Yesterday my friend shared a reel where half cooked pale brown steak got a “makeup treatment” – it was painted with brown shoe polish – so it gets a nice “cooked tan” and then to give it an even more appealing look they draw grill marks on it with an eye pencil. The transformation was stunning. The reel got 5 million views.
I’m often asked if that is true, do we, professional food stylists, work with fake food and use all these petroleum oil, acrylic paint, shaving cream and so on.
The answer is… yeah, we do, but it depends.
IT DEPENDS – two little words that are the essence of food styling.
Let’s take roasted chicken as an example.
If I shoot it for a cookbook, I will follow the recipe and cook one chicken without cheating and shoot it fast.
If the same chicken is standing in the middle of the table with lots of other dishes for an advertising job, I will cook 2 chickens (one as a backup). I will keep them in the oven till they lose their virgin freshness, then I will paint them, so the skin looks like it is freshly roasted but inside it is not fully cooked. I will put one on the table and forget about it since there are other dishes that need my attention. It will play its part and might even come back to the set the next day, still looking good after spending the night in the fridge.
But what if it is a TV commercial and the client wants this chicken to be cut on set? Then we are back to a cooked through chicken but now I will need at least a dozen of perfectly cooked birds that I would be sending on set to be cut in front of the camera because you can’t expect the actor to cut it nicely at the first attempt.
Another example – coffee. Yes, you can use shaving cream instead of milk foam, if you know how to do it and create very beautiful lattes and cappuccinos that last for hours. Or maybe there is no need for the latte to stay beautiful all day, then you can use real milk foam and shoot fast. It might also happen (if you specialize in coffee) that you are shooting for Starbucks and you know how to stabilize the foam so it lasts forever and is also drinkable. It all depends.
Natasha van Velzen at work
There are hundreds of different scenarios and each time a food stylist needs to adjust the food to the circumstances. It is the circumstances of the shoot that dictate you if you need to modify, alter or fake your food and to what extent.
You may ask: “Why would you need to even think about faking the food or doing something with it?”
To win time and get control.
Why can’t a trained cook just walk on a set and work as a food stylist? Even the best one that has a very good eye, knows plating techniques and is creative? Because he is trained to serve the customer, to create a dish that would be enjoyed and eaten within 5-10 minutes.
When we photograph food, our dishes must stay fresh and good looking much longer. No one cares how it tastes but everyone is fussing about how it looks in the camera.
Food is like little kids that start to act out in front of the audience. And a food stylist is taking the role of an experienced mother who knows that if you drag your toddler for too long through the shopping mall, he will eventually have a tantrum in the middle of ZARA. That is your ice cream scoop that would melt long before you have a chance to put on a perfectly styled piece of apple pie. You either must scoop it and freeze it beforehand or use fake ice cream.
Going back to that reel. Honestly it is much easier to grill the meat on a proper grill pan instead of drawing marks with an eye liner. If I have dozens of steaks or burger patties for a TV commercial I will make the grill marks with a grill element – an electrical spiral thing with a handle that you plug in, it heats up like mad and you press it on the meat. But eye liner? I don’t buy it.
Natasha van Velzen, extremely professional food stylist for photo and video productions.
“Natasha’s food styling work is a notch more modern and international than most we’ve worked with in Germany. Her style is artful, fuss-free and extremely contemporary.” – The Apiary directing duo Lily Coats and Gavin Young.