Testing, testing. [Photographs: Tara Striano]

When I decided to leave America's Test Kitchen and become a food stylist, I had a working knowledge of what the job entailed because I'd been working on the magazine's photo shoots, but as with any more alternative career path, I didn't know exactly how to get into it.

I talked to friends who worked in publishing and eventually, when certain I was giving notice, ventured to ask the person closest to the source: food stylist Mary Jane Sawyer, the key stylist for Cook's Country magazine. I called the agency that represented her, Ennis, Inc., and scheduled a meeting. The big question: How do I begin? The answer: you need a portfolio.

The prospect of compiling a portfolio, of starting from scratch once again, was daunting. But food styling was what I truly wanted and I am one of those people who doggedly goes after what she wants. I started calling every food photographer in town to set up meetings and then, test shoots.

Test shoots are personal projects you work on with a photographer on your own time. The images become part of your portfolio, which you'll need to obtain actual work.
Even after you've built a portfolio and a client list, test shoots continue to be crucial to stylists because they provide the opportunity to establish new relationships with photographers and solidify existing ones. Most importantly, tests allow you to literally play with your food and exercise creativity.

The process of testing is a little bit like dating. As a stylist, you work hand-in-hand with the photographer. There will always be art directors, agency people, and clients, and all of them will have input on your work on the set, but in the end, it's the stylist and photographer who have the most crucial bond.

Some tests go swimmingly—you are smitten, ready to plan the next rendezvous. Others, well, I wouldn't sit by the phone expecting a call the next day. Or two days after that.

The images above are from a test shoot with New York City-based photographer Tara Striano. Our first meeting was over coffee and shortly thereafter we got together to shoot some wintry images of roast pork, pomegranates, and clementines. A few weeks later, we got together again for chocolate cake. This is an example of a good date well on its way to going steady.

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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