Helen Au Tells Heartwarming Stories With Food

Helen Au’s blog and Instagram recipe series brings together vegan food, family stories and powerful photos.

In 2018 Helen Au launched a fun, vibrant Instagram page “A StepFull of You” to create conversations and recipes around vegan food. The photographer and writer pairs eloquently produced photographs with recipes and personal, yet widely accessible stories behind each image, often following each post with a food related question to further engage her readers.

In one of her most recent Instagram posts – an image of vegan watermelon cookies in honor of National Watermelon Day – Au shares the story of her mom’s deep love for buying watermelons:

“She gets super excited to pick out a watermelon (or two) whenever we finish the one at home,” Au writes. “Even though she has a small frame, it’s funny seeing her at the store lifting and putting down watermelons, trying to pick the biggest and sweetest watermelon.”

While some of today’s most highly trafficked recipe platforms can get lost in the story, A StepFull Of You’s heartwarming anecdotes and stories keep us hooked.

We spoke with Au to learn more about food photography trends, the story behind her words and images, and how she expanded her Instagram page to a full-fledged recipe blog.

The Luupe: There’s an ongoing internet joke about recipe websites getting lost in the words, but your stories keep us hooked. We want to keep reading and looking. Can you talk a bit about how you got the blog to where it is today?

Helen Au: I started the blog a few months after I started my Instagram page, so about 2 years ago, and at that time, I just wanted a place to direct my readers to the blog for the recipes since there are limited characters available on Instagram’s captions. I didn’t focus much on my blog until recently, realizing how much potential it could grow if I put more time on it.

Vegan Mixed Berry Hand Pies © Helen Au

The Luupe: What inspired you to expand the content in extended blog form?

Au: To me and I know many other food bloggers I follow, the story behind the recipe is one of the most important parts. We are in the age when social media is such a major part of our lives and for many not in the space, we often forget that there is a person behind the recipe and behind that person is a rich history not just about their current life but also their culture and generations before.

Some food bloggers focus on the recipe itself only, but to others including me, the recipe is a way to let others learn about our culture and story. Many others may have tried a dish at a restaurant, but never know the history of it and it’s incredible to be able to help others learn about it.

I started incorporating storytelling more this past year during COVID, realizing many are away from their families. I don’t always make recipes from my culture, and want to use my platform as a way to bring a moment of peace and happiness to whoever is watching a reel or reading the caption of a post I posted.

Vegan No-Bake Watermelon Jello Cakes © Helen Au

The Luupe: We feel that sense of intimacy and connection with your work. What comes first in your process: the photos, recipe or the story behind it?

Au: The recipe usually comes first for me. I usually get ingredients that are in season and think about a recipe I can make with it. The photo/video comes next followed by the story. It doesn’t take me too long to think about the story I want to tell and sometimes it is related to the ingredient I am using in the recipe and other times, it’s more of an inspirational message, whatever is in my mind at that moment.

I don’t plan my story/caption ahead of time as I am a more free-spirited person, preferring to create the story at the present moment.

Vegan Chinese Bunny Steamed Buns. “I’ll be surrounded by all my cousins, jumping around, in my grandmother’s large bedroom, waiting for my uncle and aunt to come upstairs and tell us we can start egg hunting. Once we can, we would all race downstairs, most of us without an Easter basket but plastic bags my grandmother handed to us, roaming the entire house for all the Easter eggs and treats…My family doesn’t celebrate Easter, but almost every year we would bake something Easter-related whether they are carrot cakes, bunny sugar cookies, or just an Easter Egg Hunt with my cousins.” © Helen Au

The Luupe: Getting into the photos, they’re beautifully styled and lit, yet feel so real and accessible. There is a natural-ness, an effortless-ness way to your presentation, much like the way you write.

Au: The way I style the food changes constantly depending on where I am in life. When I first started, I didn’t know anything about food styling and photography at all and looked up to some photographers and bloggers that I first came across for guidance. At that time, it was a lot of bright and airy photos.

As I practiced more and more, I became more comfortable in expressing the emotions I am going through at that time in my photos. There were a few months where I focused more on dark and moody photos and that reflected well with some challenges I was going through at that time.

Recently, I changed my style back to lighter photos as it also portrays where I am right now, someone who appreciates life more, being in the moment, and my hopes of wanting others who come across my work to feel a sense of home, peacefulness and joy.

Creamy Vegan Lemon-Curd Tart With Whipped Cream. “I would try to make any lemon dessert I can usually starting with cookies and then bread or cake. They are always super tangy, making them even more refreshing for the summer. I was thinking about how citrusy those lemons were and decided to make this Lemon Curd Tart celebrating the spring and summer.” © Helen Au

The Luupe: You mention the bright, airy photos you were seeing. As trends like this in food photography gradually shift, do you see your own approach shifting or evolving?

Au: This is mostly about how I style my food scenes. However, during this past year as we are seeing more video content, I became more interested in pursuing this side of food photography more. It gives many of us another opportunity to tell the importance of the recipe we made or the message we want to convey in a more engaging way.

With every trend, I think it’s valuable to try it out and see if it resonates with you. You might, at first, be reluctant to but if you approach it in a fun way, you will enjoy the process more. For example, at one point, I became fascinated with hard light in food photography after seeing this style in a lot of cookbooks and thought about switching my style to that.

So I spent a few weeks trying out hard light as a personal project and after spending some time with it realized I didn’t like the look at it that much and it doesn’t truly reflect who I am. Even so, I was appreciative of the time I got to try it out, knowing that if I do have a client who prefers hard light, I will be able to deliver that style.

Vegan Bánh Xèo (Vietnamese Crepes) “We have 1 large table at the center of the living room where we gathered together for dinner. Even though it is an easy recipe, my mom didn’t make Bánh Xèo (Vietnamese Crepes) often. It is my absolute favorite recipe of hers and only requests to have them on my birthday and maybe this is the reason why we only have it once a year.” © Helen Au

The Luupe: Has developing the blog influenced how you think about photographing and visualizing food?

Au: I didn’t focus on my blog at all when I first started, but recently, I started to spend more time on it, realizing that there is a lot of potential for growth with it. Being in the food space for almost 3 years now, I had a lot of opportunities to look at a lot of different food blogs that performed well. What I realized through the process is how important it is when you are creating content to think about the person you want to create it for.

When you are creating a new recipe, it is not just about providing the photos and recipe, but also being intentional when you are writing the blog post about any additional information that person would need to know beforehand to create the recipe, almost like a “heads up” in case they might run into a problem while making the recipe. If you think a process photo will be helpful, include that in the blog post as well.

Vegan, Gluten-free Rice Dumplings. “Every time I make dumplings, I think back to those memories of just the two of us together with the TV in the background early in the morning, while my mom patiently explains to me again and again how to fold the dumplings. Yes, the food is there but when I look back now I value the time we had together more.” © Helen Au

The Luupe: On your “about” page, you mention that much of this blog came from the drive to create a healthier relationship with food – both physically and mentally.

Au: I have to say that I need to update my “about” page as the purpose of my blog has changed a bit. I didn’t have a good relationship with food for a period of time during my high school years and resulted in a straining relationship with my parents.

Food is an important aspect in our Asian household and something that has bonded my relationship with my parents especially my mom the most. Looking back, when I began to stray away from my mom’s cooking, it was not only about the food but also my culture. I wanted to be the same as the other girls at my school and wanted to become more “American.”

As a result of this, I had a lot of fights with my mom. It wasn’t until college when I had my own kitchen, that I got back into cooking and baking and the love for it began to grow again. Even then, it was mostly American foods that I was making.

When I first started this blog, I just wanted to use it as a way to share fun, vegan recipes that everyone can enjoy, wanting people to know that food provides so much to us not just nutrition wise but also enjoyment. It wasn’t until this past year with COVID that I got back into cooking more cultural foods, embracing food from my culture more and I began to incorporate some recipes from my culture that I grew up with and made them vegan.Since then, I was able to talk to my mom more about how to cook certain foods I grew up with and I relationship became closer.

Vegan Teddy Bear Coffee Buns. © Helen Au

The Luupe: Have there been any eye-opening experiences coming from developing this project?

Au: Being in social media and in the food space has allowed me to connect back with my culture more. Before, I didn’t care too much about it since I’ve been away from home and was more interested in exploring different cultures than my own.

This past year with COVID and all the racial protests, being on Instagram and other social platforms has opened my eyes to not only the ongoing problems with racial disparities, but also the bridge I put between myself and my culture.

I wished for a long time that I could just be like everyone else and didn’t want any relationship with my culture. However, having come across a lot of Asian bloggers and seeing how proud and happy they are in showing recipes from their culture made me appreciate food from my culture more and being proud of my own race and my family’s history.

Healthy Vegan Sugar Free Cherry-Lime Mocktail © Helen Au

The Luupe: Has developing this project helped catch the eyes of any food brands or magazines? 

Au: I wouldn’t say it was from the blog, but more from my Instagram page which I focused more on when I first started. Within the first year, I was featured in Thrive Magazine, a vegan focused magazine, even though my photos at that time were not good at all.

However, over the past few years as I practiced and improved my photography skills more, I was able to work with brands I admired such as Bob’s Red Mills, Forager, Purely Elizabeth and Four Sigmatic’s as well as magazines like Origin Magazine. I was also able to work with some local start-up brands when I first started and that gave me the confidence to keep on developing my photography skills and blog.

The Luupe: What’s been the most rewarding response so far?

I am not sure how many people actually made my recipes, but every time I get a message via Instagram about someone trying a recipe I created and how much they and their family enjoyed it, made me extremely grateful for the platform in creating an opportunity for me to create not only a career but also a way to connect with people all over the world.

It also warms my heart and it makes me feel more inspired to continue to create content and tell stories when I my audience would also share stories from their own childhood and culture.

It is absolutely incredible that someone who doesn’t know me or have met me before felt I am forever grateful for all the friends I was able to meet through Instagram and continue to learn from.