Life of a Food Stylist: How I Got This Gig

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Costume change. [Photograph: María del Mar Sacasa]

Life is a big domino effect. Knock over one little black polka dotted tile and watch the rest start to topple, fall, overlap, clatter. This isn't a memoir, so I won't go back to July 23rd, 1980 in Granada, Nicaragua, but we can flip the pages to a few chapters ago and see when I began to explore the route to my current occupation.

I went to Northwestern University and spent freshman year in that institution's fine theatre program, until it became clear that my embarrassing lack of singing ability would render me useless on stage. I transferred to the film department and spent the remaining three years of college wondering if it was truly my medium.

I moved to New York after graduation and juggled two unpaid internships at indie film companies. A few months later, I did the grown-up thing and got a job at In Style Magazine's fashion department. I loved writing and figured I'd be up for penning articles about the tucks and folds of fabric. I didn't feel like I'd completely sold out.

Next up: assistant to the editor-in-chief at Lucky Magazine, followed by a position in the communications department at Vogue. It was heady but stressful and I had a deeply unsettling sensation that I didn't know...anything. I wasn't writing and cringed at the prospect of waking up every single day, for the rest of my life, feeling hollow.

Cooking is something that I've always enjoyed, but other than staring longingly at the Gourmet magazine logo in the Condé Nast elevator I had never considered taking it up professionally.

And then, out of the blue, I did some research and within two weeks I was corseted not with a chic belt but with apron strings. I loved every second of my time at the French Culinary Institute.

A move to Boston was in the works and I applied for a job at America's Test Kitchen. I'd interned at Bouley and worked at Marcy Brownstein Catering, but by that point knew I wanted to stick to publishing. At Cook's Country Magazine I developed recipes, tested obsessively, wrote articles, and most importantly, worked on photo shoots and ATK's two PBS shows.

Working on shoots meant attending art meetings, discussing the shots, food, and plating, and making all of the food that would ultimately be styled and photographed for the magazine. It was my favorite part of the job.

Mary Jane Sawyer, the stylist on the Cook's Country jobs, was generous with advice, and when I left the magazine, I met with her rep at Ennis, Inc. My résumé was odd, but it all came together, like so many tiny puzzle pieces.

I began arranging test shoots with photographers and assembled a portfolio fairly quickly. Within a few months, I had a modest list of clients, and now, it's all about growing and learning and creating.

Food styling is a unique and special job, but it is difficult. The assignments are specific, clients can be particular, and your body takes a beating. At the end of the day, however, I know I'm lucky to be doing something that satisfies me as as much as a perfect piece of chocolate cake.

About the author: María del Mar Sacasa is a recipe developer, food stylist, and author of the food blog High Heels & Frijoles. Behind her girly façade lurks a truck driver's appetite. Read about her cravings and suffer through her occasional rants on Twitter @HHandFrijoles and Pinterest.

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