Life of a Food Stylist: The Devil Is in the Details

Editor's note: You already know Maria—and to know is to love her—from her recipe columns on cake, sandwiches, and Latin American sweets. She's adding another to her plate: this weekly series where she'll share her adventures as a food stylist. Maria will give us a peek into her fascinating job from the shopping to the styling to the shooting—and yes, the food is real! —The Mgmt.


Take a closer look. [Photograph: María del Mar Sacasa]

Hello, and welcome to my new column. I am a food stylist, an esoteric trade that can be incredibly elating and soul-lifting, but also maddening.

The devil is in the details, and, although my career is still fresh, I have seen that fire-breathing horned creature many a time in minutiae like irregularly arranged sesame seeds on a hamburger bun.

The most frequently asked question with regard to my job is: "Is the food fake?" There is ample fake food, and I know that in days of yore the use of it was rampant and accepted. By the time I came into this business, however, it was all but gone, or at least, I've never used it.

Each dish and beverage (with the exception of acrylic ice) I've ever styled has been made of real food that I have carefully shopped for, sorted out, cooked, teased, and coaxed to look its best in front of the camera.

But before I begin to ramble, let me talk about one of the most important aspects of the job: attention to detail. It's in those moments of careful inspection when you really get to know ingredients that will be the foundation for a photo or video shoot.

Once I have job details and a shopping list neatly written out, I hunt for the goods. If I'm shooting, for instance, a drink that has a lemon slice or wedge as garnish, I will spend the better part of a half hour sorting through lemons at the market. I look for fruit of similar size, color, and texture (what, you've never noticed how some lemons have heavily pockmarked skin, as if they had suffered through teenage acne?).

I also keep in mind that the lemon should not be so large that it will look enormous on the lip of a slim Tom Collins glass, or so small that it looks like an extra from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

Certain ingredients are even more specific, as they have been requested by the client. For instance, for a McDonald's smoothie shoot, all pineapples had to have a 5- to 6-inch crown circumference because of the angle in which they'd be shot. You can see the national TV spot here.

Picking and sorting continue on set. If a client is providing product, such as frozen french fries, they will often send enough to build a haystack-sized pile. Plastic bags are torn open and the fries sorted out into groups by length and degree of curvature.

It sounds insane, especially as I see the words rolling out on the screen, and I do think it takes an odd sort to properly carry out—and enjoy—this job. I've always considered myself right brain dominant, but when I catch myself intently gazing at blueberry crowns and fussing over a small wrinkle in a pea, I wonder if the left is slowly taking over.

I suppose the skill set is similar to other punctilious metiers, such as mortician, brain surgeon, serial killer.

Stay tuned for more, and, questions are always welcome.