What did I do when I saw it? I said, ‘Well, look how easily I burned it.’ ” Behind the camera, her husband was trying to tell her, “Get rid of it, Kristina. It’s not funny. Get rid of it. Put it away. Put it away.”

Details are critical for live television. When Rice is preparing for a show, she needs to know exactly what kind of food and how much of it is needed, as well as when and how it’s going to be prepared and presented.

She also has to know who’s on camera left and who’s on camera right. “If something flubs up from Demo One to Demo Two, Demo Three needs to be prepared,” she says, “so that when you’re on Demo Three, the food stylist can come in, fix it and be gone if it’s possible.

“So, timing is everything. Presentation is everything, detail, working well with others. It doesn’t matter whether or not I’m in the same room with Iron Chef Cat Cora or Wolfgang or Gordon Ramsey or my best friend and husband. You can’t get star struck. You have to listen, focus, not take anything personal and make it so. My whole world is making it so.”

With five employees and counting, Rice and her husband, Vern, also run a craft service company.

“A craft service,” she explains, “provides drinks, snacks and healthy choices for the crew when they are shooting commercials, movies or infomercials.” For the film “Magic Mike,” they worked with a crew of more than 150 during location shoots around Tampa and Clearwater, Fla.

Rice realized Saute4U was a success when she no longer needed to advertise. Listening to her talk, there’s a hint of disbelief in that she’s done so well — and an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

She credits her North East High School instructor, William White, for encouraging her to try culinary arts and pulling her out of a bad crowd. “Mr. White pushed me to do better for myself,” she says, referring to him as “an amazing, wonderful, awesome, underappreciated teacher.”

Experience competing in SkillsUSA, which was known at that time as the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America (VICA), helped Rice enter PTEC five levels above other new students. Her instructor there, Chef Robert Lee, helped Rice cope when her advanced placement roused resentment from classmates. After she graduated, Lee found her a job as a personal chef in the home of an older couple. They had nine grown children, and their families all lived in the same area. It was a great experience, Rice says.

Her résumé includes being an assistant restaurant chef at a major hotel as well as a food and beverage manager for a country club. After having her first child, Rice was asked to open a restaurant. “I said, ‘No thank you, no. I don’t want to be married to that. I want to be married to my family.’ ” She was talked into it, but the partner bailed and stress levels were high. Rice got rid of the restaurant and had another son. “My priorities were, I didn’t care about the restaurant, I would like to give my son a brother or sister,” she adds.

The best of both worlds

With family always first and foremost, Rice’s goal is to put food on the table. Not that it’s ordinary food.

“Our kids have magnificent palates,” she says. Cooper, age 7, enjoys grilled octopus, and her 12-year-old, Drew, likes squid, muscles and salmon. “Will they eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches? Not to save my life, but they will eat lamb. They will eat fish and salmon and everything under the sun, but God forbid, will they eat bologna or peanut butter, something simple?” she laughs.

Working at a round-the-clock TV station provides the flexibility to make her children a priority.

“ I could go to work at 5 or 6 at night because we didn’t have a show until midnight, put in my time, go grocery shopping,” Rice says. “I’d do my shows, be home at 3 or 4 in the morning, and then my husband would go to work. So, I could love and squish my babies, launch them to school or go play in the playground, and have the best of both worlds. Why would I ever want to punch a time clock?

“I don’t care about the money,” she emphasizes. “I just want to be happy.”

Being a food stylist makes her happy.

“It’s the best job,” she says. “Listen, I can’t have a better job. My job is awesome and wonderful. I mean, you get to work with a team — you get to create your own team. You get to collaborate and form partnerships. You get to delegate to a person’s strengths. It all comes down to what I learned from VICA.”