When it looks good enough to eat. How food stylists perform their behind-the-scenes wizardry

HAVE you ever wondered why the food in cookbooks and magazines looks so good? And why, even when you've followed the directions exactly, your recipe looks nothing like the glossy, four-color photograph of the gastronomic creation? One reason could be food stylists.

These little-known professionals are responsible for making food look so wonderful in front of a camera. They make that pizza look hot and mouthwatering, that ice cream look so luscious; basically, they make any food, from popcorn to yogurt, look good enough to eat.

``Most people have no idea what food photography entails and how long it takes to get the right shot,'' says Jean Carey, director of food styling at Kitchen Consultants in Whittier, Calif.

It can take anywhere from three to six hours and beyond to get just one good shot of food.


``The camera `sees' things differently than the human eye,'' explains Norman Stewart, a food stylist. ``The food has to be extremely fresh to photograph well. Even small things show up on the camera like glitches.''

Armed with bags and tackle boxes full of the most interesting array of tools (cotton swabs, tweezers, X-acto knives, food coloring, brushes, and toothpicks), food stylists bring food into the realm of art.

First, they prepare the food to be photographed according to the client's specifications. Then they may mold whipped cream into a mini-sculpture, find the perfect vegetable (from four or five crates), smooth a sauce's edges on a plate, arrange a sprig or condiment flawlessly - and then duplicate the whole procedure if necessary.

``I was on one shoot for a pizza company,'' says Susan Southcott, a food stylist affiliated with Kitchen Consultants, ``where every time something went wrong - the film screwed up, the cheese looked bad, the crust looked too dried out. We were there until 2 in the morning and we must have baked over 100 pizzas in all.''

She adds, ``The worst part was that we found out that the film had been ruined and we had to do the whole thing over again.''

Most shots are not that complicated or that lengthy, but the food stylists have all sorts of helpers for any contingency that may come up.

For example, Lois Ellen Frank, a Los Angeles-based food photographer, is working on a Southwestern cookbook of her own, in conjunction with chef John Sedler. One Saturday morning a green chili sauce was being prepared for shooting by Mr. Stewart and Ms. Southcott, but it wasn't looking right. There were little white granules in it that would appear as curdled milk on camera, even though this was the way the sauce naturally came out.

``Since we have already tested the recipe and know that it comes out according to our instructions, we `modify' the sauce if we know it is not going to photograph well,'' says Ms. Frank.

In this case, Southcott made a more photogenic sauce from canned white sauce and various food colorings, which she matched exactly with the original, sans lumps.

``We could replicate the sauce and pick all the lumps out, but that would take all night,'' says Southcott. As it was, it took six hours to take this one shot.

Is this a common occurrence? It is a delicate subject for stylists as well as food product advertisers.

A cookbook has a bit more leeway, according to Southcott, because you are not really advertising any one product, and you want to make all food look as aesthetically pleasing as possible.

Frank adds, ``This book is not only a cookbook, but an artistic vision.''

Food advertising, however, is a much more stringent thing altogether. Ever since a major soup company was sued for false advertising, food companies all adhere to strict promotional standards.

About 18 years ago, the company was found to be using marbles at the bottom of its soup bowls to make the vegetables or noodles stand out more during their soup commercials, making it look as if there were more ingredients than there were in an actual serving.

Food stylists agree that advertisers are very careful now to show exact portions and ingredients in product promotion.

This is not to say they won't go through hundred of tacos, pizzas, or cereal boxes to get just the right-looking product.

``The way the cereal companies get that bowlful of perfect-looking flakes is by going through hundreds of cartons and hand-picking the perfect pieces,'' Stewart says.

Speaking of cereal commercials, another trick of the trade is using whipping cream, or even white glue, in place of milk.

``Milk looks greenish on camera,'' says Southcott, ``and since they are advertising cereal, not milk, they can use anything they want with their product.'' Something to keep in mind when you wonder why your crispy critters get so soggy at breakfast.

A typical day in the life of food stylists begins with their arrival at the studio (television or photographic), which is equipped with a kitchen.

Hauling their bags and boxes of utensils and tools, they prepare the product according to the instructions of the client, who is either present or available by phone.

At least two or three of each item will be made; one will be used as a ``stand-in'' on the food set, giving the photographer a good idea how the actual item, or ``hero,'' will look for the final shot.

Hundreds of details must be ironed out before the food is tantalizingly perfect to the camera's eye. Fingerprints show up glaringly on film, hence the stylists' use of toothpicks and cotton swabs.

``Q-Tips are one of my most important tools,'' says Ms. Carey. It is apparent why, after seeing her use them to wipe up some wayward whipped cream on a chocolate pie, dab up a leaking apple pie, and smooth out a slice of pumpkin during a shoot for W.R. Grace, a restaurant chain in southern California.

Stylists are called upon to re-create exactly something they may have done on an artistic whim. It sometimes takes hours. This is where the technical knowledge comes in.

Many food stylists are trained home economists and know how and why food behaves as it does.

``Many big companies like General Mills request the food stylist also have a degree in home economics,'' says Carey, in case any problem should arise.

``My background in home economics helps me understand the scientific properties of food,'' she adds. ``My love of food lets me be creative with it.''

What foods are hardest to work with?

Ice cream and pizza seem to top the list. Ice cream is difficult to manipulate because of the obvious time factor under the hot lights.

``You have to get just the right amount of `feathering' on the scoop,'' says Julie Madonia, another stylist affiliated with Kitchen Consultants. ``You might get three perfect scoops from a gallon.''

For this reason it can also be physically exhausting. ``After a few hundred scoops, your arms are really tired,'' she says.

Pizza is difficult to photograph because there are so many elements that have to look good: the cheese, the crust, the peppers, the meat.

``When you look at a pizza, you just see the whole thing. When a stylist looks at a pizza, they see each element separately and they all have to be perfect at the same time for the camera,'' says Carey.

And what do food stylists do for relaxation after an exhausting 10-hour day? Why, go home and cook, of course!

It seems that artists of the edible can never get too much of a good thing. For many, the love of food and cooking got them into styling in the first place. ``This is my avocation as well as my vocation,'' Carey says.

Or, put another way, as Ms. Madonia says, ``We're all just frustrated mud-pie makers at heart.''

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