Back of the House: What Does a Food Stylist Do?
Editor's Note: Welcome to our new column, Back of the House, in which we meet the people behind some of the coolest jobs in the food industry. First up: Lisa Homa, a professional food stylist in NYC.
When I was a kid, I saw an overly-serious nightly news special on food styling. It focused on fast food advertising, and all of the tricks used to make a Big Mac look like a tall, beefy spectacle instead of, well, a Big Mac. It included things like artificial grill marks painted on the beef patties, ketchup-looking substances injected between toppings, and sesame seeds glued just-so to an unearthly-looking bun. From that point on, I stopped trusting the food I saw in magazines, assuming there was no way to make real food look that perfect. Sure, Andrew Zimmern says "if it looks good, eat it," but how could I know if I was eating the creation of a chef or a stylist?
As it turns out, my childhood fears are mostly unfounded—these days, food that looks good enough to eat almost certainly is. Why? Because there's a good chance that the stylist who arranged it also cooked it. Lisa Homa, a New York-based food stylist whose work can be seen everywhere from Bon Appetit to Cracker Jack packaging, says her career wouldn't have been possible without a full culinary education. "It's really the only way of learning this trade," she told me over burgers recently. "I started out in graphic arts and had the visual sensibility, but I wanted to segue to doing something with food because I've always loved to cook," she said. After taking a week-long seminar on food styling, she was encouraged to attend culinary school, where she could learn more about what she'd be working with.
Homa cooks the food for most of her shoots, using real ingredients that are prepared and arranged on-set. "When you're given an assignment, you never know what you're going to have to make," she said. "And even if the recipe isn't well-tested, you have to know how to make it work." Often, Homa does practice cooking runs before the shoot to see how ingredient will interact. On the day of the shoot, prop stylists set the stage (tableware, flowers, etc) while Homa cooks, and ideally the photographer can capture everything before the cheese congeals or the steak dries out. Homa says culinary training allows her to look at the recipe and visualize it, while her artistic skill helps her know just how much oil to brush on that steak to make it glisten like it just came off the grill.
Of course, there are still times when a stylist's instincts are ignored. "Recently, I was doing a shoot for a taco, and the representative from the agency, who wasn't very experienced with food shoots, really wanted me to put this big sprig of cilantro in the middle of the plate," said Homa. "It looked so dated—to me it just ruined the shot. But sometimes you have to let it go." Some of Homa's assignments bring new challenges, like figuring out how to thread fruit through yogurt, or the best way to pipe margarine spread into a tub to achieve the coveted "swirl" effect on top.
Homa says there's more of a focus on real food with real ingredients in editorial shoots than in commercial or advertising shoots. "Early in my career, I assisted on a fast food commercial, and I lasted one day," Homa said. "I literally sat in a room for 10 hours gluing sesame seeds on a bun, and I thought 'This is not the type of food styling I want to do.'" Today, Homa may search through hundreds of buns for a hamburger shoot, but there's a difference between finding the perfect bun that already exists and fabricating a new one.
The ethics of food styling are murky, at best. While there is no governing body to determine what you can and cannot do to alter food, most stylists are acutely aware of truth in advertising. Homa traces that to an iconic 1968 case regarding Campell's soup and a pile of marbles. As Ad Age explains, the agency "slipped some marbles into a bowl of Campbell's vegetable soup to keep the vegetables from sinking to the bottom," thus making the bowl look fuller than it actually was. A suit was brought against the agency by the Federal Trace Commission, though there's still an argument over whether this was truly false advertising. Advertising lawyer Stuart Friedel told D Magazine, "Nobody thought they were doing anything wrong," and many pointed out that without the marbles, the soup looked like it had fewer vegetables than it actually did.
In Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food For The Camera, Custer discusses these questions, separating the issues into categories: "enhance," "stretch" or "cheat." Most companies don't want to outright cheat (by using other products or fake food), but the definition of "stretching" is vague. Marbles in soup is one thing, but what about using a shallow bowl? Or propping up the filling with more vegetables, which is generally acceptable? "Believe me, things are done," said Homa. "There are still food stylists known for doing ice cream—making that perfect scoop for the front of the package. Well, that takes a room of several chest freezers at different temperatures, and someone who is really skilled at sitting the perfect scoop on a hunk of dry ice."
Fortunately, the recent trend toward more natural-looking food gives Homa more freedom. "There was a time when I would never be asked to cook an egg with a crispy, brown edge," she said, "and now I'm asked to do that all the time. Which is great, because I don't have to spend two hours trying to make one egg in the perfect low-temperature oil, with no bubbles, with a perfectly round white and yolk centered just-so. I can just cook the egg."
Todays's egg speaks to our evolving ideas of what Homa calls "appetite appeal," which has changed over the years, probably for the better. (The stylists on set for Weight Watchers in 1974 weren't doing the recipes any favors.) The main focus now is on making food look fresh. "Something that just says it's real is best," said Homa.
Homa's intern, Gracie, a second-year Art History student at Oberlin, recognizes that these skills (yes, margarine-piping is a skill) have real world applications. "Think about Instagram—more and more people are thinking about how their food looks. It's become completely normal to style your food." The fact is we eat with our eyes. As long as we don't start gluing seeds to our buns, there's nothing wrong with that.