Playing with my food

May 18, 2007 on 7:58 pm | By | In Food Styling | 2 Comments

Shrimp projectEver wonder why your culinary creation doesn’t come out like the photo in the food magazine? Well, could be because you didn’t use Kitchen Bouquet, Vaseline, Elmer’s Glue or an assortment of skewers, toothpicks, cotton balls and other items to prop up the food.

Welcome to the world of professional food styling.

Of course, not every food photo you see is highly manipulated. With the proliferation of food blogs, much of what you see is real, unadulterated food. I would guess even food magazines and cookbooks rely mostly on “real” food, although I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the food is meticulously primped to show it in its most food porn-ready pose.

But think about the ads you see in print and on television. In order to get the food to behave for long periods of time under hot studio lights — and maintain its perceived yumminess — there’s no way around a bit (or a lot) of manipulation. Just check out this site for a look at ads vs. reality in the fast food business. However, due to “truth in advertising” laws, if you’re selling a particular food item, then the ads HAVE to feature the real deal. For example, the current Häagen-Dazs ads (which are spectacular), MUST feature real ice cream. However, it’s likely those perfect scoops took quarts upon quarts of ice cream and hours upon hours to produce.

So why all this interest in food styling? A couple of years ago I thought I should have a back-up plan for when my body decides it can no longer schlep equipment from client kitchen to client kitchen. So I started to look into the world of food styling (although now I know more about it, I realize if I ever were to pursue the career, my schlepping days would not only NOT be over, they’d be intensified). So when I heard about the Food Styling 101 workshop from Food Fanatics, I jumped at the chance. Besides, it was an opportunity to meet Denise Vivaldo, whose book, “How to Start a Home-based Catering Business,” is a dog-eared, oft-used reference in my culinary library. (And if you’re considering a career as a personal chef, I highly recommend her subsequent book, “How to Start a Home-Based Personal Chef Business” featuring interviews with several personal chefs, including yours truly).

The photo you see in the top of this post was my team project last summer. Not only were the chives meticulously placed, I stuffed the interior of the mold with cotton balls (I thought they’d hold up better than using the actual salad). Vaseline kept the layer of shrimp together, and the shrimp at top was propped up with a toothpick. Each piece of corn and bell pepper was carefully placed (we even toasted some corn separately to give it a roasted feel). Although I think it’s a beautiful picture, it’s a bit more staged than what I like. If I were serving this at a dinner party it would be a bit more rustic. But for a promotional piece, it works.

This past weekend I attended Food Fanatics’ master food styling class where we learned advanced techniques such as preparing picture-perfect chickens, steaks, salads, sandwiches and desserts (including ice cream). Denise and her business partner, Cindie Flannigan, not only possess a wealth of information, they are extremely entertaining. They’ve worked with some very high-profile clients (they’ll even dish some dirt after a glass of wine), and being in the heart of Hollywood, they’re often called for television and film projects.

Our first project was the chicken. Each student got their own; after removing the giblets and neck from the cavity we filled it with paper towels so that it would appear plump after cooking. Extra flaps of skin were saved in case we had to fix a tear (I specifically picked a chicken with a tear to practice that skill). We baked the chickens for just 10 minutes until the skin appeared taut; we then sprayed them with a combination of Kitchen Bouquet and yellow food coloring to create an appealing roasted color. A few shakes of paprika and pepper later and the chicken looked good enough to eat (I don’t have the pictures from the session, but hope to soon). The hardest thing for me was having to throw out 12 chickens at the end of the day. But considering they were still raw inside and had been manhandled all day, there was no other choice.

Cindie then demonstrated grilled steak. The steak is placed on a preheated grill pan just long enough for grill marks to appear. Typically just one set of marks are set; if you try for a diamond pattern then the steak could become too over-cooked for film. However, if you’re determined to have the diamond pattern, you could use an electric charcoal starter wand to create it manually. If the marks aren’t brown enough to your liking, simply touch them up with a bit of Kitchen Bouquet. You’d then use a butane blow torch to brown the sides of the steak.

Our next project was a choice of a sandwich or burger. Sandwiches are actually more challenging, so that’s what I chose. My creation was a triple decker with two kinds of meat, cheese, leafy green lettuce, tomatoes and onions with sliced pickles and potato chips on the side. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Nothing could be further from the truth. You goal is to make it look like everything was randomly placed, while stressing the yum factor. Condiments are particularly problematic; I tried squirting on some yellow mustard but decided it looked best sans mustard.

Chocolate cakeThe next day my patience was truly tried as we tackled desserts. Again we were given a choice: chocolate cake or cherry pie using store-bought ingredients. I chose the cake but decided to make it more challenging my turning it into a 2-layer cake with a walnut edge (the picture is a quick one I took with my Lumix; hopefully I’ll be able to post the one taken by the professional!)Â My frustration grew as I tried to fill in the holes in the cake by mixing crumbs with Vaseline. Plus the frosting didn’t behave as it should. But persistence paid off and I finally got a piece that looked good, albeit from just one angle (I used various cake odds & ends to prop up the other side).

The salad was another surprisingly difficult task. Once again I was striving for a planned yet random look. Wadded up damp paper towels were the first things in the bowl; I then meticulously chose each leaf for color, texture and shape. Next I carefully placed in tomato halves, cucumber slices, chunks of green onion and carrot shreds. Since dressing would weigh everything down I just sprayed on some Evian to make it all look incredibly fresh.

Ice CreamI next tried my hand at fake ice cream. Once again, if I were doing an ad for an ice cream manufacturer, I’d have to use the real stuff. But if I were just doing a photo with an ice cream dessert, the fake stuff is the way to go. Food Fanatics’ “recipe” for basic ice cream is 1 pound of powdered sugar mixed with 1 cup of shortening with corn starch as needed. Simply mix in food coloring for the appropriate coloring (or even chocolate and fruit bits). By heating up an ice cream scoop briefly you can scoop up an incredibly authentic-looking scoop (that will last HOURS under hot lights).

While the class was incredibly informative and enlightening, I’m not sure a food styling career is on my horizon (if I were truly serious, I’d probably move to L.A. or New York where the market is much hotter). But it definitely gave me ideas for how to present my own food. Of course, the key to terrific food photography is in the lighting, something my darling is expert at (and which he is attempting to teach me).

The other bonus of attending the class was meeting fellow food bloggers Lara of Cook and Eat and Jennifer of Fer Food (both of whom feature incredible food photography on their sites).


  1. I remember (in my past life working in food PR) discovering “food styling”…and thought to myself “they get paid for that?!” It’s an art form to say the least. Great post.

    Comment by Culinary Cowgirl — May 20, 2007 #

  2. And I actually thought about going into food PR! I was in high tech PR for 12 years and got SOOOO bored with it (it was pretty geeky stuff), so when I was considering a career change I thought food PR might be the way to go. But then I decided to go into an entirely different direction! (I don’t miss PR one bit).

    Comment by ovens2betsy — May 20, 2007 #

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