Huffington Post’s Food Informants: A Week In The Life Of Food Stylist Adam Pearson

Well whaddayaknow? It’s Adam Pearson in the Huffington Post. It’s a pretty glamorous life as long as you consider working every single day and smelling like fried fish the epitome of successful living. But enough of my ranting, make sure to read the article to see what really happens in the life of a food stylist!

Winter Citrus, Revisited

This is a story about winter citrus. More specifically, it’s a story about finding a day to play in a photo studio, complete with beautiful props and gorgeous styling. It’s a story dedicated to free form (there are no recipes here!), to abundant light, to taking it slow and easy during the new year, but mostly it’s a story about bright happy little fruit that inspires me.

As we enter another year (and I blog another year longer), I always come to citrus in January. Maybe because citrus represents the best of what the world has to offer. Maybe it’s the fruit’s inherent sparkle, the zing it brings to all things sweet and savory. Maybe because it’s not necessarily fleeting, but like a good strong friend that makes you smile because you know it has your back. Am I anthropromorphizing too much? Indeed I am. But I can’t help it. I guess I’m just tapping into the thousands and thousands of years that we have embraced lemons, limes, and oranges, and they are as much a part of our world as the air that we breathe.

It’s also a story about the things we like to make using citrus.

I develop a certain kind panic when I realize I’m out of lemons in my kitchen. Next to garlic, some sea salt and a few good knives, I feel like I should always have lemons on hand just in case. A quick search of my archives reveals why: lemon cupcakes, lemondrops (the adult cocktail, thankyouvermuch), lemon roasted just-about-anything, vinaigrettes, sparking sodas, my list goes on. Swap the lemon for a pomelo or blood orange and I’ll keep going. I can’t stop. The following ideas and recipes are ways we love to use citrus at home. And like I mentioned before, there are no recipes, and I hope that’s ok with you. Consider these images as starting points for future kitchen excursions. It’s January, we should all take it easy for just a little while longer, don’t ya think?

Mini Lemon Meringue Cupcakes

Yes, I am starting with dessert first. Begin with lemon or vanilla cupcakes, scoop out a tiny bit of the center, pipe in lemon curd and top with Italian meringue. Torch the top ever so slightly. Devour like a madman. Oops, that was me, sorry.

 Raw Vegetable Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette

You can feel the crunch now, can’t you? Raw, crisp veggies and a handful of garbanzo beans drizzled with  a vinaigrette made with lemon juice, champagne vinegar, shallots, olive oil, Dijon mustard, a teensy amount of grated lemon peel, a pinch of sugar. It could not be easier. And you know how I feel about pre-made dressings and vinaigrette. Why would you when this is just so easy? Bonus points: you can use this as a dip and on sandwiches and subs.

Lemon Meringue Cake

Hey, this looks familiar, don’t it? That’s right. A buttercake is layered with lemon curd, once again topped with meringue and torched. It was as delicious as it was pretty.

Pink Lemonade

Pink lemonade is your standard lemonade with a splash of cranberry juice for color. It’s how it gets its pink. I’m all for it, but I like to add a small amount of grapefruit juice for tartness and – in the tiniest amount possible – a pinch of sea salt. Too much ruins it, just a tiny bit adds some depth. You must have plenty of ice. Must.

 Oven Roasted Trout

Sliced lemon wedges, sprigs of thyme, sea salt, whole trout. Dinner is served. And as a whole fish kind of guy it’s moments like this when I value a really great relationship with a fishmonger. Although I’m no stranger to getting out there and catching it myself. Lemon and fish is a natural combination but you know what’s a better combo? This dish and my mouth.

Lemon Roasted Chicken

Oh, you beautiful bird, you. The stuff simple and easy dinners are made of. We always roast our chicken with slices of lemon (with larger halved lemons inside the cavity), shallots, salt, pepper, and just about any kind of fresh herb you have on hand. You can make it even better by making a gravy from the lemony pan drippings. And you see those potatoes? They’re roasted red potatoes topped with ricotta and lemon zest. Roast first, give ‘em a squeeze to break them open, top to your heart’s content. Literally a perfect dinner.

Candied Citrus Cake

Something that couldn’t be easier but with fantastic citrus flare. A traditional butter cake with candied lemon, orange, and blood orange slices with spoonfuls of syrup.  To candy the citrus slices, boil and rinse three times to reduce bitterness then simmer in a mixture of equal parts sugar and water for 45 minutes, until translucent. Arrange cooled slices on top of the cake and spoon over the syrup.

Lemon Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream

What? Yet another sweet treat? That’s right. Because we were inspired by citrus sweets while at the studio we didn’t mind going into sugar-overload. Just use common sense, please. These cupcakes use plenty of lemon juice and zest in the cake, with just a very simple vanilla buttercream on top along with some happy sprinkles. Bright and happy, just like I like my desserts.

 How do you like to use citrus?

Many thanks to my gorgeous better half who styles with such grace and flair. Thanks to Found Vintage Rentals for the amazing furniture props. I live for these creative playdates! All photos and prop styling by yours truly.

A little sumthin’ from Adam on the CB2 Blog!

Well if this doesn’t make me smile from ear to ear then nothing will! Today my extraordinary husband and food stylist Adam Pearson makes an appearance on the CB2 Blog and it’s a fantastic interview!

When Adam mentioned that he’d be working with CB2 in January I was thrilled. As a fan of their stores and decor (that’s me on top of a few of their tables at home which I got in trouble for, thanks Adam), I knew the Adam + CB2 pairing would be a match made in heaven. Modern and affordable furniture, beautiful photography, brighty happy stores…I do love all things CB2. His contribution as food stylist was an outdoor Mexican fiesta for 12 guests and his recipes will be featured on their blog over the next few weeks.

Make sure to visit their blog and read the interview with Adam! Thank you, CB2!

Follow CB2 and Adam on twitter if you’d like!

Book Reviews: Food Styling!

This weekend I’ll be teaching part of a Food Styling and Photography workshop at my studio. It promises to be lots of fun and I really look forward to meeting so many great new people. And since many of you have asked I may actually take my workshop on the road so stayed tuned! This is also the perfect time to review a few new titles on the subject of Food Styling. To say it’s a hot topic right now would be an understatement; just look at all the abundance of titles coming out. In this week’s book reviews the ever-so-wonderful Kristina Gill reviews a few titles as well as mentions some she couldn’t get her hands on just yet. The information in these reviews is invaluable I tell you! Take it away, Kristina! — Matt

My sixth grade math teacher, Mrs. Sweeney, used to get mad at us when we didn’t show our work.  She’d always say, “I’m from Missouri.  You have to SHOW ME.”  And that has kind of stuck in my character ever since.  When I started fooling around with food photography, I had many questions of Matt to ask. Sometimes he’d draw me diagrams, sometimes he’d explain it.  But then one day, I just bought a plane ticket and flew to Long Beach to work with him and Adam in person.  Matt and I have had long conversations about food styling books also.  Despite Matt’s compelling arguments on the utility of food styling books, I am still a firm believer that it’s the kind of thing I prefer to learn in three dimensions because there is a physicality to it that you can’t get from a book.  So if you have the time and resources to take a food styling class, I really recommend the experience, or if you have the opportunity to observe/assist in a photo shoot, you can learn a tremendous amount from that as well. However, I also believe in reference books, and especially in food styling, I believe in defining my work and identifying potential pitfalls before I embark on photographing.  Sometimes I photograph something and think “there’s something missing here.  This isn’t convincing.”  That’s where these two books come in.

Food Styling:  The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera by Delores Custer (Wiley 2010).   This, because of its enormous size and weight, will probably be called the food styling bible.  It is a comprehensive book on food styling.  Like every good food stylist, Delores is very methodical, and everything follows in a perfect logical order.  It is explained in clear concise English, and there are no doubts or what-ifs left trailing.  She goes from the choice of becoming a food stylist, through setting up your business, and concludes with a review of the transformation of food styling over the past 50 years.  There are technique and prop photos, recipes for successful on camera food (think fake ice cream, moist cake, perfect pumpkin pie).  Why do I like Delores’ book?  Because she has written it in a Problem – Solution format.  I’m not going to sit down and read this book cover to cover.  However, when I am tasked with shooting a cookie recipe, for example, I am going to look up the cookie section, learn where I may encounter difficulties and how to overcome/avoid them, and I will also learn how to make the best presentation.  You will flip through Delores’ book and think “Well I don’t do advertising photography, all of this is that perfect, slick, highly polished food.”  That’s true.  But how to represent melting cheese convincingly for the camera is a useful skill to know, whether it’s for a Lean Cuisine ad or for your blog post on images of your Nonna’s pasticcio.  In other words, this is a very useful reference book from which you can learn how to be better organized and how to improve your work.  You can also get an idea of what the life of a food stylist is like.

Food Styling for Photographers: A Guide to Creating Your Own Appetizing Art by Linda Bellingham and jean Ann Bybee (Focal Press 2010)  This book is considerably smaller and lighter (and paperback!) than the bible.  But its size does not diminish its utility.  Bellingham focused pretty tightly on the task at hand, starting first with very practical advice on how to approach each food styling session, so there is not the same level of detail in defining each food item or circumstance.  Bellingham begins with a bit about choosing props and prepping the surface on which you will shoot, all very useful when you’re doing this alone at home.  She explains what questions you should be asking yourself as you style. Bellingham’s following chapters include text boxes which highlight “Tricks of the Trade” and each set of food photography is followed by an explanation by Bybee of how the photographic effect was achieved, including a photograph of the lighting set up.  This book is therefore quite useful for the food blogger who is both styling and shooting their own recipes.  The clarity of writing is the same as Custer’s book, and it is just as organized and logical.  I have also compared notes on different techniques– such as preparing glasses for cold beverages or shooting ice cream, and their techniques are virtually identical!  Again, food styling is dealt with in this book in the context of making “perfect” food for the camera.  It doesn’t deal with how to make the imperfect perfect food that is so popular today.  All the same, I believe that you have to learn how to make something look perfect before you are able to make it look imperfect, if of course that’s the look you’re going for.  And still, many of you may decide that you are doing just fine without needing to separate your cake layers with cardboard to ensure that you space them evenly for a perfect look of the cake with a slice out of it.  You may be right.  But with either of these books, you are not only learning how to do that, you are learning what visual qualities are desired when representing types of cooking and different foods.

There was a third book on food styling released this year called Food Presentation Secrets: Styling Techniques of Professionals by Cara Hobday and Jo Denbury, which I was unable to get my hands on in time for this, which you may want to also explore.

And lastly, there’s The Food Stylist’s Handbook by Denise Vivaldo (Gibbs Smith 2010). This book isn’t out until fall so I wasn’t able to review it. However, I wanted to include it in this review so that you are aware of it and can check it out when it hits the bookstores. Matt will be teaching his workshop this weekend with Denise and he’s also a contributor to this book.

In Defense Of Food Stylists

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.

Food Styling Classes


Ok, this is something I’m truly excited about and hope you will be too! I’ve teamed up with my dear friends Denise Vivaldo and Cindie Flannigan, Food Styling Veterans, and created our first Food Styling Class and Photography Workshop to be held at my photography studio in downtown Long Beach, California.

This weekend event, held November 7 & 8, 2009 is geared towards food writers and bloggers and is split between food styling techniques on day 1 and photography on the 2nd day.

This is from the release:

On Saturday we concentrate on using professional styling techniques to:

  • cook for the camera
  • plate food to show it at its best
  • garnish effectively
  • use only edible styling methods
  • hold and refresh food

On Sunday we focus on digital photography and how to improve your photos through:

  • camera angle and selective focus
  • shooting with available light
  • the use of fill cards and reflectors
  • when to supplement available light
  • the use of props

Many of you have taken Denise’s class in the past and it’s always such a great time. On occasion I’ll show up, speak a little bit about food photography and art direction and blogging, but for this I’ll be there the entire time as well as leading Sunday’s photo activities. I’m so very excited to meet everyone and discuss the art of food photography and styling.  It’s for all levels and for those that find themselves needing to not only write about food but how to photograph it as well. Plus it will be a heck of a lot of fun!

Head over to Denise’s blog to read more about it and click here to download more information about the class. If you have any questions please feel free to leave it in the comments section or send me an email!