As a child, Louiie Victa wanted to be a veterinarian. She loved animals and thought caring for them would be a nice career — until she saw a video of a cow giving birth and promptly changed her mind. From then on, food was the only path she considered, so it was rather ironic that the only culinary job she could get, as a young immigrant to the United States, was at the San Francisco Zoo.
Though Victa had earned a hospitality management degree in her native Philippines, she struggled to get hired without recognizable names on her resume, so she began her cooking career by flipping burgers and whipping up pasta dishes at the zoo. “It was not quite the fine dining experience I aspired towards, but I was young and it was fun,” she remembers. “The zoo is actually where I learned a lot about American culture. Plus, it was such a perk to be around animals — the elephants especially.”
Eventually, Victa moved to Las Vegas to get hands-on culinary training from chefs on the Strip. She cooked at the Wynn Las Vegas and Bazaar Meat by José Andrés for nearly two decades before she contemplated leaving the restaurant industry for a more artistic pursuit, which she found in food photography.
That led Victa into recipe testing and development, and that’s how she ended up where she is today: successfully juggling all three jobs. She was responsible for testing all the recipes in our debut cookbook, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes — so we know what she can do. Here, Victa shares the details of her career switch, how she maintains balance in her professional life, and what always surprises people about her work.
Eater: What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?
Louiie Victa: As a recipe tester and developer, it’s really exciting to get a recipe from another chef and cook through it. When I was working on the Eater cookbook, I had such an amazing time cooking with different ingredients, tasting incredibly diverse cuisines, and learning the background of each dish. I believe that every recipe is a story. It’s an opportunity to learn new things — skills and techniques, sometimes shortcuts and hacks, and better ways of cooking a dish. Cooking and developing these recipes gave me a chance to work with and get to know such amazing chefs. I was able to recreate the dishes of acclaimed restaurants all in the comfort of my very own kitchen. You’ll get the same opportunity now that the cookbook is on shelves!
As a commercial food and restaurant photographer, I love bringing chefs’ ideas to life and being creatively engaged with building the image. If I have time, I try to get to know all the people responsible for cooking and executing each dish I’m taking a photo of. It builds a lot more synergy that way. I guess that’s why I call myself @the.cheftographer.
After each shoot, I make it a point to go to the back of the house to give high fives and thank each person involved for their hard work. It’s my signature move. When I was a cook dreaming of becoming a food photographer, it would have meant the world to me if a photographer or any guest came around to give me a little recognition. Just an affirmation that I was doing the right thing because food service is truly a thankless job.
How do you balance having multiple jobs in one: recipe testing, recipe development, and food photography?
Wearing multiple creative food hats is part of my brand. My days usually involve scheduling and planning things out. I had to learn that working the creativity muscle consistently makes you stronger, but you need to balance life with physical and mental health. Self-care and routine help me stay mentally and creatively sharp. Of course, there are days where you are required to be creative, but you don’t feel like it. You have to have enough “creative muscles” to get into a flow state and do the best work possible.
Mountain biking has been very beneficial for clearing my head. When I’m on my bike, I have to tune out other thoughts and focus on the obstacles in front of me. Otherwise, I’ll fall and eat dirt. I’m a big proponent of the “five hobbies” rule. It goes, find five hobbies that you love: one to make you money, one to keep you in shape, one to be creative, one to build knowledge, and one to evolve your mindset. That’s plenty to work with to grow in one’s career and in life.
Did you go to culinary school or college?
I attended university in the Philippines and pursued hotel, restaurant, and institution management, focusing on the business side of things. When I migrated to the U.S. in 2001, I originally wanted to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, but as an immigrant with very limited resources, I decided to move to Las Vegas to learn from the talented chefs on the Strip.
I figured that real work experience would enable me to build a career in the food industry. It was also a more financially sound move because the cost of living was low compared to San Francisco, my first home in the U.S. The move also allowed me to be in close proximity to my mom, who was living in Las Vegas.
I was fortunate to have my mom help me pay for my first degree, leaving me with no student debt. When I decided to pursue photography and film studies at the College of Southern Nevada, I used my former employer’s (Wynn Las Vegas) tuition reimbursement program. I took advantage of the opportunity they offered as an employee benefit. They allowed for any field of study, not just courses that were directly related to my job as a cook.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
Being a young, first-generation immigrant presented me with very few great opportunities for work. I also had challenges advancing in my career being a woman in the kitchen. I would immediately get assigned to prep, garde manger, or any small appetizer or dessert station because that’s where women usually got pigeonholed. I observed that my male colleagues had a better chance of being promoted and advancing their careers than I did. This was in the early 2000s and it was a very male-dominated industry. There wasn’t a lot of diversity and representation in kitchens. As an openly gay brown woman, it was difficult to find my rightful place in the kitchen without first proving that I was more capable than my male colleagues.
When was the first time you felt successful?
I never truly felt successful as a chef. I never got to the point of being an executive chef or owning a restaurant. As a food media creator, there was a time that I wanted to be a renowned food photographer. But I had a light bulb moment when I realized I no longer wanted to be someone else. I just wanted to be myself and pursue my own creative ventures in the world of food.
Did you have any setbacks? What were they?
Putting myself through photography school, and succeeding at it, while having a full-time job in the kitchen was difficult. I didn’t have the best gear or technology because I simply couldn’t afford it. I had to go through the whole learning curve and hone my photography skills so I could justify buying professional equipment. What a game changer that was! Once that was done, there was no looking back. I now had enough skill and the proper tools to execute the images I envisioned in my head.
Switching careers is scary. There were so many questions and moving parts, but my two biggest creative entrepreneurial saboteur excuses were, Where am I going to get a paycheck? and What about my health benefits? Those two thoughts nearly stopped me from leaping into a brand-new career full-time.
I also found it hard to find resources and supportive people who would truly help me get my foot in the door. I remember asking a fellow chef to introduce me to his boss, so I could ask about shooting the restaurant for free to build my portfolio. He immediately shut me down and said, “Well-known photographers from the L.A. Times shoot for our restaurant. And who are you?” That really stuck with me and it absolutely lit a fire for me to become better at what I do.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
There were many turning points and affirming instances that led me to where I am now. After working for Wynn Las Vegas, I worked for Bazaar Meat by José Andrés, and being around that kitchen team made me fall in love with food all over again. Then, Eater Vegas put out a call for a photographer and [former Eater Vegas editor] Susan Stapleton hired me. For a time, I was working as a photographer for Eater Vegas and a restaurant, while trying hard to book more shoots. This was shortly before the pandemic began.
And then the pandemic hit. While the industry really suffered, it gave me time to think about what I wanted career-wise. On the one hand, I could keep overworking with two jobs. On the other hand, I could figure out how to use this strange time to go through my checklist and set up my business as a full-time food photographer.
The next stepping stone appeared when a mentor of mine, cookbook author and former James Beard Foundation Book Awards chair Hsiao-Ching Chou, recommended me to Anova Culinary. I was a super huge fan of the brand since the launch of its sous vide tool, so I was stoked about this. I signed on with them as a recipe developer. Now having somewhat of a paycheck and some street credentials, I felt more comfortable to take the leap and decided to become a full-time food photographer.
I am very grateful and fortunate that the word of my work soon spread and the next stepping stones kept appearing, one after the other. I had a pineapple pork adobo recipe featured in Bon Appétit, signed on as a recipe developer at Butcher Box, and my former employer, José Andrés Group, gave me multiple restaurant photography opportunities. I was also asked to join the book committee for the James Beard Awards and then Eater’s Rebecca Marx gave me a shot as a recipe developer and photographer for Eater at Home, which eventually landed me work with the Eater cookbook.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field?
I have many different mentors that have shared their careers and technical wisdom with me over the years. Professor Charles Lohman taught me to grow as a photographer and an artist. Susan Stapleton, former editor of Eater Las Vegas, helped me navigate the early beginnings of my career outside the kitchen. Hsiao-Ching Chou has given me an opportunity to work with such amazing food folks. I always come to her for solid career advice. And chef David Thomas, formerly of the José Andrés Group, taught me a lot about being a chef, time management, and personal accountability. His lessons helped me grow as an entrepreneur.
What would surprise people about your job? Why?
One of the questions I get asked most is if I get to eat the food I take photos of. The answer is, occasionally. Most food styled for photography isn’t even edible and there is a difference between plating for looks and plating for flavor. The job is not as glamorous as it seems. Shoots are always fun, but there is a lot of hard work involved: planning, packing, carrying gear, maintaining technology, travel, jet lag, long hours spent editing images on a computer, and having to roll with the punches if things don’t go smoothly. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it gets easier over time.
For me, owning your own business means having to be your own assistant, accountant, PR team, and admin. On top of that, you are the creative! It takes a ton of juggling and mastering time management. The thing I miss most about working in restaurants is not having people to interact with on a day-to-day basis. I miss my fellow cooks and chefs, working through a busy service. I had to adjust to being a solopreneur. I do have a small circle of people, colleagues, that I can talk shop and decompress with, which is necessary for my mental health.
How are you making change in your industry?
I seldom think of making big changes, but I keep in mind the small goals and achievements that I can implement. As a chef, food photographer, recipe developer, and food writer, I tend to show other people how to not create boundaries for your work or who you work with. I represent the AAPI, LGBTQ++, and women in both the food & beverage and photography industries, and I also teach aspiring food photographers at the Community College of Southern Nevada and the University of Las Vegas.
In the future, I want to be able to provide services, lectures, and professional support to diverse groups of women in hospitality who do not have the resources to leverage their own businesses and careers. I want to make sure to give back to the industry that I love.
What would you have done differently in your career?
I wish I had spent less time figuring out how to make the leap into entrepreneurship and started earlier. The anxiety of making sure I had completed my business checklist was debilitating. The journey takes a bunch of small steps that happen in real time. I wish I realized earlier that you don’t need to wait to have all your ducks in a row. You can get them in line as you go.