The perfect double-layer yellow cake on the Pillsbury box doesn’t appear that way when it comes out of the oven. It’s a food stylist’s job to make the food you buy as delectable as the advertisement promises. And you can judge from their day rates -– $500 to $700 in the Twin Cities -– that their duties entail more than a few swipes of a spatula. Whether it’s a shot of a lone potato chip or a complete Christmas dinner, if the chow is for sale, you can bet a food stylist was behind the scenes. And although the economy has slowed the industry down a bit, the Twin Cities is still fertile ground for this unconventional line of work.
Meet two Minneapolis-based food stylists: Betsy Nelson, 46, and Genie Zarling, 51. Nelson has been working in the business for a decade. Zarling has been styling food since 1992 and also works as a pastry chef at YUM! Kitchen and Bakery in St. Louis Park.
How did you get your start as a food stylist?
NELSON: I worked as a chef in a variety of Twin Cities restaurants, attended a food styling seminar in Chicago, and was hooked. I did some “test” shots for my portfolio and sent some mailings, made some phone calls and started getting calls for work. It also helps that my brother, Paul Nelson, is a photographer, so I did have some fortunate connections with different studios, and he was able to help me build my portfolio as well.
ZARLING: I decorated a chocolate silk pie for Baker’s Square while working as a pastry chef at Lucia’s Restaurant.
What are the most and least enjoyable sides of your job?
NELSON: I get to work with a variety of fun, creative people in the advertising/photo industry. I really like to work with food, but unfortunately the food isn’t always the greatest quality, or very attractive. There’s only so much you can do with canned chili to pretty it up!
ZARLING: The most enjoyable part of food styling is creating beautiful food while working with fun people. Doing the dishes after a long day of styling is my least favorite. Most people don’t realize that we not only style but also shop, cook, and clean up after the shoot.
Tell us about a memorable project you’ve worked on.
NELSON: I like to work with organic foods and have done some work with Organic Valley, which was fun. I also do a lot of holiday signage and promos for Target. It’s really fun to work on the Halloween stuff, because it’s so crazy and covered with candy.
ZARLING: Most recently I worked on a project for Best Buy. The photographer took the back off a refrigerator and shot looking into the fridge where a model was reaching for a whipped cream cake that I made. We had to shoot in the kitchen so I had to style the cake in a hallway on a card table. Working with models is challenging but lots of fun, they usually need to look better than the food so there isn’t as much pressure.
Do you cook at home?
NELSON: Yes, I do. It’s very therapeutic, since I don’t get to choose what I make for a photo shoot, and often the food we shoot isn’t very appealing or healthful. I enjoy making food for my kids that is tasty and healthy.
ZARLING: Yes, we cook at home more often that not. My husband (photographer Joe Michl) usually cooks on the days I style as I’m usually pretty tired from being on my feet all day.
Can you suggest some quick tips for home cooks to dress up “real” dishes?
NELSON: I would say that when you plan a meal, think of having a variety of colors so you don’t end up with a plate of all beige or brown food. It will look more appealing and is going to be better for you, too. Also, taking some care to not overcook vegetables to retain color and flavor will make for a more attractive and healthy plate
ZARLING: I often garnish with herbs that complement the dish, either chopped or whole sprigs. It helps to think of color and texture when you’re planning so everything doesn’t look the same. My daughters like to clean off the edges of the plate so it looks like you’re at restaurant. It’s silly, but it does dress things up a bit.
What are the tools of your trade?
NELSON: My essentials include sharp kitchen knives, several different types of tweezers and dental tools, Zap-a-gap glue (it’s great for gluing chicken and turkey skin down!), T-pins, and all different types of squirt bottles. Also, I always have a modified garment steamer on hand for steaming and melting cheese, a charcoal starter to grill meats, and a paint stripper to toast bread and cheeses. Sometimes I even use my fingers!
ZARLING: My toolbox has many crazy things: several pairs of scissors, tweezers, Q-tips, dental tools, hair picks, a ruler, long wooden skewers and spray bottles to name a few. I have a separate knife case and a totebox for larger tools like a paint stripper and a jerry rigged clothes steamer, both for melting cheese. I use my tweezers more that any other tool besides my knives. They are indispensable for moving minute items a fraction of an inch in a very confined space. I have several pairs because you wouldn’t ever want to be without them.
Are there any rules or guidelines you must follow on the job?
NELSON: If you are shooting a photo of a food for the package label, then you must use the product. It is important not to ‘over promise’ too much how the product will look, although we definitely enhance as much as we can, keeping the food looking its freshest. Also, it is important to be able to do the job required. If you have not had any experience styling ice cream or pizza, don’t say you can; it is a very expensive risk for the studio to have a stylist who is not experienced or is unable to do the job efficiently.
ZARLING: Over the years food photography has become a lot more casual. Crumbs on a plate make the food look natural and appetizing. We used to spend a lot of time wiping those crumbs away with Q-tips and Windex. Typically the client or marketing person will give guidelines about making adjustments to the product. Photography for packaging requires the most ‘truth in advertising.’
Any cool insider anecdotes to share?
NELSON: Everyone always loves to hear the freaky things we do with food, but the truth is, most of the time we just dissect and present food the best we can with what is sent. But, for the perfect roasted turkey, we do barely cook it, and it is brushed with self tanner and steamed with a garment steamer. And, behind every tall sub sandwich is a ‘scaffolding’ made of skewers and floral oasis.
ZARLING: To keep fresh herbs lively under hot lights we snip the ends and soak them in cold water with a few drops of dish soap.
What are the current job prospects for food stylists working in the Twin Cities?
NELSON: Minneapolis is a great city to be in for shooting food. I feel like I am consistently busy year round, but from what I hear from others in the business, it is not always that way. I tend to be slower January through March. Summer is the busiest, because that is when Thanksgiving and Christmas material is shot.
ZARLING: The economy has affected food stylists in the Twin Cities just like most other sectors. I don’t know too many stylists who are as busy as they have been in past years.
Any advice for wanna-be food stylists?
NELSON: Attend seminars and take classes if you can. There are stylists out there who teach them, and it’s a great way to get some practice without the stress of being on a job. Then, get experience assisting experienced food stylists, and maybe the first couple of times offer free assistance, or even ask if you can simply observe a shoot. Also, practice at home. It’s really important to be comfortable working with a variety of foods.
ZARLING: Aspiring food stylists need to be knowledgeable about all kinds of food. Assisting a more experienced stylist is the best way to learn as there aren’t many educational opportunities available. It helps to be flexible, creative and willing to do just about anything to get the job done.