In 2015, millennial research firm YPulse found that 63% of 13-32-year-olds have posted a photo of food or drinks on social media at least once. In surveying the same age group, marketing giant Edelman declared that ‘Cookbooks are becoming look books, acting as coffee table decor just as much as a catalogue of recipes.’
The aesthetic properties of food are constantly on display– we can’t turn food off, even if we want to. Consequently, the demand for those who can style food has reached new heights.
Loving food and photography is just the beginning, you need to know your craft inside and out. It’s quite a leap from amateurs photographing Black Tap shakes at lunch to professionals who perfect meringues with a blowtorch.
Fortunately, there are practical steps you can take to become a food stylist. We talked with industry star Mariana Velasquez for career pointers.
Here are three takeaways:
You need real kitchen experience
‘You can’t fake appetite appeal,’ says Velasquez, who has appreciated food presentation from a young age. The Bogota native’s mother had a home goods and tableware shop, and every family dinner was formally set. This ritual left a lasting impression on her.
These lessons were reinforced when Velasquez moved to the US in her late teens and took stints at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur California and NYC’s Prune. In Big Sur, the farm-to-table movement was just stirring, and Post Ranch Inn was an early pioneer when it came to showing off fresh ingredients.
“Aesthetics were very important,” says Velasquez, “Plating was a big deal, it was very sculptural.”
Prune founder Gabrielle Hamilton may be known for her lack of pretension, but there is no plastic on her kitchen line. Readers of Hamilton's memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter, will remember a pregnant Hamilton at the harrowing and cramped egg station during brunch—not necessarily an environment conducive to beautiful food. And yet Velasquez credits Prune with teaching her the importance of a sightly mise en place.
“Working in a restaurant or catering company is key [to being a successful food stylist],” says Velasquez, “You need speed, you need to know your ingredients.” That ingredient knowledge is important because of a move towards more natural styling. Artifical options like acrylics, gels, and lacquers, once staples of food shoots, have fallen out of favor.
Finding a good mentor was crucial to Velasquez’s development as a food stylist. Though there were role models at the New England Culinary Institute and in her internship at Saveur, assisting photographer Jee Levine was a turning point in her career.
Velasquez assisted Levine– who also founded wallpaper design house, Trove– for three years before going into business for herself. She emphasizes patience in the process of learning her craft.
"I really cherish conceptual shoots," Velasquez explains. Styling ice cream is like lab work, and coaxing ice cubes to portray the perfect cocktail is quite a challenge. Fresh ingredients require a different type of patience: Her favorite dishes are the ones you have to wait all year for, the seasonal ones that nature dictates.
Food styling is both an art and a science, and an excellent Instagram account does not a food stylist make. "Is it food, or is it elements?" Velasquez asks. Experience trains the mind to see ingredients as both. When potential mentees email her now, she steers them toward kitchen and catering work first.
Sometimes imperfect is perfect
"Crumbs are very popular," says Velasquez. Several decades ago, food editorials were very airbrushed. Now, magazines have embraced the "perfectly imperfect" in photographing plates that actually feel approachable.
Velasquez gives the example of a cake with one slice taken out and another separated. This introduces the "human element," she says, and the idea that someone you love is hovering just outside the frame.
And nothing says human like a little wine spillage in the shot.
However, "when you’re making it delicious by being imperfect there’s a really fine line," Velasquez warns. It’s important to know your client, as advertising still requires a highly polished image of food.
Velasquez has worked on cookbooks, TV commercials, and social media campaigns. And to her, the Internet is a net positive for food styling– even if it makes it look too easy. She applauds big brands that embrace food styling done right on Instagram and Pinterest.
"They used to pay nothing [for web work], now they invest– they aren’t cheapening food."
And thanks to the work of people like Velasquez, they're making it a little more magic.