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Ideas

Career Day: The Food Stylist

By Tracy Mayor

Kate Buckens styles food to be photographed for magazines, cookbooks, restaurant websites, and advertising.

When people hear ‘food stylist,’ do they immediately think of blow-dried turkeys with shoe polish?
A fair amount of people assume it’s all still fake, using Crisco for ice cream and that kind of thing. It hasn’t been that way for a long while. That was the product of a time when people were shooting with film and the lights were really hot. I have been known to darken up a turkey with Kitchen Bouquet, but everything we work with is real food.

People often assume I work with a chef, but almost all the time, I am the chef. I’m given recipes by the client, and do all the grocery shopping, and cook everything.

Which foods work best for styling?
Produce is a big challenge. Cilantro wilts so fast. I shop at the farmer’s markets in-season, where things are just really, really fresh. Otherwise, it’s a lot of little things you might not normally buy. Cool Whip will hold up forever; if you’re shooting a milkshake with whipped cream on top, you really want Cool Whip. I like Swanson chicken broth, which has a clear, golden color that photographs well. Some of the others are a weird yellow under the lights.

The backside of that sandwich is full of all kinds of tricks: toothpicks, wobble wedges, paper towels, you name it.

And which foods work worst?
Sandwiches can be a food stylist’s nemesis: trying to get each ingredient to look good and not too smushed. From the front they look great, but the backside of that sandwich is full of all kinds of tricks: toothpicks, wobble wedges, paper towels, you name it.

What kinds of things can go wrong during a shoot?  
We were doing a shoot for a premium ice cream brand. With premium ice creams, all the goodies tend to sink down into the pint. So we’d have to open up 30 or so containers to get one perfect scoop that showed off all the ingredients. We were shooting in January and we had all the windows open to keep the ice cream from melting. 

Another time we were shooting actors at a party with a product that had just been recalled. We ran out of samples, so I had to drive around L.A. trying to buy up food that had been yanked from the shelves. I was like, “We’re not going to eat it, it’s a prop!”

When you’re off-duty, are you still mentally rearranging everything you see on the table?
If we’re having friends over for dinner, I’ll be making a cheese plate, and I’ll find myself styling it, trying to make it look a certain way. I hate that, because I really appreciate when dinner is ugly and delicious.

What are some tools you can’t live without?
Tweezers and a spritz bottle of water. And I have a collection of heating elements — a heat gun; a steamer for melting crappy American cheese, which responds better to wet heat; a charcoal starter to put grill marks on food. And a really big propane kitchen torch — that’s what you use to make a pizza look bubbly and delicious.

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Tracy Mayor is a writer based in Boston.

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