Cooking on paper

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Lisa Orgler isn’t a chef. Heck, she says, she’s not even really that great of a cook. She’s not a food photographer or food stylist or a restaurant reviewer or a nutritionist. But she’s an award-winning food blogger.

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always drawn,” Orgler says. “When I was little, we didn’t have a lot of money, so I realized quickly that I could draw whatever I wanted – flowers or textiles or antiques. And I’ve always loved drawing plants, animals, vegetables, those kinds of things.”

In 2008, Orgler (’92 landscape arch, MLA ’00) set off on an ambitious quest to draw a collage on a painted-over playing card every day. But by March, she had tapered off. Then, in September, her son was born and she had some time to think during her maternity leave. What subject matter would motivate her to draw every day in 2009? 

“I eat every day,” she said. “I love food.”

ImageAnd with that, “The Lunchbox Project” was launched. (Making the project public online would help keep her on track, she says.) Orgler’s blog, which included 365 illustrations of food in 2009 and continues to include regular updates, attracted not only foodies but fans of illustration and her adorable aesthetic.

“Some food bloggers don’t see it as a real food blog,” says Orgler, who acknowledges she’s only met one or two other bloggers who do what she does.

“But then I also get some comments from people who say, ‘Oh, I love it because you’re so different.’ I’ve always been upfront about me not being able to cook, but, you know, I’ve learned a lot from other food bloggers and I’m actually more interested in cooking now.”

Orgler has been plugged into food blogging communities like Food Buzz for many years, attending conferences and even receiving an award from Food Buzz in 2010. She says the food blogging community is very tight-knit, social, and generous.

In fact, Orgler – whose day job is lecturing on landscape design in ISU’s department of horticulture – started receiving offers to do freelance illustrations and banners for other food blogs shortly after she launched “The Lunchbox Project.”

And now she does freelance work for companies like Jarlsberg Cheese, Gourmet Garden herbs, and others. She has a shop on Etsy for Lisa Orgler Design and occasionally retails her illustrations in physical stores as well.

So what’s her favorite food to draw?

“I actually love to draw tomatoes,” she says. “And tomatoes are one of the few foods I really don’t like. I actually really like drawing pears, too, and those aren’t something I eat a lot. I draw a lot of pears and tomatoes for some reason.”

Orgler says she hasn’t been stumped by client requests too often, though she says she’s had to look up images of pistachios and cardamom and an exotic variety of coconut a blogger once hired her to draw for his Web banner.

As for the future, Orgler plans to continue “The Lunchbox Project” and her freelance illustration work, but she also has her sights set on developing a gardening blog and a book. As a landscape designer, Orgler’s interests in the visual are broad-ranging. She’s even begun to dabble in photography.

But even after all these years and all these illustrations, Orgler says drawing food still excites her.

“I love picking something like food and making it look really pretty,” she says. “So it isn’t just a tomato. It’s a tomato with all these flowery things around it. I think that’s my thing: ‘How can you take something really ordinary and make it flowery and fun?’ I like that challenge. I’d done this flowery thing with farms and gardens in the past, but I’d never really done it with something as common as food.

“It’s really fun.”