Ever wondered what really goes into creating appetising and scrumptious images of food? I give South African Business Day TV a behind-the-scenes look into my world of food styling.
When I meet someone new and it comes up that I’m a food stylist, I’m often met with intrigued looks, and a little confusion. Many people have an idea of what food styling is about, but aren’t sure what it entails exactly.
The line between my everyday and work life is blurred – I feel so lucky to spend my days doing things that I love – which mostly don’t feel like work. Because of this, I get very excited talking about what I do, and love answering people’s questions about what it means to be a food stylist. These are the 3 questions that I’m asked most:
1. How did I become a food stylist?
Like most career paths, it was a journey. I graduated from the University of Cape Town with a social science degree in philosophy and politics and I couldn’t see myself working in the areas I had studied. I loved food, creating and beautiful things and felt drawn to a creative career.
I enrolled at Silwood School of Cookery in Cape Town, South Africa and instantly found my place in the world! It felt so inspiring to be doing something that I loved, and felt I was really good at. I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to be in restaurant kitchens forever, and had ambitions of being a food stylist or product developer. My favourite part about cooking was presenting my food, so in a way it felt like food styling found me.
Part of my studies were spent in restaurant and product development kitchens, and after graduating I became a full time freelance food assistant. I assisted some of Cape Town’s best food stylists for a few years – they were so generous with sharing their knowledge and it was incredible experience being an assistant on such a wide variety of shoots.
After my years of assisting, I built up a portfolio as a food stylist in Cape Town, and was then offered the job as food editor of Food & Home Magazine. I moved to Johannesburg and felt so inspired by the excitement of moving and the opportunity to work on a food magazine, full time. I spent my days styling food, conceptualising shoots, developing, testing and editing recipes and representing the magazine at functions. After 3 years as food editor, I decided to concentrate my experience and focus entirely on my food styling business. If you'd like to know more about my food styling service, you can head here.
2. Who makes the food I style?
Usually, I make the food and if not, I oversee the making of it. Often I need extra hands in the kitchen, so I work with talented food assistants. Being a proffessionally trained chef, I am very comfy in the kitchen, and love to be hands-on for shoots.
Having a solid understanding of food, cooking and ingredients is essential to making food behave as required for shoots. If something isn’t working, I call on my experience to help fix it – cooking and styling food often involves quick problem solving to make a dish look beautiful.
3. Do I use fake food?
Generally, no. The best part of shoots is sitting down at a bountiful lunch table and eating the food that has been shot!
My understanding is that in the 60s, 70s and 80s food stylists often used fake food – it was all about perfection back then. The trend in food styling now is beautiful, natural, imperfect food that makes consumers feel like they could have made it themselves.
Every now and then, I’ll whip up fake ice cream for a shoot, or may use a few sneaky tricks on food that is difficult to style. But generally, the food I style is all real and edible, aside from times when it has either been out of the fridge for too long under hot studio lights, or had my fingers all over it.
I recently saw this short YouTube video, and on the topic of fake food, I couldn't not share it!
If you have any questions for me about your next food shoot, I'd love you to be in touch. You can find my contact details here.
The truth is, we all create recipes, all the time! Whether you love to cook, or you simply cook to survive, you’ve made a recipe at some point. Think about your morning smoothie, favourite weeknight dinner, go-to braai side or special bake that you’ve tweaked to perfection over the years. You may not have written the recipe down, but it’s in your mind, ready to be called on when craving or necessity strike.
Developing recipes as a profession is essentially the same process, just followed with more structure, and undertaken in larger volumes (sometimes, for me, around 30 new recipes a month).
The first part of developing recipes is finding inspiration. Inspiration comes in all forms – a craving, an interesting new ingredient, colourful fresh produce, a restaurant meal or menu, a travel experience, a beautiful recipe book, magazine or Pinterest image and other times ideas simply pop into your head.
Often there’s no shortage of thoughts and it feels sad to exclude some, but other times ideas are really hard to come by. I’ve found a lack of creativity is a symptom of doing too much and luckily ideas usually return after a little down-time. There are ways to recharge the creative batteries when inspiration runs dry – taking a break from cooking, social media and looking at other people’s work; time in nature and eating beautiful food that someone else has lovingly prepared are things that help to reignite my creativity.
Creating an original recipe
This is the magic part! By this point I’ve narrowed down my ideas, done some research if the technique is new to me, shopped for ingredients and have a basic recipe formula and image of the final dish in my mind. The next step, essentially, is making the dish while writing down everything I do. It’s subconscious now, but throughout this process I call on my experience and professional culinary training to guide me.
When the recipe I had in mind just doesn’t work out in the kitchen?
This is sometimes a reality – a wonderful idea that just doesn’t work out in practice. Perhaps the recipe needs tweaking through a few rounds of testing, or it’s just never going to work and it’s time to abandon it. It’s important to realise this before putting too much energy into an idea that’s never going to have it. And it’s totally okay to retire a dish that is never going to be incredible.
Putting a recipe into words
This is the sciency part – writing a recipe that anyone can create in their home kitchen. The steps need to be clear, concise, follow general recipe-writing convention, be stylistically correct and technically accurate.
There’s a lot of double-checking during this process. Anytime I think I don’t need to re-check things, I remind myself of a few mistakes I made in my early recipe-writing days. One, in particular, still haunts me: a lamb curry to serve 4 people with 50g of salt. Yup. It was a simple typo that would render an otherwise delicious meal sea-saltily inedible, AND was brought to my attention by a lady who had made the dish to impress her parents-in-law. Eek.
The real magic?
I love that through sharing my knowledge, I can help cooks discover, or rediscover, the warmth and happiness home-cooked food brings. When someone makes one of my recipes and receives delighted oohs and ahhs from their loved ones – this is all the inspiration I need to keep pouring imaginativeness into the recipes I write.
You know you need a food photographer, but will you need a food stylist too? I’m often asked what, exactly, a food stylist does – and the answer is not just make food look beautiful for camera. This is the ultimate goal, but in getting to the final image, there’s lots of behind-the-scenes organisation. I’ve found the secret to great shoots is meticulous planning beforehand, and then allowing creativity to take over on the day. The process of planning a shoot can be daunting, but it shouldn’t be. Here's why working with a food stylist makes for smooth sailing before and during a shoot:
1. YOU'LL BE WORKING WITH A PROFESSIONAL WHO CAN HELP REFINE YOUR IDEAS
Maybe you know exactly what you want your foodie pics to look like, but it’s also possible that you’re drowning in a sea of uncertainty. The options are endless, and sometimes the task of simply deciding on the look and feel of a shoot is terrifying. By choosing to work with a stylist, you’ll have an expert on your side, available right from the beginning to help refine your creative ideas, put references together and turn your ideas into beautiful, original images.
2. YOU'LL HAVE SOMEONE TO ADVISE ON THE STEPS NEEDED TO ACHIEVE YOUR FINAL IMAGES
Once you know exactly what you want, you’re going to need an expert who’s experienced in turning ideas into action. From the logistics of where to shoot, how long it will take all the way through to cooking mouth-watering dishes, a stylist will be able to guide you. Wondering how a certain look was achieved? A food stylist applies insider tips to turn your inspiration into original images unique to your brand.
3. PROP, BACKGROUND AND INGREDIENT SOURCING WILL BE TAKEN OFF YOUR HANDS
You’re juggling a million things, and you definitely don’t have time to be running around, sourcing plates/bowls/vintage scales, buying unusual ingredients and creating backgrounds. This is a large part of preparation for shoots, and something you’ll be glad to have taken off your hands.
4. COOKING AND HANDLING OF FOOD BEFORE AND DURING SHOOTS WILL BE TAKEN CARE OF
If your shoot requires any cooking, baking or recipe development, a good stylist will be able to take care of everything to do with food – from buying ingredients, storing them before the shoot to cooking and handling them on the day. Further than this, a stylist is skilled in preparing food for camera – a very different task from home or restaurant cooking.
5. THERE'LL BE MINIMAL INDECISION ON SET
On the day, you’ll be able to sit back while the photographer and food stylist get to work making gorgeous pictures for your brand. When working with an experienced team, decisions are made quickly and easily. Even if it’s a very difficult shot to get, you’ll have a team on your side that is able to make a plan calmly, and ensure that you get exactly what you need out of your shoot.
I'm an experienced food stylist based in Johannesburg, South Africa and I'd love to chat about making your next food shoot a stress-free experience. You can get in touch with me here.