From Issue 2: Makers
By Gabriel Cabrera
Photos by Joann Pai
Food and prop styling has become the Kylie Jenner lips of the food world: No one knows how it became such a thing, but it’s there, and it seems to be getting bigger by the minute. At the beginning, food styling was only done by chefs and food corporations shooting images for advertisements. Now, it’s gone to new heights with the rise of social media and food blogging, and just like with any other rumor on the internet, we need to peel off the layers and find out what the job entails.
I know what you’re thinking: “Boy… who the F is you?” And first of all, I’m not a boy, not yet a gentleman, all I need is time, a moment that is mine…wait, no! That’s Britney. Sorry, back to the story: My name is Gabriel and I am a food and prop stylist. I style all day Monday to Friday, and weekends too. I style beans in burritos, cocktails for magazines, homewares for retail shops, and even fresh spinach in geometric shapes to be used in infographics.
I thought we could do something fun today: make you my imaginary assistant for a corporate project, where you’ll run all of my errands. This way you’ll find out what goes on behind the scenes and what it takes to style a project from beginning to end. Not all food and prop styling is açai bowls and latte art on Instagram.
Today’s “imaginary” project is: styling a red quinoa chicken salad for an undisclosed airline’s new first class menu. Ready? Grab your tweezers, your sexiest apron, and a jockstrap (we are going out after the shoot). Let’s do some stylin’!
Planning the project
This is the part where all of your feng shui, meditation, and “calm the hell down” tea infusions come to play, as you will need them to endure all the planning ahead. This is the meat and potatoes of food and prop styling and it goes down like this:
Working with your Creative Director, the airline’s Brand Manager, and a couple other cool cats such as Senior Graphic Designers to set the overall goals. After you figure out what everyone needs, you (and your Creative Director) must translate all of their feedback into the visual direction for the project. If you make it out of those meetings with your brain still in one piece, you are one tough cookie!
Once the visual direction is set (thank god) it’s time to collect about a million samples of everything and anything you might need for the shoot: dishes, cutlery, surfaces, etc. This also includes food samples: In this case you’ll need to cook quinoa using different cooking times to select the best one for your shoot. You’ll need to cook several (at least a dozen) chicken breasts using varied cooking methods. You also need to sort out where to buy any hard-to-find ingredients for the shoot. Once a decision has been made based on your samples (and by this point you may have run out of “calm the hell down” tea and switched to a flask full of Fireball Whiskey, because you’re classy like that), it’s time to go shopping!
"...you must choose the best and only the best looking produce and props. No basic bitches allowed."
When you go shopping for props and food you have to always keep two things in mind. First, you gotta shop like a stylist. That means: you must choose the best and only the best looking produce and props. No basic bitches allowed. Second, you gotta get creative with your shopping and you may need to bat your lashes or bounce a penny on your butt to get a store manager to let you borrow-and-return expensive items out of your budget. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. (Regardless, everyone loves seeing a stylist bouncing a penny on his butt.)
Here’s the deal: As a stylist you gotta nail it, there’s no room for mistakes. The airline (or any client) and your boss count on you to find whatever is needed to make it happen. No excuses. Do you need microgreens or baby kale? Good luck finding those at the farmers market in winter. That is why I like to call this step of the process the “I started day-drinking because of this project” phase. Totally normal. Right?
The day before the shoot
By now you probably are going by with seventeen cups of coffee a day and a bagel. Good, the stylist force is strong within you, my young padawan.
Now comes the fun part where you get to pick your heroes. Heroes are the most perfect pieces of food that will become the showstoppers of the photo. That means you must sort through pounds and pounds of salad greens to find the most gorgeous leaves. You’ll cook dozens of chicken breasts and tag the best looking ones, and a few too many pounds of red quinoa, and separate everything into portions. Spending two hours painstakingly combing through a bag of salad to find one perfect leaf is normal. Discussing with your coworkers if “this tomato” makes you feel all the feelings versus “this other one” is regular lunch talk. Going to bed at 3 a.m. after sorting microgreens by size is your new yoga. You’ll also need to practice your “drip.” That means you’ll have to test how the dressing will drip onto the salad and the chicken, and you will need to adjust the consistency using your magic styling tricks (a.k.a. thickening agents). Oh, and what about the props? Same selection process for all of your props!
Ay chica, are you dizzy? Don’t worry, we’re almost there!
You better get used to hearing things like, “the chicken is not chickeny enough; make it more chickeny please” and “the color in that plate looks like a Pantone 124-9 coated; do you have one that’s more towards 126-1 C?”
Day of the shoot
OMG! The day is here and you’ll be the king (or queen) of the show. Put those comfy pants on because you’re about to squat for your life. Seriously, squats are a food stylist’s de facto photo shoot stance.
The day of the shoot is more or less the easiest part of the job. You already figured out 90% of the stuff in all of your planning, so it’s a matter of putting everything together. The tricky part here is to make everyone happy: the airline’s brand manager, your creative director, and designers. You better get used to hearing things like, “that salad leaf is too pointy,” “the chicken is not chickeny enough; make it more chickeny please,” “the color in that plate looks like a Pantone 124-9 coated; do you have one that’s more towards 126-1 C?” and my personal favorite, “Can you make it more yummy? Not too much, just a touch of yum.”
See, this is why all of your hard work and prep pays off, because no matter how many requests they throw at you, you’ll be prepared and ready to rumble.
End of the project. On to the next!
As a full-time stylist, I always have to be ready for my next project, and there are a few things I do to help save myself time and energy: If I have to purchase props (because otherwise I return them) I make sure they’re sleek and modern so that I can use them in future photo shoots; sleek and modern tend to be the most versatile. And when I go prop shopping, I always bring my editorial calendar to check what’s happening in the next couple weeks; this way I can purchase items in advance and avoid multiple shopping trips. Lastly, I give leftover food and ingredients a second life by styling them to create “spark” content, meaning, photos or videos for Instagram or other social media channels. This creates conversation with my or my clients’ followers (clients love it when you surprise them with little things like this!).
As with anything else, practice makes perfect—even small Instagram projects help me hone my skills for bigger projects. Food and prop styling is an exhilarating and holy-shit-Batman job, and I wouldn’t change it for anything else. The next time you see a sexy piece of glistening meat on Grind—err, Instagram—or a deliciously sparkling cocktail on Pinterest, you know all the work that went into it. ///