It’s pretty surprising what it takes to make food look appealing in a photograph.
Alise Arato Food stylist
I grew up in Toronto, my husband as well, and we both went to school for visual arts. I was always on a visual arts path all through school, including high school and then I went to University as a major in drawing and painting and hit a point when I realized that fine art wasn’t the right direction. As much as I loved the visual arts, I didn’t see myself making a living quite in that way and I wasn’t certain what I was going to do. I had regret that I didn’t pursue art in a more graphic arts way.
During that time I had always loved food and cooking and I started making desserts, elaborate wedding cakes and birthday cakes, etc. Somehow I went down that avenue of food and I started catering, and that snowballed. My husband and I then moved to Los Angeles for him to do his graduate studies in visual arts at USC and we ended up staying here. I was still kind of trying to find my way and he was going to school and I started teaching children’s cooking classes as well as art classes here and kept doing catering. I opened a café at one point with someone; that didn’t work out.
I realized I love working with food but I also missed the creative part of it and I started exploring what I could do. I was kind of stumped and knew I needed to find something to be doing and at that time, people really didn’t know about food styling as much as they do now. It took a lot of research before I realized that was an avenue, and it completely made sense for me. At that time, it was also hard to find a means to start. Now there are workshops and classes and such. But I did find an internship where I met amazing people, photographers and other stylists that I was able to assist and learn from. There were some great photographers who were willing to work with me, do some test shooting, and I got some of my first clients. There are photographers from that time that I still to this day work with. After assisting for a period of time I went off on my own as a stylist and tried to keep learning as I went. When I did that internship, I was already almost 30 at that point, so it was definitely a little bit later that I figured it out but once I was on that path, it was the right way to go.
It’s a pretty cool job. But it’s an unusual one that I think until someone really knows what it is, they don’t fully understand what it is that you’re doing. I would say that I make food look good for the camera. I deconstruct it and put it back together so that it’ll shoot well. Which, it’s pretty surprising what it takes to make food look appealing in a photograph.
Everyone always asks if I eat the food that we make on a set. And generally, you don’t want to eat anything that I’ve been touching on a set. Especially on a motion shoot. Unless there are situations where the food was meant to be eaten, like in a commercial where the talent has to eat the food and then it has to be prepared with that in mind… palatable and safely prepared.
A burger: you would sort through the buns and pick tops and bottoms that are the nicest and usually we trim them and sometimes toast them and have multiples to choose from. The hamburgers would be undercooked and then often they’re held in oil or in foil. Grill marks individually added if desired. The cheese gets sorted and trimmed to size and it’s sometimes dipped in hot water and laid on, sometimes it’s steamed. The burgers sometimes get a little bit of torching or painting, they’ll get grill marks sometimes. The lettuce would all be sorted and dipped in cold water, refreshed and laid out in the fridge to crisp up. The tomatoes you would probably just cut center pieces to the right thickness, pickles sorted. If you have diced onions, you’re placing them with your tweezers, piping in condiments and then painting everything with oil when it’s all built. Usually things are real but they’re… enhanced. Turkey would be undercooked. Usually turkey, to keep that juicy look, you’re cooking mainly the outside of it. Meat is usually undercooked and kept at room temperature.
My kit is giant: everything from knives/scissors and various cooking utensils to spray bottles of water, brushes. There are a lot of fixes… crazy glue, oil, wax, piping gel, citric acid. My kit is kind of odd; there’s a lot of strange things in my kit. My torch and heat guns, Rain-X and Armor All, Kitchen Bouquet, Evian spray, we use Polygrip that you would use on dentures, Vaseline… to name just a few. There’s a lot of odd things.
Food stylists used to be the home economics people, and that kind of evolved over the years. I think also food styling’s come back to being a little more natural, which works for some, but not all things. Things have loosened up and gotten a little less manicured, but then there’s certain foods, like if you’re making a burrito you still have to build it a certain way to make it work. But definitely things have been loosening up, kind of more graphic but also more accessible.
Still shoots are usually a little more contained and controlled. Less people, a little easier to get the timing right. On motion shoots, you have to be ready for anything. A lot of hurry up and wait. Plus much greater amounts of food needed, a lot more preparation, and a lot more people. We get in there and we prepare everything. A lot of the time you’re doing each element from start to finish, kind of figuring out how each element is prepared and it’s all deconstructed and then reassembled.
I have jobs where I don’t prep, there’s no prep, you just kind of show up and prep in the morning and keep going, but then there are bigger shoots where you could have multiple days of prepping, shopping, and sourcing. With a bigger job, you have a full crew and you’re getting all the elements as ready as you can so that the shoot day can go faster and be very organized. Keeping clean and organized, remembering all the little things. The shoots vary so hugely. Sometimes it’s just that things need to be very particular and if it’s say a commercial, you’re going to swap things out a lot because they’re sitting out, or if someone’s handling it you have to swap it out. They may want to see something different than what you were doing, and then you’re shooting different things throughout the day. On a print shoot, there’s not as much swapping out. You can have smaller amounts a lot of the time. But it’s still a lot of food needed for just one item. If you’re doing cereal, it would be giant amounts of cereal. You open up the boxes and you’re sorting out the best pieces to build that bowl of cereal. There’s a lot of sorting in food styling!
Packaging is very specific. There’s a layout and the food has to represent the product and it’s very specific. There’s some license but you don’t want to overpromise or not represent the product so there’s that fine line, too, of interpreting and making it look its best but that it still is what it’s supposed to be.
The job is very collaborative, you’re always working with different people. Usually it’s just myself as a stylist, sometimes with assistants who will be on-set, off-set, running, but there are also some jobs where you’ll co-style with someone, so there’ll be more than one stylist and you’re both working, so maybe two sets going or it’s a bigger job or you’re working together and sharing a team. But definitely lucky enough to work with other lead stylists sometimes, which is great because it’s the only time you get to cross paths with them as you’re working.
[The internship] was really helpful; I met a couple of stylists through that internship that I assisted with, which was a pretty huge foot in the door and they were very generous. And then I met a couple of photographers at that time that either introduced me to other stylists that they worked with that I was able to assist or would test with me and help me get my footing and then hire me for some smaller jobs in the beginning, and then it would build up. I was very lucky to find that at the time. Sharing, and trying to pay it forward with people. At this point, it’s people I’ve worked with or people have been referred or know of me, but then I also am getting calls often from some just looking up a food stylist and finding me on my website.
People come to food styling from different places — some people come from culinary backgrounds, some people come from a digital arts background, some people come from photography and they kind of switched in, or just from random backgrounds where they just sort of fell into it. Production background of some kind… it varies. But a lot of food backgrounds. You do have to know food or be food-savvy to be able to problem-solve.
There’s a lot of on-the-spot problem solving so it definitely helps to know how different food is going to react or what to do to get it to the place you need it or to fix a problem. Sometimes you have to test things out; if you’re going to do something that isn’t necessarily the norm, you might be doing some testing on the prep day to figure out how to make something work. If you’ve never made that item, or if for what you’re doing they want the food or beverage to do anything unusual. It’s very important to understand food — and some food science.
I’ve known a lot of different types of people who do this job, but definitely a love of food and working with food. Being persistent, resourceful, creative and being able to work with people. Patience, definitely being able to go with the flow. Perseverance, especially in the beginning, and even throughout. And someone who’s into details. I’ve met so many people coming at it in very different ways. Outgoing personalities and low-key personalities, but always confident and professional. it’s always fun to see how other people work and how they go about things. It’s funny because over time, through other photographers or other crew that I work with, you get to know other stylists, almost like you know them even though you’ve never met them but then when you do meet them you feel like you already know each other. I always enjoy getting to meet or to work with another stylist after I’ve heard about them.
I feel very lucky to get to do this job — I love what I do. I hope to keep doing it as long as there is work available and I can physically keep up!
Check out Alise's work at: alisearato.com