"All food stylists are chefs, but not all chefs are food stylists."
“I love watching raw ingredients transform into a work of art,” says Elle Simone Scott, the food stylist at America’s Test Kitchen. “I love to stretch food beyond its boundaries. I like that it can be as artistic as creating a cow using legumes or as simple as making butter melt on a cob of corn in a way that the light will hit it and make you feel like you’re at a picnic. I love how it becomes my responsibility to lead a viewer's mind to a certain idea using food.”
If that description of what a food stylist can do and create makes you swoon, then read on. You, too, can learn the craft with these six professional tips.
1. Learn to cook—and then cook well and often.
According to Heidi Robb, a food stylist who got her start with Food Network star Michael Symon, food styling requires more than an eye for aesthetics. “A stylist needs to be well-versed in the manner with which food and ingredients behave in all stages, from sourcing raw ingredients to preparation techniques to how foods will hold and for how long to preserve maximum freshness and beauty,” she says. While Robb contends much of that knowledge can be learned working in a restaurant, Scott encourages food stylist wannabes to attend culinary school because, “the bulk of the information [you will need] is given, learned, and taught in culinary school,” she says. “In fact, I like to remind people that all food stylists are chefs, but not all chefs are food stylists.”
2. Assist a food stylist you admire.
Once you’ve received a culinary education—whether in school or on the job—you should “reach out to stylists whose work you admire and ask to assist,” advises Robb. Come ready to learn and to help, and bring with you “your cooking talent, your organizational skills, the ability to take direction—especially in stressful situations—and the ability to work well as a team member, whether that team is two or 10.”
3. Develop an eye for style and beauty.
Scott says she keeps anywhere from three to five food publications handy at any given time, not only to keep abreast of current food trends, but also to observe other food stylists’ aesthetics. Robb encourages you to find beauty beyond food. “Hone an eye for beauty while realizing that beauty comes in many guises,” she says. “An understanding of composition is a must, as well as an almost-unhealthy obsession for detail. Keep current and on trend. A real goal [for any food stylist] is to allow your personal aesthetic to come through your work while also accommodating your client’s wishes.”
4. Stock your toolkit.
Any artist—including one who works with food—requires tools. As a food stylist, you’ll need to stock your toolkit with everything from glycerin—which makes food last longer—to Q-Tips to rid food of pesky crumbs or smudges, advises Scott, who also carries surgical tweezers that can pick up even the smallest misplaced pepper flake. “I use everyday kitchen tools like spoons and tongs to get the look we want,” Scott also adds, “and nothing can beat a clean pair of gloves and simply manipulating the food with your hands.”
5. Develop outstanding communication skills.
“These skills are the foundation of a tight collaboration,” says Robb. They’re skills you will need to develop a rapport with everyone from photographers to assistants and clients, she points out. “The client needs to know that their vision is heard and understood,” Robb explains. “From this point, direction is taken by all to work toward an end goal [for the client]. A food styling job is always a collaboration.”
6. Test and develop a portfolio of work.
Even while you’re still assisting a pro, you can work to collect a portfolio of your work by “testing,” advises Robb. “Reach out to newer photographers as well as established pros who may be eager to test with new stylists,” she says. “Testing serves to help you become comfortable with maneuvering on set, as well as with working with a photographer and plating your food through the lens of a camera.” As you test, “hopefully, you’ll both come away with some solid portfolio material and a new, professional relationship. I never stop testing, because it keeps the creativity flowing.”