Tag Archive | "Kitchen"

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)


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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Home cooks learn new tricks in Brooklyn

Brent Young and his colleagues show how to cook liver the right way.

Brent Young and his colleagues show how to cook liver the right way. (Photo credit: Isabelle Schäfer)


“We’re going to eat a lot of liver tonight, so grab a strong beverage to go with the strong taste!” said Brent Young with a grin to the 10 people gathered around the kitchen table at the back of the shop. Five different sorts of raw liver, shimmering yellow and green, one of them the size of a small pig, were displayed in bowls. Rock music accompanied all of the young butcher’s movements while he smoothly tossed  onions, beat an egg or chopped parsley. The smell of grilled liver filled the air.

The liver class on Thursday night at the Brooklyn Kitchen store attracted a dozen curious home cooks, one of the 15 different two-hour cooking classes the cutlery shop offers every month.

In the past months, demand for classes at the shop, at 616 Lorimer St. in Williamsburg, has grown so much that the owners, Taylor Ekkinen and Harry Rosenblum, decided to expand and open an organized cooking school that will be called Brooklyn Kitchen Labs, just two blocks away from their current location. They are renovating an old house with two floors, building a big teaching kitchen in the basement and a smaller prep kitchen, mostly for baking.  Another kitchen will be upstairs, as will more retail space and a butchery. The opening is planned for Nov. 7.  It will be used in addition to the old location.

The demand for classes may come in part from the economy,  According to Zagat’s 2010 New York City restaurant survey, people eat in restaurants only three times a week, compared to 3.4 times a week the prior four years, “They understand the value of cooking at home better now,” said Ekkinen.

Sandra Lara participated in the liver class and said she loves to cook at home.  “I used to go out to eat a lot, but since the recession started, I cook every day at home. So I really want to learn new recipes” she said, while prodding a piece of liver.  “I usually give liver to my dogs,” she said with a laugh; her specialty is jelly making.

Potential participants have to register online for each class individually. “Once registration is open, the classes usually sell out in a couple of hours,” said Young, who gives butchery lessons and helps out at the store. Most of the new classes are already full, with up to 15 participants in one lesson. “ People are being more comfortable with being adventurous in their own kitchen,” said Young. “And in Brooklyn, people tend to have good cooking space.” Most participants are 20 to 45 years old.

Until now, the Brooklyn Kitchen store could offer classes only in the evenings, when the 10-foot cashier’s table becomes a kitchen table. Interested cooks can learn how to make ice cream and sauces, charcuterie and sausages or how to bake French sour bread and Halloween cupcakes. But there is not much space between the cutlery and the cooking books to get seriously down to work.

“The new location means more room with more possibilities,” Ekkinen said. “We can have classes during the day and on weekends now, for example.” With the new teaching kitchen, participants will be able to actually cook instead of merely watching and taking notes. Twice as many classes will be offered, their price depending on the lesson. Knife skills class, for example, costs $45, while a butchering class can be up to $75 for one session.

At the liver-cooking class, Connie Madeo said she had taken  a pig butchering class, watching for two hours as a butcher cut pieces of meat from an entire pig. “From snout to tail, it was like a puzzle and he used only one small knife,” she said. “It was fascinating to see what I actually eat when I eat chop suey!”

Anne Hynes, who often cooks at home for her children has attended several cooking classes, and now was at the liver class. She has learned here how to make kombucha, a kind of tea, bread and sauces. “I like coming here,” she said. “It’s interesting and the people here are fun” She admitted, though, that  she doesn’t usually cook liver. “Let’s start cooking!” cried out Young. Obediently, she went and observed.

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Renting kitchens gives entrepreneurs a chance of success

Aspiring food entrepreneurs can rent a professional kitchen to start their business. Photo credit: Isabelle Schäfer

Aspiring food entrepreneurs can rent a professional kitchen to start their business. (Photo: Isabelle Schäfer)


“I started baking brownies while running through the lines of my acting performances,” says Laura Siner, sitting in her favorite bakery in Midtown Manhattan and eating a blueberry muffin. The freshly married freelance financial consultant and actress started her brownie business two years ago.

At first baking was just a way of getting away from work, but she says she quickly realized she could do more with it. She brought her extra brownies to her theater and they sold during intermissions. “People would save room for their intermission brownie and would be really disappointed if I hadn’t baked any,” Siner says.

The Columbia business school alum started thinking about branding, packaging and different flavors. But the first big obstacle she faced was to find a kitchen where she could bake her brownies. “There are all sorts of licenses you need and you have to get checked by an inspector,” the young baker explains.

She found a solution in Kathrine Gregory’s company “Mi Kitchen es su Kitchen.”  Since 1996, the experienced restaurant manager has given aspiring food manufacturers the opportunity to rent a kitchen where they can start their business.

“Years ago I was mentoring for free two young girls who wanted to enter the catering business,” Gregory says. “I realized they needed a kitchen to achieve their goals.” When she asked restaurant owners if they would rent out their kitchens, she got not one positive response. “I saw there was a great necessity,” she says.

Now she offers professional kitchen leases that the clients can use with a flexible time schedule. They then can legally produce and sell their products. The service includes the inspections needed to be able to start a business in the food world.

Since the economic downturn, the demand has risen. “I get more and more calls from people interested in starting a new business,” Gregory says.

She says she is the only company in New York City that offers such a service to aspiring entrepreneurs.  She has partnerships with three locations throughout town. For someone like Laura Siner, she recommends the smaller kitchen on 35th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. “It’s more comfortable for baking pastries,” Gregory says.

The location belongs to Jon Chazen. The tall man, dressed in a dark blue shirt and jeans, oversees from his desk the whole 1,400 square feet kitchen space. Tin boxes full of cookies lie on one side of the table, while a watermelon-sized batch of cookie dough is waiting to be processed on the other side. The smell lingers in the air.

“I rent out my kitchen because I want to give back to other bakers,” Chazen says. He was selling shoes at Barney’s when he decided to start his cookie company, “Dough Ray Me.” At the beginning, a friend who owned a restaurant let him use his prep kitchen. Now he says he wants to do the same thing. He has been renting out his space through “Mi Kitchen es su Kitchen” for a year.

He is not concerned about the recession or about helping potential competitors. “There are still lots of opportunities in the food business. You have to help each other. More competition means more people interested in your product, so more clients,” Chazen says.

For $285, it is possible to use the place for a day, with a kitchen assistant included. The room has two ovens, a fridge, a freezer and mixers. “It’s not very big, but you can bake quite a lot in here,” Chazen says.

Laura Siner comes to Chazen’s kitchen when she needs to, which is once or twice a month. She mostly sells online, for weddings and theaters. Her specialty is including one of about 700 quotations in each brownie, most about art. To advertise herself, she organizes online flavor contests, where people can send her new recipe ideas. The winners get a brownie named after them and free samples. “I got much more entries than I thought I would have,” Siner says.

Every month she creates a new special brownie. During September, she proposes a “Cappuccino” flavor. One of her brownies cost about $3, but she offers a variety of brownie boxes that can go from two items for $8.50 to a box to a large brownie tray with 92 brownies for $59. “As the money comes, I take the next step,” Siner says. Eventually, she wants to open her own brownie bakery. “That will be scary,” she admits. She is looking at the area south of 42nd Street, because new theaters are opening there and the rents are reasonable.

But until then, she will continue renting the kitchen. And ponder on her favorite brownie quote by May Sarton, which she says she has pinned near her desk at home: “Each day, and the living of it, has to be a conscious creation in which discipline and order are relieved with some play and pure foolishness.”

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