The tricks and tips of food styling

Food stylist Brian Preston-Campbell carefully brushes sauce on to lamb chops about to be photographed for Departures magazine. (Photo: Tom Schierlitz)

Food stylist Brian Preston-Campbell carefully brushes sauce on to lamb chops to be photographed for Departures magazine. (Photo: Tom Schierlitz)

By JOEL MEARES

Food stylist Brian Preston-Campbell has some words of comfort for those struggling to get their Thanksgiving turkeys looking as plump and brown as the birds in their cookbooks. Those birds, he says, “are still fairly raw on the inside.”

The shiny brown birds that dominate magazines and books every fall are often the work of a food stylist’s paintbrush, one of the many tools Preston-Campbell carries with him in a metal briefcase to studios across New York. He also takes butter tweezers, a scalpel and a butane torch.

The trick with turkeys, he explains, is to roast it quickly at a high temperature. Then, brush the skin with a mix of water, soap and the supermarket-bought browning agent, Kitchen Bouquet. The bird might be Jell-O inside, but its outside is golden, moist and ready for its close-up.

Behind every great, stomach-teasing picture of food, there is a great food stylist and photographer. As models must be primped for the flashbulb, slabs of steak, gourmet cupcakes and martinis must be styled for food magazine pages, billboards and their own packaging. And just as with fashion, there are tricks to the trade.

“People eat with their eyes,” says Preston-Campbell, 38. “One of the first things they teach you at culinary school is that presentation is the first impression on someone when you’re preparing food for them.”

He started styling food a decade ago after 11 years working as a chef. His last kitchen job was as chef de cuisine at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in the Flatiron District, and he found the work grueling. “I had 18 employees and they were a pain in the arse,” he says.
The difference between presenting food to eat and food to be photographed is that “you need to think of how the camera will view the food,” he says.  An overhead shot is styled evenly, he explains, while a shot taken from 45 degrees above the dish, the angle at which most people view their food, will be less even.

On a trip through Chelsea Market, shopping for the ingredients for a chicken hash and lobster bisque he will be styling for the New York Times magazine, Preston-Campbell describes his job. “You’re more or less shopping for, preparing and cooking idealized food for the media, whether it be magazines, newspapers, TV shows, commercials, or anyone else who needs food in their production,” he says.

For a job like that the New York Times shoot, a stylist is booked for “shooting days” and “prep days.” The client sends through recipes and the stylist offers feedback. The stylist then shops for the food, stores it at home or the photographer’s studio – most food photographers have studios with large kitchens, tables and refrigerators – and cooks and presents the dishes to be photographed on the day of the shoot.
“I think what differentiates a food stylist from a prop stylist or a wardrobe person is that we don’t just go and buy the thing that’s being photographed,” he says.  “We have to buy the raw materials, prepare it properly and make sure that it looks good – usually with only one chance to get it right.”

What looks good in food styling is always changing.

Romulo Yanes, for the last 26 years the only staff photographer on the recently closed “Gourmet” magazine, says magazine food was styled in a “very commercial way” in the 1980s. “It was lit and styled to look in the past more plastic,” he says over the telephone from his home in Morristown, N.J.

Preston-Campbell describes the old look as “over stylized, as if everything’s placed exactly and you can tell there’s been five meetings for each carrot stick placed on the plate.”

In a nod to all things organic, local and slow, food is styled today to look unfussy and realistic. Preston-Campbell calls it “making it look accidental when it really isn’t accidental.”

Ingredients are laid out on Preston-Campbell's prep table. (Photo: Tom Schierlitz)

Ingredients are laid out on Preston-Campbell's prep table. (Photo: Tom Schierlitz)

Kirsty Melville, head publisher at cookbook publisher Andrews McMeel, says photographers are increasingly using natural light. A native of Melbourne, Australia, she says Down Under cookbook queen Donna Hay’s simple, natural photography is having an influence on current US styles. “It’s brighter, with strong colors, but still very natural,” she says.

Hay, in an email from her office in Sydney, says she strives to create food that the reader can easily reproduce. “The way we style at the magazine is straight from the kitchen to the plate,” she writes. “We’re not about reviving cold food for a shoot – we work fresh and fast and we don’t use tricks, paints or colors.”

Yanes likes the move towards reality. “When I am most successful in photography is when I can make a dish come to life for people, like it’s sitting on your kitchen table. One of my biggest things is to have the food be believable and natural so someone doesn’t look at the food and say, ‘It looks so good, it’s fake.’ That would not be a compliment to me.”

The change has been far-reaching. “The other day I passed McDonald’s and they had photography of hamburgers that actually looked good,” says Yanes. “It wasn’t those pristine, perfectly placed lettuce leaves, and the buns, and the super, super juicy burgers that were beyond real.”

Melville says a publisher is ultimately looking for the style of the photography to match the food in the recipes. “Photography is an expression of the style of the food, which is in turn an interpretation of the voice of the chef or food writer,” she says. A particular challenge for her was Andrews McMeel’s book, “The Amish Cook At Home.” Melville wanted pictures reflecting Amish family life, but could not show faces. Instead, she and the photographer decided to use hands, rolling dough and cutting vegetables, in the images.

Hay agrees that the image must match the story. “Each story we do is thought out from the theme to the color palette, background and story,” she writes. “And because food is one dimensional on the page – you can’t touch it or smell it – it needs to have what we call ‘yum factor.’”

Glossy or gritty, the job of the stylist and photographer is to make food look good – no matter what – and photographer Yanes has his own turkey story to share.

Shooting outdoors in upstate New York, Yanes and his team discovered that the oven they were supplied with was not large enough to fit the turkey they had to cook. Luckily, they had one they prepared earlier: a shriveled bird cooked three days before to use as a stand-in.

The team “doctored up” the ageing turkey, already stinking in the July heat, and singed the skin with a butane torch to get rid of wrinkles. “The skin just kind of perks up right away,” he says, laughing. “You would never have been able to tell in the photograph and it wasn’t retouched or anything.”

The only other time Yanes has ever faked it was while shooting a mango rice pudding on a beach in Hawaii for “Gourmet”. Missing the bottle of cream he needed to finish the dish, he substituted sunscreen.

Such substitutions are common in styling. Steam, difficult to capture on camera, is commonly faked with cigarette smoke; garment steamers with a hose attached to steer the vapor and, notoriously, soaked tampons, microwaved and placed behind the dish to be shot.

There are even those who devote themselves to such fakery. Tom Trengrove, who sells everything from fake sushi to blackberries made from resin from his Trengrove Studios Web site, says his company has developed “products that make photographing transitory kinds of things, like ice and foam, more stable.”

Preston-Campbell used carved acrylic ice cubes from Trengrove, for a recent Grey Goose print campaign. The shop’s most popular products are ice, ice powder (used to put a frosty surface on a can or glass) and “Foam Booster,” added to beer to keep the foam from going down. You can even buy a small droplet of solid water for $12. “In this business, reality is defined by whoever’s paying,” says Trengrove.

But stylists, photographers and the mad scientists who assist them, have increasingly fewer reasons to use their tricks. While cookbook sales are up, with many economists suggesting people are cooking at home, magazine sales are down and people like Yanes and Preston-Campbell are finding work scarcer. “It’s much easier and cheaper to get it on the Internet than to go and buy a glossy magazine for $6,” concedes the stylist.

Yanes says the closing of his longtime home, “Gourmet,” which defined food styling trends since it launched in 1941, is devastating. “I think it was a mistake,” he says. “They were the first American publication to cater to gastronomy and it just seems like a terrible loss. You don’t close “Vogue”, “Vogue” is fashion. “Gourmet” is food.”

Preston-Campbell stays hopeful. “There will still be a demand for food stylists in the future even if all the editorial content and food advertising move to the web,” he says. “Food imagery still needs to be created regardless of the medium.”

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This post was written by:

Joel Meares - who has written 7 posts on NY Food Chain.

Joel Meares is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, he was a full-time writer for the(sydney)magazine, a monthly glossy in Fairfax Media’s Sydney broadsheet, The Sydney Morning Herald. He also wrote a blog on sharehouses for the newspaper’s Web site and covered film for Australian industry magazine Inside Film and Web sites such as filmcritic.com and Urban Cinefile.

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4 Responses to “The tricks and tips of food styling”

  1. Guest says:

    Creepy

  2. food pack says:

    Aw, this was a really quality post. In theory I’d like to write like this also – taking time and real effort to make a good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and never seem to get anything done… Regards

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