Soap in your drink, motor oil on pancakes? The tricks of Food Stylists
We’ve all heard of fashion stylists who create unique looks for people or hair stylists whose hair cutting abilities turn heads. But have you ever heard of a food stylist? If you haven’t, you have definitely seen their work. It’s actually everywhere - from that truck you saw last week zooming down the highway with a perfect looking burger and golden French fries on the side of it to that holiday spread in the magazine with its perfectly cooked turkey, fluffy mashed potatoes, and all the trimmings. Sure, some food is naturally photogenic but when it comes to advertisements, magazine spreads and food photography nothing is ever what it seems - thanks to food stylists.
Their job isn’t easy either. Food often doesn’t cooperate: it melts, if it’s too hot its steam can affect an image, it comes out of the oven or off the stove with imperfections. As a result, food stylists have to consider, shape, colour, texture and food compatibility to create art on a plate. Here are some of the most bizarre tricks food stylists use to get food ready for its close-up.
Take a Sip: That photo of a glass of pop, with condensation dripping down the side and glistening ice cubes, will make you want to grab a cold one whether you’re thirsty or not. But there’s likely some soap in that drink and those ice cubes are surely acrylic. The soap, in this case, is used to make the drink look bubbly and fun since real pop’s “sparkle” tends to fizzle out much quicker than it takes to complete a photo shoot. Real ice, meanwhile, would quickly melt under the hot lights of a shoot, so food stylists often work with artificial ice. You can spot the difference by closely inspecting the ice cubes: real ice looks white instead of clear. Oh, and that condensation? It’s just a mix of glycerin and water.
Arts and Crafts: When it comes to food styling, dye and paint move from canvas to food in a number of ways, all with one purpose: give food a better colour. That perfect golden brown look of meat, for example, is created by using wood stain and shoe polish rather than actually cooking it to perfection. Motor oil, meanwhile, replaces pancake syrup because it’s much easier to photograph (and pancakes often have cardboard layered between them to support perfect stacks). And white glue is for more than gluing stuff to cardboard for science projects, as it’s often substituted for milk in a bowl of cereal. Since it’s thicker, it prevents cereal from becoming too soggy.
Playing with Potatoes: Potatoes can be a food stylist’s go-to — and not just because of their fluffy texture. Sure, the fluff helps when you’re trying to make ice cream look its best (some stylists also use a combination of vegetable shortening, powdered sugar and corn syrup for ice cream) but mashed potatoes also make great stuffing. Do you know that full looking burrito from your favourite Mexican restaurant? It’s full alright—of mashed taters. Same goes for fajitas and tacos. No one will see what’s inside anyway, so why not, right?
At Centennial College’s Food Media program, students are learning all these tips and tricks of the trade in a program that brings together food and media. That means they develop the tools and skills necessary to advertise and market their own food product or service through a focus on the entrepreneurial use of personalized branding and marketing. Students not only go on to become food stylists but also food bloggers, food editors, food segment producers and more.
Written by Izabela Szydlo