Food Styling

Food plays a significant role in television and movies, often helping to set the scene in a way that little else can. Whether it’s an intimate restaurant date, a disorganized family dinner, or a sumptuous Thanksgiving meal, food shown in a scene can help the audience know what to expect, as well as facilitate their immersion in the story. Behind the scenes, though, shooting food on a film or movie set presents some difficulties. Even the tastiest food may not hold up well under hot lights for hours of repetitive takes, meaning those in charge of getting the perfect shot have to get creative. That’s where a production’s food stylist comes in. We spoke with food stylist Janice Poon to learn more about this fascinating art.

(In)Edible Art

It takes a lot of work to make food look good on camera, and that’s just for food being used as props. For food to look appetizing, it needs to glisten, and remain full and plump, which can be difficult since many foods actually shrink when cooked. The color must be full and bright, with any and all imperfections obscured.

“Food for still photography rarely gets eaten, so you can use all sorts of inedible aids to make the food look fresh and delicious,” says Poon. “Wire, spray gloss, detergent, and other unmentionables are often deployed and the food can sit under the lights for hours with no worries.

“For still photography, the use of tricks is the fascinating part of the business. One of the most common but unexpected tricks is for perfect roast turkey: I never cook the bird. If you roast it, the bird browns unevenly and as soon as it cools, the skin shrivels and tears and the meat shrinks and pulls away from the drumsticks. I leave the turkey raw so it looks plump, and then paint it with gravy browning and angostura bitters so it looks roasted to golden perfection, then brush with oil so it looks juicy.”

Hungry Hannibal

Food that does need to be eaten is a little more difficult to prepare, especially if actors have special dietary requirements. A vegan actor may have a scene in which he or she needs to eat an egg or steak, leaving the food stylist with the task of concocting a convincing and edible alternative. For example, a grilled and dyed slice of watermelon can be made to imitate a juicy piece of steak.

This became especially important on the set of Hannibal, the TV show that drove Janice Poon to notoriety as a food stylist. The story follows a serial killer and cannibal who prepares his victims in increasingly intricate recipes, requiring Poon to figure out how to imitate a human lung or leg.

“Clay-baked man’s thigh, Peking-style whole human, anchovies swimming in formation suspended in aspic, roasted rabbits leaping over a campfire, feast for Klingons,” lists Poon, detailing some of the outlandish meals she’s been called upon to create across a range of productions like Hannibal, American Gods, and Star Trek.

“Food safety is an issue, but not terribly problematic – it’s just part of the job for anyone preparing food,” explains Poon. “Constantly rotating the food to ensure that it stays within the zones of time [and] temperature of safety to prevent pathogen growth is the only way of ensuring food safety.

“Actor dietary restrictions [are] much more of a problem. Many actors have gluten-free vegan diets. This is the biggest challenge when preparing food that needs to comply with the script, which is often meat/dairy/flour based. For example, I had to prepare raw beef for an actor to wolf down in a vampire show. The actor was vegan, so of course I couldn’t use meat, and gluten-averse so I couldn’t use setan (a wheat-based meat substitute enjoyed by many vegetarians). And of course, it has to taste good because the actor has to repeat many takes to do each scene.”

A Day in the Life

Being a food stylist means working around hectic and often irregular film schedules, which might require staying up all night to create tiny birds out of meringue, or waking up early to source pig lungs.

“A food stylist generally shops and pre-prepares the food on his/her own premises then [goes] to set the day of the shoot to set up and prep the food for the scene,” says Poon. “The hours vary widely depending on the scene and the travel varies according to where the set is located. Shooting on location is the same as shooting at the studio since in neither case are you working in your own premises. You need portable equipment and the correct quantity of food, groceries, and assistants.”

Styling for movies and television isn’t the only option available to those who want to make food look good on camera.

“Food styling for cookbooks is one niche that can be very creative and lucrative because each cookbook requires dozens of images,” explains Poon. “Similar, in that it requires styling for still photography, is editorial (food and lifestyle magazines), which is mostly “beauty shots” if it’s a glossy-style of magazine. A magazine may have a blog that requires a food stylist to prep food for how-to videos. Other stylists work in advertising doing mostly commercials. TV food competition shows require a different type of food stylist that does mostly shopping and polishing the food the contestants make.”

Food styling can be a lot of fun and very creative. Since one job leads to another, you can explore different niches until you find the type of food styling you enjoy the most, and it can lead to other opportunities, like becoming a best-selling cookbook author, as I did.”

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.