Food Stylist: Playing with Food For Money

Julie Powell wrote a blog that was transformed into the Julie and Julia movie. This didn’t mean Julie was invited to write the script. That task fell to writer/director Nora Ephron. Similarly the author who writes the recipe is very rarely the cook who cooks it for the photographer. That often goes to a food stylist.

Styling food so that the camera “loves” it requires considerable skill: knowledge of foods, an eye for detail and infinite patience. As with movie making, several “takes” may be needed before the final shot becomes a keeper.

The task of the food stylist is to make the food look irresistible for the cameras—close up or far away. He or she works with photographers to produce ads for magazines, newspapers, and television commercials, and gorgeous-looking meals for Hollywood movies and in-store produce videos. Food stylists are also called in to prepare recipes for cookbook photography and “beauty shots” for television shows.

In this pursuit of perfection, a food stylist may have to slice several pounds of Swiss cheese in order to find one geometrically perfect slice. It is the stylist’s artistry in combination with the photographer’s skill that makes a professional photograph outstanding and arouses the desire of the consumer to get her hands on the food — immediately! She may roast four or more turkeys hoping the photographer will capture the bird while all the hot air beneath the skin is still puffing its “cheeks.” And the stylist is expected to create miracles when the photographer says “go”: to make a soufflé look like a castle in the air – and stop its collapse as it is taken from the oven.

Most importantly, food stylists can fib but they cannot lie. For instance, the only artifice that is permitted is in styling and photographing ice cream. Because it would melt under the hot lights, it is permitted to fabricate ice cream from Crisco, mashed potatoes and food coloring.

(Apparently this rule doesn’t seem to be in force in fast food joints where the real squishy, drippy burger looks nothing like the backlit beauty we see in the photograph!)

Getting Paid

Like photographers, stylists bill their clients by the day. In large cities, these day rates can be significant. Very often stylists and photographers team up to offer clients a complete package that includes the work of a prop (or background) stylist too. These alliances usually are casual partnerships that wax and wane as the job do.

Getting Started

No officially sanctioned licensing is required for becoming a food stylist but having a solid foundation of cooking is important, and a degree from a professional cooking school is invaluable. It is also helpful to keep current with the new technologies, attend art and photography classes. But perhaps the best way to break into the field is to intern with an established stylist to learn what it takes.

Learning From A Pro: Dolores Custer, Food Stylist Extraordinaire

A longtime and well-established food stylist, Dolores Custer’s work is widely admired. Her own experience speaks to the many opportunities that are available in the field. She has a master’s degree in food and nutrition, and she is recognized as the ultimate authority on making food look fabulous for the camera.

Custer has worked with food magazines, advertising agencies and public relations firms in addition to many of the largest companies in the United States. Her talents are in demand for television, feature films, and major food companies.

She says, “The best thing that a beginner can do is to assist good food stylists. Put together a portfolio of your work to promote yourself and apply for an intern or junior assistant position with an established professional.” That’s how she got her start.

“About three months before I graduated from NYUSteinhardt, we were told that a film crew wanted to rent the test kitchens to shoot some shots for the Lamb Council, and they needed someone to help the person who was preparing the food. I volunteered and met my first Food Stylist!

I had been unsure of what I wanted to do with my degree, but when I learned about this career (which I previously knew NOTHING about), I knew it was for me. I worked with three food stylists before I graduated, and when I did graduate, one of them asked me to come work with her full time. What a wonderful opportunity, I later discovered.”

Custer reveals that most stylists must pay their dues. “There is a lot to learn and the best way is to assist someone who is good at it.”

Custer also advises that it’s important to live where the work is and to develop an adaptable freelance personality. “One of the things I like best about the freelance world of food styling is that there are no typical days,” says Custer. “Each day is different from the next. We shoot in every conceivable environment and work with many different foods. One day we may prepare a picnic for a TV commercial and the next day we are spreading the client’s frosting on a single cupcake.“

Delores Custer always seems to be teaching somewhere, so it’s good to follow her teaching schedule online, and for the announcement of her forthcoming book that is sure to be a winner. And The Mississippi University for Women offers a one-week food styling program for college credit. There even is the International Conference on Food Styling and Photography that is devoted to the topic.

Some topics call for more than one posting, and this is one such topic. There is too much information to digest in one sitting. This is part one of a two-part discussion. I’ll be talking about food styling for food bloggers next.