Food Stylists Blend Technical Skill, Creativity for the Camera

November 11, 2009

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food stylists

When a local lifestyle magazine asked Chef Joseph Eyad to style the cuisine being photographed for the publication’s articles, he decided it was a perfect chance to teach students how to professionally play with food.

Eyad is Academic Director of Culinary Arts at The Art Institute of California – Inland Empire, and says the hands-on volunteer experience at Inland Empire Magazine gave students a close-up shot of exactly what it takes to be a food stylist. This growing profession focuses on preparing food so it’s photo-ready for cookbooks, magazines, print and TV advertising, menus, movies, and TV shows.

Food stylists with a culinary background are especially in demand because they’re trained to construct food in the most presentable way possible, according to Eyad.

“It’s like a model being photographed,” Eyad says. “It’s how you capture the food. They look for good plate construction, lots of different colors, clean plating, and definitely not messy.”

Keeping the sauce where it belongs and perfecting the height and space surrounding the provisions on a plate are the technical skills a culinary student learns before embarking on a food styling assignment, Eyad says.

But creativity is an essential element in a food styling career as well. For example, he says, food stylists will use the construction of a Napoleon pastry as inspiration to create and plate a savory dish like fish.

“They have to think outside the box when they’re plating,” Eyad says. “They take ideas from other chefs and how things were plated in the past, and try to set a new bar for plating and plate construction.”

Noting a recent increase in food styling jobs available, Eyad says the niche industry gives culinary graduates one more career choice, especially for those burned out on excessive cooking or traveling.

Lissa Levy, a 2006 Culinary Arts graduate of The Illinois Institute of Art – Chicago, is making the transition from her role as a food styling assistant to a lead food stylist. Working on photo shoots for product packaging and fast-food companies, Levy says her career choice is more like sculpture and artistry than cooking.

“I love that I go to work and I stick my hand in a bowl of mashed potatoes, or I file the burrs off a cracker,” Levy says. “As I’m sitting there I get this very existential feeling that what I’m doing is so absurd and yet so satisfying.”

Mashed potatoes? It’s just one in a shopping cart full of food stylist tricks. Levy uses the starchy spuds as a foundation in a bowl of cereal. Other food stylists use Elmer’s glue to keep cereal from turning to mush under hot lights. A lifelike substitute for ice cream is a mixture of Crisco shortening and powdered sugar, says Atlanta-based food stylist Maureen Allaben.

Allaben, owner of styling agency Creative Avenues, has learned her share of techniques during 20 years of professional work. Recently, she heard about microwaving a wet cotton ball and placing it behind a mug of coffee to depict steam.

The food stylist’s magic tricks face regulation from the Federal Trade Commission and its truth in advertising laws. That Crisco-powdered sugar mix can substitute for ice cream if it’s representing a generic dessert on a menu, Allaben says, but not if it’s hawking a brand name like Ben & Jerry’s. The regulations began in the late 1960s when creative types working for the Campbell Soup Co. put marbles in the bottom of a bowl to make vegetables sit near the surface, according to Allaben. When consumers made the soup at home and discovered the ingredients sinking to the bottom, she says, they complained that the company was portraying more vegetables than were actually in the can.

Crisco-slash-powdered sugar still stands as the most time-tested trick of all. The concoction will stay camera-beautiful forever, Allaben says, while real ice cream starts to change in about 40 seconds.

“If you had a chef, it would taste fantastic and it would look OK,” Allaben says. “My food tastes terrible. It’s not edible but it looks fantastic.” 

One example of a food display that needed to be edible and beautiful is the Thanksgiving dinner that Allaben styled during the summer for the upcoming Sandra Bullock movie “The Blind Side.”

Allaben says that culinary school hasn’t always been the starting point for food styling careers. In the mid-1900s, the industry’s pioneers were home economists who worked in corporate test kitchens and understood the scientific basis for how food worked. But with the rise of photographic advertising and the decline of home economics as a politically correct major, she says, clients and studios turned to creative problem solvers with a background in art and photography. Allaben herself began her career as a photo assistant and photographer before realizing she enjoyed styling more.

Eyad attributes today’s pursuit of food stylists to the popularity of Food Network, which became a media leader in food demos and shows after its debut in 1993.

“The art of food construction and plating came from those chefs that had gone to school and learned how to plate, and kind of modified their technique in order for the camera to really capture the best picture,” says Eyad of The Art Institute of California – Inland Empire.

He adds that the Food Network shot commercials for The Art Institutes’ national culinary program at his school, and sent chefs who shared food styling techniques with his students.

Eyad’s personal advice to would-be food stylists is to perfect plating techniques while practicing photography to see how the camera captures food. It’s a viable career choice, he says, because the demand for food stylists with culinary training is only going to grow. Clients looking to compete in today’s economy will require skilled food stylists as a valuable resource.

“A lot of companies are looking to integrate food into marketing campaigns,” he says. “They’re looking at culinary professionals who have an eye, a knack for being able to present food in a way that will lure more customers.”

Author: Written by freelance talent for Ai InSite
Contributing writer for EDMC.

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