Don’t look at Mandy Tanner’s Instagram (@daydreamworkshop) posts if you’re hungry. Her glossy pics of grilled Snake River Farms Tomahawk, Cowboy and other American Wagyu beef cuts will torture your grumbling belly with deliciously captured details.

The Orange County, California native took a high school class in photography but largely taught herself how to capture beautiful images of food with her iPhone.

“I [recently] made the jump to a mirrorless full-frame camera, took a lot of bad pictures and learned in manual mode,” says the 41-year-old mother of one. “I’m pretty proud of what I’ve done the last few years.”

Tanner’s journey to becoming a social media influencer sponsored by Traeger grills followed a winding road. While studying business in college, she interned at a recording label for an exec who had gone to culinary school. She introduced Tanner to some of the best restaurants in Los Angeles — which tapped into a passion for food that had first sparked in her childhood.

“My grandmother is one of the big food influences in my life,” she says, remembering Italian pasta made from scratch on summer visits. Her parents divorced when she was 6, but those trips to her grandmother’s home nourished her with a lasting impression.

“Those family memories at the table carried me through into my love of food bringing people together.”

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While working with renowned chef Stephane Beau camp in an LA restaurant, Tanner expressed an interest in becoming a food stylist. “He said, ‘First learn to cook everything properly, with the proper techniques, then learn the tricks to make it look good on camera.’ It’s a whole different thing.”

So, Tanner left an uninspiring undergrad foray to attend the French Culinary Institute (now International Culinary Center) in New York City. She graduated with honors in 2005 with a degree in pastry arts.

These twin passions for food and photography converged when Tanner was in culinary school. Her parents wanted to see what she was working on, but emailing photos across the country was cumbersome, so she started posting on Instagram. That way, her folks could share their pride with all their friends. And unlike images of food in magazines — which are often coated with inedible substances to achieve that photogenic sheen — Tanner’s pics are the unadulterated real deal.

“I’ve been able to take pictures of food we actually eat, carry the artistry through to every meal I make,” she says.

After meeting and marrying her husband in Nashville, then giving birth to her daughter, Tanner’s little family of three moved to Texas. And new opportunities for expanding her skill set presented themselves.

“I really wanted to learn how to make a brisket,” she says. “Backyard barbecue is completely different from anything we were doing in restaurants. It’s an art that they don’t have schools for — brisket, you have to learn by doing.”

As Tanner’s popularity on social media grew, so did her culinary repertoire. Gaining sponsorship from Traeger Grills upped her influencer cred while sparking new inspiration for her cooking adventures.

“As a mom, it’s one of the best grills,” she says. “I can monitor it from my iPhone or Apple watch, so I can play with my child or go to her dance class and [still] know the internal temp of my brisket.”

Tanner loves cooking so many things that it’s hard to pinpoint her favorite. But one particular meal always hits home for her.

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“Especially for the holidays, ham is nostalgic because my mother always made them for Christmas,” she says. “It was a spectacle when the ham came to the table, everyone gathering around and watching that first slice. Snake River Farms Kurobuta ham is beautifully marbled and really simple to prepare.”

Here are Tanner’s tips for serving the perfect Kurobuta ham for your family’s holiday gathering:

1. Choose wisely. Boneless hams are easier to slice at the table, but Tanner prefers bone-in for that extra tender juiciness and the advantage of stretching into a soup base. “I remember [my mom’s] split pea soup using the bone from the ham; it’s part of the whole holiday process for me.”

2. Plan ahead. “Take a few days in advance to let it thaw properly,” she says, noting that in an emergency, cold water in the sink is ok, but a slow defrost in the fridge is best. “Kurobuta ham can stay in the package for [up to] 45 days because it’s fully cooked.”

3. Cook it slow. “Either in the oven or on the grill, 325 degrees is perfect to slowly cook it through to a 140-degree internal temp.”

    4. Let it rest for 30 minutes before serving. “At that point,” Tanner advises, “bake your rolls, prep your sides, put dessert in the oven, all that sort of thing.”

    5. Keep it simple. “You don’t need any additional cooking liquid because Kurobuta is so marbled and luxurious,” she says. If you’d like a glaze, add it only in the final 10 minutes of cooking or while the ham is resting to avoid over-caramelizing the sugars. “Glazes that are sweet are traditional, but you can add a chile pepper to a traditional glaze for some heat if you don’t have sensitive palates in your household.”

    6. Pair it with unexpected sides. Tanner leans toward sauteed veggies like asparagus or kale, roasted or au gratin potatoes, and leafy salads with pomegranate or other citrus to offset the savory flavors. “I also make sourdough rolls,” she says. “I keep a starter named Padma in my fridge. We have fresh bread every week in my house.”

    Ready to make a ham like Mandy? See her recipe for Kurobuta Ham with Pomegranate-Orange Glaze.

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