How Hollywood Food Stylists Make the Perfect Holiday Turkey
As any cook knows, part of the holiday meal battle is making your spread look good. But if you think preparing an enticing Thanksgiving feast in your home or restaurant is involved, consider the work of a professional TV and film food stylist. From the small screen’s annual onslaught of both scripted and unscripted Thanksgiving specials to longer (and larger) cinematic food sequences, getting everything—especially the golden turkey—Hollywood perfect takes a lot of work and even more screen magic.
“Food styling is, in general, just making things look pretty on film or in a picture,” Gena Berry, founder of Culinary Works and a food stylist whose recent work has included Hidden Figures, The Pact, Dynasty, and Life As We Know It, tells Food & Wine. “I cook all the food… [and] I set and reset and reset. We need to make sure the continuity is there, that it looks exactly like it did the last time.”
Hollywood’s food stylists are often chefs who cook to ensure those eating their dishes enjoy them. However, their primary goal is making it appear to taste good. To do this, stylists have a large, seemingly unconventional toolbelt to ensure that the Thanksgiving spread stays looking great between takes.
That often means using tweezers, rulers, paint brushes, scissors, pins, Q-tips, and squeeze and spritz bottles. It also means having at the ready Glycerin (mixed with water, it's spritzed on surfaces to create “sweat” on glasses), glue, heat guns, clothing steamers, and to help that turkey stay mouthwateringly shiny, something your parents (or grandparents) might be familiar with: Kitchen Bouquet.
“Mineral oil is great. KY Jelly is great. But I'm not spraying my food with that if somebody's going to eat it,” Berry says. “If I need to make something shiny, in general, I spritz it with water. It doesn't go away, and it doesn't weigh things down. Kitchen Bouquet is a stylist's best friend because it's a dark colored sauce enhancer. Your grandma had it in her kitchen cabinet [and] I use it all the time to add a little bit of extra color on my turkey.”
Making the perfect Hollywood turkey or holiday spread takes more than a little spritzing though.
The process can involve creating visual recipes in the same way that writers or animators lay out their own stories. When working on sets, Berry sometimes creates storyboards for her food scenes to help production better understand the importance of making a meal more lively.
“You send in pictures,” Berry says. “Last year I did a movie that [centered on a] mom's sweet potato pie. For the Christmas spread that came with that, I was able to do storyboards… If you think about it, [during] a holiday, you have dressing and creamy casserole—things that [are] not pretty. Green bean casserole is brown; stuffing is brown. So you have to think, ‘Well, maybe I'll not do green bean casserole, but I'll do green beans—nice, crisp, fresh green beans. And instead of a mashed sweet potato casserole with white marshmallows on the top that will just reflect the light, maybe I'll do caramelized roasted cubed-up butternut squash.’”
“Then you have to make sure that you're garnishing your turkey with pretty things, like kumquats and baby lady apples and speckled pears,” Berry continues. “Pretty things that will hold up and won't wilt.”
Berry acknowledges that not every turkey or holiday dish is going to be as vibrant or colorful as the next. What you see in Shameless is not necessarily what you’ll see in This Is Us or Black-ish. Part of the job of a food stylist is to make sure your turkeys and meals match their settings, meaning people, places and time periods.
"I do my homework to look at who is eating this food, to make sure that my food is corresponding with what the scene is, and what it should look like.”
While we’re often given days (and sometimes an entire kitchen’s worth of cooks) to cook up our Thanksgiving dinners, the nature of food styling for film and TV requires a team of two to six people, cooking and dressing furiously over a short amount of time.
“It’s kind of crazy because you don't have a whole lot of warning about this kind of stuff,” Berry says. “For big movies, they block it out, and you know ahead of time when the turkey scene is coming up. [It’s] going to be shot next week or in two weeks from now, but in general, I usually have a week or less notice for food scenes.”
It’s not just the amount of time that can be intense. Berry reveals that on one film she made enough turkeys to feed a small army—23, to be specific. The reason for so many turkeys? The levels of interaction actors have with food in scenes, as well as food safety.
“You have a turkey that you do for stand-in. So when they're just practicing, I have the same old turkey that can sit out all day. That nobody can touch, nobody can eat,” Berry says. “But if they're cutting real turkey, I have an oven on set and hot boxes. We go by ServSafe temperatures… And then you just have to say, ‘That turkey can only be on that set for another 20 minutes. I have to replace the turkey after this next scene.’” Not to mention swapping out entire birds for another take when an actor lops off the drumstick, then accidentally flubs a line.
With that level of work, it might seem easier to contact prop companies, which have supplied prop masters on movie and TV sets with fake food for decades. Despite being used heavily in the early days of filmmaking, it leaves very little room for actors to interact with the food. That is one reason why prop food—which includes golden-looking Hollywood turkeys—is something that’s still done now but reserved for the background in scenes that don’t require direct or constant interaction.
According to Berry, around 90 percent of the time the food on her sets is real, but that doesn’t mean it’s exactly what you think it is. Whether it’s due to an actor’s dietary restrictions or the table-life of certain ingredients, sometimes those scrumptious dishes end up being faked in a different way than plastic props.
“I’ve never had to fake a whole turkey that doesn't have any turkey in it. I have had to make fake chicken wings, and just yesterday I made fake sushi using compressed watermelon instead of beautiful, bright red tuna. It lasted on the set for six hours, whereas tuna would dry out, get dark, get stinky,” Berry says. “But usually with a holiday meal, there's enough of a variety that somebody can always eat something.”