Becoming a Food Stylist

Both a cook and an artist, a Food Stylist is a professional that with technique and style manages to transform an ingredient, a dish or a recipe into a model to be photographed or filmed.

But it’s not just about making the food beautiful, you need to be able to allure all the senses, especially the taste buds. Food Styling went from being a niche industry, for very specific assignments, to the driving force of sites like Instagram and Pinterest, and it is constantly growing.

While most people prepare food to eat, the food stylist prepares food to feed the eyes and the imagination” -Delores Custer

Each image has its own story that must be “eaten with your eyes first” and must “make a good impression”. That’s where the photographer with the food stylist meet these needs for publishing, advertising, etc. The goal is to flare up the imagination of the readers or consumers!

If food photography is considered the star, food styling is the behind the scenes co-star that makes all the difference. Backstage there is a team at work made of a photographer, food stylist, prop stylist (who takes care of the props and …), editor, art director and client.

Behind every image of food there is a food stylist at work who evaluates, plans and perfects every detail. It is a team work where, to be effective and efficient, you need careful planning, clear communication, careful spending on both food and props, competence in preparations, (yes, food stylists cook), and a creative sense for presentation.

Vegan Chocolate Cake - Becoming a Food Stylist: Career Insights - Photo Rosangela Giannoccaro - Food Styling Orsola Ciriello Kogan - Recipe Simona Scarone

Photo sessions can take hours and the food to be filmed must always be fresh and appetizing, at least the appearance, no matter how long it’s been on the set.

“I cook, make adjustments, plate the food, and put it on set…” -Katie Farmand (on what an average day looks like)

A Food Stylist Skill Set

A food stylist can work:

  1. on cookbooks;
  2. online and offline communication, (magazines, newspapers, catalogs, etc.);
  3. in advertising;
  4. for television and cinema; and
  5. in the food industry – (recipes development and writing, demonstrations, gastronomic presentations, etc.).

An intriguing and somehow glamorous title, the food stylist is a versatile professional who, depending on the budget, may have to do everything by herself: shopping, transport, various preparations, cooking and plating, and washing the dishes if need be.

What a successful food stylist does is help produce a photo that sells a dream, brand, product, plate, lifestyle, chef, or restaurant. We style everything connected to food.” -Denise Vivaldo

A food stylist must be:

  • professional, creative and have good taste.
  • Well organized: who, what, when, where and in which order things shall be done.
  • Good baker and cook: it’s very important to have competence and skills in the culinary arts.
  • Very good buyer: starting with high quality ingredients always produce excellent results. Nothing can spoil the image faster than a bruised or unripe fruit, or a wilted salad.
  • Practic of mise-en-place: (pronounced “me-zohn plahs”), means prepping and setting up, using whatever is indispensable for the service (before and after cooking). Just in case you’re also doubling as prop stylist.
  • Problem solver: when food doesn’t “behave” as it should, you need to know how to spot the problem and control it. (It could mean cooking the same food over and over again).
  • Beware of waste: more often than not the food stylist will have to select a lot of food for the perfect dish; choosing the best raw materials is essential.
  • Skilled team player: someone who knows when to give directions with confidence and when to take orders with poise.
  • Able to deal with stressful situations and used to working in contexts where more than one person might want to have their say.

Stand-in and Hero: what are they?

Stand-in and Hero are the “substitute” (a very close representation of the final dish), and the “final plate” for the set. When prepping the scene, the stand-in is used. It could be a dish with ingredients that imitate the hero; anything that allows the photographer to work on the angle and lighting and the prop stylist to set the scene.

A food stylist’s job is to help create the kind of irresistible images that make you want to lick the page they’re printed on.” -Sarah Lienard

The techniques that a food stylist uses can improve, force or exaggerate the appearance of a dish. Everyone has the right to their own opinion but, if the customer has particular and precise requests, the food stylist is there to satisfy them.

Preparation, mood and style of an assignment are determined by the client’s needs.

  1. For advertising: the ideal “product” must be promoted. The appearance is more controlled and precise and, more often than not, there are lots of food styling hacks
  2. For the editorials: everyone has a style characteristic of that particular audience; we talk about magazines, newspapers and cookbooks. Usually it must appear natural, feasible and not very elaborate. Something readers can relate to.
    • If the assignment involves showing food to those who cook daily for their family, the presentation and props must have a realistic appearance for that audience.
    • While, if you are producing images for professionals, the style will require a more advertising flair.
  3. The advertorial is promotional content edited like an editorial.

About Prop Styling

Prop styling is about everything but the food, relating to art and craft: objects, artifacts and tools that set the atmosphere of a scene, playing an integral part of the communication of the final image. They deserve careful consideration and selection: we are talking about plates, bowls, glasses, cups, cutlery, vases, tables, fabrics, backgrounds and surfaces… just to name a few.

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Courses and qualifications

Whether you are a freelancer or work for a publishing house or production studio, you need to invest in your education.

There isn’t a dedicated course of study: you need to be good at both baking and cooking, and have a creative mind. Not all food stylists are skilled chefs, but successful ones have a solid foundation in the culinary arts with qualifications from reputed cooking schools.

Working as a food stylist you have to know how to cook everything from pastry and a three-layer cake to a joint of meat. -Jennifer Joyce

However, it is essential to take cooking classes to learn:

  • basic techniques (prepping and cooking),
  • knowledge of raw materials and,
  • how to plate and present a dish.

The mission is to try products and recipes until you understand how and why they “work” and until a final version is reached. And then you have to practice cooking, again and again: believe me, you never stop learning.

The food styling is a very competitive field, you need to roll up your sleeves, have patience and not to be in a hurry. Ideally, start by assisting professionals who can guide you in the first steps.

How do you charge?

A food stylist is a freelance who collaborates with agencies or directly with the client. Abroad there are also in-house food stylists (part of the team of a food company) but, for what I know, it’s rare.

It pays per gig. The rate varies depending on the job, experience and reputation. Is it for print or advertising? Is it for commercials or the Web? The rates vary anywhere from € 250 per day to € 1,000 or more.

Every time companies need food to look appealing in any kind of medium, there is a food stylist behind the scenes cooking it” (Kenya McCallum)

Props - Becoming a Food Stylist: Career Insights - Photo Rosangela Giannoccaro - Food Styling Orsola Ciriello Kogan - Recipe Simona Scarone

It is difficult to say how much you can earn, there are no specific references; sometime the financial set right away, sometime it takes time.

Here are some important points to establish the cost of work related to food styling. The first thing you do is collect all the information pertinent to the project, and create an action plan.

  • Who is the customer?
  • Is the work for photography or video?
  • Are there any recipes, drafts, layouts or storyboards available?
  • How many days for prepping and shooting?
  • Will an assistant be needed?
  • Is there a need to test the product and / or the recipes?

The standard rate may includes:

  • preparation and shooting times;
  • the assistant. Variable rates apply, (experience ~ type of job).
  • Expense related to shopping.
    • For an editorial, you may purchase at least the double of the quantity required by the recipe.
    • For a commercial, could be up to fifty times (the hero), because someone will cut or bite-into-it at each shot.
    • For a cookbook you agree with the author.
  • Transportation costs (taxi, rental, plane).
  • Special Equipment: you may need to rent a fryer, a freezer or a professional slicer.
  • Props, (if you provide them): time for shopping and return. Borrowed on credit or rented?
  • Additional expenses may include travel days, single-use product kits, testing or rehearsal times, and / or attend pre-production meetings.

It’s still a little bit of a roller coaster. I didn’t have any problems right off the bat, but there will still be that week where you’re not booked and you’re like, ‹‹What am I going to do?››” -Heather Meldrom

When to hire a Food Stylist

The food stylist is generally contacted by photographers for print jobs, and by production companies for videos. Experience in the specifics of that give industry and a portfolio ad hoc makes the difference to get the job (from magazines, advertising or marketing agencies, food companies).

Food must look as beautiful as possible but the makeup, if any, shouldn’t be noticed.

The work must be subtle and, if possible, it’s always better to use natural ingredients. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.

Battemberg Cake - Becoming a Food Stylist Career Insights - Recipe and Styling Orsola Ciriello Kogan - Photo Lucia Zeccara

But is the food edible? Yes and no, it depends for what it’s made for. In any case, who wants to taste something that has been sitting on set for hours, touched, moved, handled and cold? The plate photographed is the hero of a scene, just like the props.

What’s in the toolbox of a food stylist?

Among the “secret” ingredients of a food stylist’s toolbox there are concentrated liquid broth for browning, instant mashed potatoes for filling, and glycerin for polishing.

“A stylist can solve just about any problem with a little Vaseline, some duct tape, a bamboo skewer, and a cotton ball.” -Denise Vivaldo

Among the essential tools there are: brushes of all sizes, cotton buds, tweezers of all kinds, spatulas, squeezable bottles for condiments, fake ice cubes, grater, kitchen torch, toothpick, pins, skewers, scissors, cutters, pipettes, droppers, syringes, kitchen tools, absorbent paper towels, mist spray bottle, q-tips, rubbing alcohol, medicine dropper, heat gun…

If recipe testing, you have to consider as many variations as possible, try the most promising one and possibly taste it. If there are errors, inaccuracies or anything else, you are the one to detect them so the reader doesn’t.

Whether you’re implement food styling techniques to your blog or a paying client, the images need to be done right; pictures make the difference in effectively selling whatever you offer: a recipe, a product, a story, a lifestyle, etc.

“Sometimes mistakes are necessary, essential like the bread, and often also beautiful: for example the tower of Pisa” -Gianni Rodari

Food Styling is a very engaging activity. Every assignment is never the same and there is always something new to learn; you ought to be open-minded and face every situation without prejudice. And, if you are a gourmet and love to cook, do not fear the daily challenges and treasure unusual experiences, then this job is for you!

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