Food Stylist Interview
How did you become interested into food styling?
I was studying Graphic Design in California when I met my husband and we moved to Idaho where I introduced myself to several photographers. I had done propping and make-up in the past in Ca and was interested in continuing. One photographer said they really needed a food stylist in town because there were so many food industries and companies here, that they had to fly stylists in from other states. I caught the bug (since cooking was another passion of mine) and went to the Culinary Arts and Services in Chicago, and have been busy ever since. It has been 21 years now. It took me a while to build a clientele and build their trust in me and get larger accounts, but the photographers were really helpful and I kept at it and got better and better. There is definitely a client /stylist relationship that you develop and they really rely on you.
What type of education, if any, did you obtain to become a food stylist?
Having an art background some graphic design training really paid off. You work every day with Advertising Agencies and with their graphic designers, so it is helpful to understand their needs. It also helps with the design end of the business; after all, you are creating an artistic “still life” out of food every day and often are responsible for building sets too. You have to have a good sense of design when plating the food as well. Then of course you have to have great culinary skills. Food stylists often are Home Economists. Food styling became popular as food advertising grew, and they were hired to take the pressure off photographers and be in charge of the food being photographed. But having the eye for design is critical so the industry expanded into hiring people with culinary and design background.
Do you believe having a background of culinary arts is important?
Essential. You have to have an understanding of food and be proficient in the kitchen. My knowledge in the kitchen and knowing how food performs and how it needs to be prepared has been invaluable to my clients, as well as in teaching culinary classes. In addition to knowing how the food needs to be prepared you need to understand reading a recipe, and even re-writing the recipes for the restaurants or consumers if necessary making it more user friendly and clear. Being skilled and knowledgeable in proper food selection, (often ordering what you need from several sources in advance) and knowing how to select produce, fish, meats or anything the shoot may require you to get is key, as all the cooking is done in the studio kitchens. If I am on location, I take a portable makeshift kitchen with me. Many times you are testing and preparing food in advance so any unforeseen problems are solved well in advance of the shoot so things go smoothly. If you have a client that wants a delicious steak or roast cooked to perfection that is cut open, there can be no guessing. Knowing the science of food is imperative. Client’s value that you can develop recipes if necessary, and will often hire you to do that as well as food styling.
If you do find culinary arts to be important, what type of background would you recommend?
There are several culinary schools that are good, without having to pay thousands of dollars. I attended Culinary Arts and Services in Chicago, (I think they go by a different name now), but they had a course highlighting food styling, so that was attractive to me. You can also take several food styling courses around the country. I also attended one in San Francisco (Tante Marie). But, there is not a better school than on the job every day, and bi-annually, there is “Food on Film” that is fabulous. It is a convention for food professionals, mainly food stylist from all over the world. (Check it out on-line) It is held it in Boston now. They bring in a variety of professionals from photographers, chefs, specialist from the beef council, dairy, chocolate, food scientists etc to keep you up to date on current trends and the style of “food”. What chefs and farms are doing strongly affects what translates on film for the restaurants and the marketing down to the consumer. For example, years ago chefs were growing fresh produce on site for their restaurants, which began a huge trend in “farm to table” look on camera. Also, years ago there were lots of colored plates used, and then it went to clean, white and simple to really showcase the food, now the colored plates are coming back into play.
In your opinion, what are basic skills a person should have to become a food stylist?
You have to think on your feet, constantly solve problems that arise and find a solution, (the sauce is too runny, how can you make the pancake syrup pour more slowly, how to you keep the ice cream from melting etc) you have to be incredibly organized and ready for any possible scenario. You often have an art director, the client, in addition to account representative and photographers all getting paid to be there so you cannot waste their time. They are counting on you to keep things flowing smoothly. Yes, there is a lot of pressure! (Partly why we get paid well.) Your job is to make them and the product look good. You also have to take really good care of yourself, stay in good shape. Long days on your feet and hard work to often get several intense shots done in a day can be the norm, day after day. It takes its toll on you (assistants are a blessing). On some shoots you work all day long just on one shot. Commercials can take up to 14 hours a day or until you complete it! Being professional, being on time and having a good sense of humor is paramount.
How important is communication throughout your profession?
Also critical. We often have pre-production meetings before a photo shoot or commercial shoot. Each shoot has different guidelines and goals in mind. It might be for the internet, or cookbook or package design. The better I understand their needs and ask the right questions, they are confident in me that the job is in good hands. I am responsible for having all the ducks in a row and props needed there and ready not to mention the food. In bigger cities, there is a separate prop stylist, but I love doing both, especially since I know how the food is ultimately going to look, I know what plate or dish is going to best enhance the dish. I am always looking for backgrounds and props. Plus I get paid to shop!
I have read that to become a food stylist really it is important to build up cliental, how did you begin building yours?
Building a trustworthy and compatible relationship with the photographers. Their clients often ask him who he would recommend. We are invaluable to photographers; if you know what you are doing, you make them look great. A bad photographer can even make your great food look bad if he doesn’t know what he is doing, so it works both ways. Taking direction well is important too. I have heard many of my clients where we have used two stylist complain they would never use a stylist again because they do not follow direction. I also did a lot of propping on shoots to get to know clients better too. One day a stylists wasn’t available and it was a golden opportunity. I did a great job and they have been using me ever since. Building trust with ad agencies is so important also as they often will hire you and the photographer. You are only as good as your last job.
When you first began, did you ever assist another food stylist?
Once in a while.
Many assistants become stylists; it is perfect because the assistant also gets to know the clients and to see day to day what goes on and all the tricks. I have had assistants that now work on their own and doing very well.
If you don’t mind answering, how much money do you make annually?
It varies. Before the economy tanked (which it is now picking up again) I was averaging between 50,000 -80,000 a year. Before taxes!
Describe an average business day.
There is always shopping and propping and food prep days before the shoot happens, getting last minute perishables the morning of so it’s fresh. Sometimes I request special produce to be picked up or a special cut of meat from the butcher, (the grocery stores get to know me pretty well). Studios usually have a huge prop room full of plates and linens etc, but we always have a need for something different, new backgrounds new dishes, linens etc. Getting all the props you will may need set up in advance saves time and helps the client feel you have done your homework and they love having several options to look at and select. We gather as a team to have a quick meeting in the morning to see what to tackle first and to understand and prioritize the list… and we are off and running. I instruct my assistant and keep the photographers informed of what’s coming up next. It’s important to work together and do all “overhead” shots back to back etc so we aren’t losing time moving the camera back and forth. Most days I don’t have time to go to the bathroom we are so busy, juggling the propping, preparation of the food, or styling it on the set which takes the longest. On an average day we can get three, maybe four fully propped beauty shots done. We order in lunch, or even work through lunch eating as we work because of a shot quota we are trying to get accomplished.
What types of tools do you use while setting up?
Food styling tools I use every day are tweezers, q-tips, small spoons, eye droppers, small brushes, heating elements to melt cheese, torch for browning foods, another heat element to sear grill marks on meat, pins, glue, skewers, and air can or fan brushes for crumbs and dust on the plate or set. I have a large tool kit with tons of other items for specialty challenges, but these are the most used each day. I might add that we do NOT use fake food. It is a common asked question and misleading. We do however, use acrylic ice cubes because they do not melt on camera. If the product is ice-cream it HAS to be the real thing per the truth in advertising law, we can use fake ice cream ( a mixture of corn syrup and shortening and powder sugar to set up) or we can use a substitute if the product is a piece of pie. Whatever we are selling has to be the real thing. Cereal often uses white glue or a hair tonic for the milk so the cereal does not get soggy, we can do that because we are not selling milk, but cereal.
Are there any suggestions or helpful hints you would like to recommend?
Check out several stylists and photographers on the internet. Everyone has their style, and everyone needs to develop their own. Observe good photography and …bad. What makes it good and makes you want to eat it? Pay attention to details, is it believable, natural or too fussy or staged. I am always looking at food magazines and publications. Donna Hay is my favorite and after all theses years I am inspired with something new in her publications. So much is just paying attention to detail. It is amazing what a process it is before the product ever even hits your table. The grower, the developer, the food scientist, the marketer, the designer, the ad agency, the photographer … food stylist etc etc. Read up as much as you can about food and food styling. Understanding what challenges the photographers face and how they solve lighting challenges etc is helpful, you are after all a team and need to work together for the best result.
Also, think about how many food stylists are employed on movie sets…like Julie & Julia, etc. Food styling for commercials is tough because it moves so fast then goes so slow. You also have to have several plates of spaghetti or salad to go on set, one after the other for take after take.
In your opinion, what is the goal of food styling?
To make the food look delicious, appealing and authentic. To work with the client to achieve the goal desired.