Food as art! – Career in Food Styling

‘What appeals the eyes will tickle the taste buds’ is the new mantra as far as food is concerned. In such times, food styling, can be a satisfying career!

 Sector overview

It was a funny incident. Once a friend and I were out at lunch, and after maxing out our appetites, when I though I couldn’t even look at another morsel of food, she went ahead and ordered an elaborate dessert. While I stared in shock at her, she quietly pointed to the dessert display and said, “Pet ko bhook nahi, lekin aankh ko bhook hai!”

Those in the food business today know well how to maximise on that idea. They put in an extra effort to make the food ‘pretty’ so that it becomes irresistible for the customer. Whether it is a picture on a ready-to-cook packet, or a recipe in a book or on the web, and of course the real deal – styling the food is becoming a norm.

For a country which ‘talks gourmet’ owing to the variety food and cooking shows on the television and the internet today, the words ‘plating up’ do not sound odd or meaningless. It goes to show that even the customers want the food to romance their eyes. Good looking food can make you feel hungrier than you ever were! It creates a certain desire that leads to temptation.

Dressing the food was a norm in the advertising industry even before the boom in this industry, but how the idea has reached newer heights. Now, during photo shoots, and even for restaurant menus, professionals are hired to style the food. After all, even the street food vendors have learnt techniques to make the food more appealing, whether it is arranging the triangular pieces of a sandwich in an innovative way with the chutney and ketchup, or a simple colourful garnish on a ‘bhel puri’ it is done to draw the customer. Similarly, a food stylist works with a food photographer to prepare, place, arrange and garnish the food which is to be shot.

To get there

This is a field which is still picking up, and most professionals working in this field are either self-taught or have attended a short training workshop. There aren’t many professional or degree courses available, although a few hospitality institutes host short-term workshops. Workshop sessions (duration varies from one day to a week) are also held by professional individuals for a nominal amount for participants to learn from.

Of course, it takes a lot practice and experience, but it also needs the aspirant to have a creative bent of mind. Often, stylists have worked as chefs before, so they have an idea how to present food in an exciting manner. The best way to learn is to work with a stylist, and learn on the job, after perhaps attending a workshop. Often it helps to think of creative ways to present the most regular food as well. If you train your mind to think differently, you can do well, according to professionals.

The work in food styling may consist of various hours of shopping, and prepping the material to get the desired look. A food stylist always has to think in terms of fresh, colourful and camera-friendly stuff so they learn a few hacks as well, depending on the food that is to be photographed. Creativity is one of the key components, so they might even think of using the ingredients used in the dish to take the picture.

For understanding the specifics of this job, several professionals believe that you have to be on a shoot to understand the nitty gritties.

A student says

Mehek Joote, Hotel Management student

It is a job that I envy. I am saying it openly. Even though I am currently training to be a chef at my institute, I am looking at becoming a food stylist eventually. After the exposure I have had to professional work in college, I know that there is a lot of potential in this field, and I know that I have what it takes. Who does not want to make food look great!

Think about it – when you are ordering food at a restaurant, you often turn your head with a plated dish that a waiter might be taking to another table and ask what it is. Similarly, if a menu carries a seductive picture of a dish, patrons are more likely to order that dish. A stylist needs to have visually artistic capabilities, and understand the use of materials in photography. She should realise what would look good on paper, in two-dimension form, as carried by the paper it is printed on.

I have learnt this from a person who works as an assistant food stylist, that when she started work, she did not think of the dimension change, which was an eye-opener for her. The idea is that the food comes alive in the viewer’s mind, causing him or her to salivate by merely looking at the picture.

In the field

Niti Pradhan, Assistant stylist

There are a few distinct things that I feel an aspirant should do. If the aspirant is not from the culinary background in terms of education, I suggest he reads up and understands as much as possible about food, and the ingredients and properties, since this knowledge is really helpful. In a few cases, for low-budget shoots, the styling assistant might have to cook a dish or two, so the aspirant should check the readiness for it.

On the day of the shoot, it is the assistants (basically the styling team’s) job to make sure that the food is ready to be photographed at the designated time, and the stylist is available to the photographer to comment on the pictures taken and offer alternatives if a particular idea is not working out.

The beauty of shape also matters in food styling, so the aspirant should not only thin in terms of the vegetables, but also the shape – for instance, you would not pick an odd-shaped potato or capsicum for a shoot, you would try to pick a perfect round, or oval potato and a symmetrical capsicum.

The colours of not only the food products, but the vessels or flatware as well as the table top matter in styling. A good camera might pick up things you might not think of, so it pays to understand.

Market and remuneration

The market is very varied and unorganised. The there are jobs, since there is a total boom in the food media industry. It is a joke in many households globally that when the family members come to devour the food on the table, they are sent to the pot to serve themselves, whiles they eye the beautifully plated up food that is used for photographs for the cook’s blog or Instagram feed! Even for that, the styling matters.

Professionals need to understand the client briefs, and understand the need for the shot as well as the platform it is going to be used on – television, print media, books, the internet and so on. Different jobs with different kinds of organisations are available for those who want to work in this field.

However, several professionals warn that landing a shoot without any prior work to show or a portfolio is next to impossible. The idea is so transfer your creativity on to viewable images, and put it online, since that’s where everyone will be looking. It will also be a contact point for any enquiries you get.

There are cookbooks to think of and magazines, various advertising campaigns to menus and many other industry publications. Enticing web content is needed for any eatery, as well as a business related to food. All of these employ the services of a professional stylist. Often, they are used as consultants at high-end restaurants and hotels. Since the job structure is not fixed, the salary structure is also not fixed. You are paid according to the work.

An aspirant asks

Veena Mehta, HSC student 

I have completed my elementary and intermediate art exams when I was in school and I am very strongly drawn towards a commercial arts programme after I complete my HSC. I have seen the various photos of food styling available on the internet, and have also read up on it. I have an idea of cooking and I am learning how to cook various dishes with my mother as well as from the internet. Will I be able to become a food stylist if I don’t join a hotel management programme?

Professional Niti Pradhan answers: I think that if you understand what this field takes, in terms of design and knowledge, you can definitely get into this field. It may not be a regular career option, but several stylists today have carved a niche for themselves in the Indian market with their work. As such, since it is a relatively lesser known field, no one really thinks of looking at food styling as a career when thinking of a career choice, it just happens by chance for many.

Since you already think that you want to pursue this field further, you should supplement your art education with information about food and styling, and I must say that you are on the right track by learning different things. Look up information online and check whether any stylist will give you the option of interning with him or her for a few weeks. That would add many layers to your existing knowledge.

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