In Defense Of Food Stylists

by Matt on March 23, 2010

A few weeks ago I was on the phone with a potential client. We were discussing photography needs for their restaurant, a spot that features natural and vegan food. We talked about how many shots are feasible in one day, what their usage requirements would be, and how many people I’d need to assemble for the shoot. Like all restaurants I work with, I asked if they’d need a food stylist.

“No, we don’t want anyone doing any tricks to the food, pouring motor oil on it, those sorts of things.”

It’s very good to know what people want, and even better to know what they don’t want. But in the course of my job and shooting food, the whole question and discussion of motor oil seems prevalent.

You’d think I was a mechanic.

When my partner Adam tells people what he does it’s usually followed with a “What? What’s a food stylist?” or “You put motor oil on things, don’t you?”  I cannot blame people for thinking this, I’m sure someone somewhere has indeed used motor oil on food. But we’re not of that generation.

When I think about it, apart from food sitting out way too long to be safely eaten, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stylist use motor oil. I discourage the use of chemicals on my set because I work fast and usually get the image I need rather quickly. Yes, vegetable oil and soy sauce is brushed for that fresh out of the oven look and many stylists I know are best friends with spray bottles, but still, this idea of fake and artificial seems to be the norm.

Can I tell you it’s not?

So then what would a food stylist do on a restaurant location shoot? They’d make sure the food was styled perfectly for the camera. They’d liaise with the chef and communicate the best way to build and position the food while maintaining the integrity of the chef’s vision.  They might advise on holding off saucing that entrée until I’m ready or may ask for extra greens and herbs since those always need to be replaced (they die quickly!). They might even get back into the kitchen and show the chef a quick trick or two for the camera, but I can tell you this: they wouldn’t finish off a plate with WD-40.

Some chefs and cooks just get it, no styling required. Chefs like Mark Peel of Campanile can create beautiful camera-ready food with seemingly no effort, just like Chef Jesse Perez of Long Beach’s Fuego restaurant. Shooting with him is like working with an accomplished food stylist, plate after plate comes perfectly from the kitchen and requires nothing.  Then there are the chefs who require a little hand-holding and editing, but if you think I’m mentioning names then you’re crazy.

My life as a food photographer certainly wouldn’t be as fun without stylists. They create the food that I photograph 75% of the time. And my life would cease to exist without a certain stylist I just happen to be married to! So as you read this, yes, food stylists have a million tricks up their sleeves from the days of hot lights, long studio advertising shoots and film, but thanks to digital and the speed in which it takes to capture an image we’re able to bypass so many of those greasy, syrupy artificial steps.

Which reminds me, I’m due for an oil change.