Two years ago I received a phone call.
‘Hi Kelly, we’ve been watching the evolution of your blog and really like what we are seeing. Would you be interested in doing some food styling for us?’
‘Sure, I would love to!’, I said, with no hesitation, as my thoughts raced in terror.
At the time, I didn’t have a clear idea of what food styling was, and I certainly would never have dared call myself a food stylist.
Now, with two years of professional work under my belt, I feel a bit safer saying ‘I’m a food stylist’. The people that have hired me, and paid me, to do it, have been happy with my work, and, I continue to receive requests to do it, so I figure I’m doing something right.
Over time, I’ve realized that because I’m based in Halifax, what I do is kind of unique. In larger cities, a food stylist is often hired as part of a larger team with a chef, a prop stylist and a photographer. Here in Halifax, where the market is much smaller, I often play all roles.
Chef – preps and makes the food
Food stylist – makes the chef’s food look it’s best for the camera
Prop stylist – sources dishes, linens, utensils, glassware and anything else that will best tell the story of the food
Photographer – lights the set and takes the actual pictures
I can develop recipes, shop for ingredients, prep the food, make/cook the food, shop for/find the right props, style the food, light the food and take the final pictures of the food (and people wonder why it takes so long to get one shot – it’s so much work!). Sometimes people hire me to just do one or two of those jobs, for example, sometimes I work with other photographers as the food stylist. I’ve also worked as a prop stylist with another photographer and a chef on set. Let me be clear about one thing – I AM NOT A CHEF, but I feel at home in a kitchen and I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 19. I’m comfortable and confident with food preparation. Making and photographing food for my blog is how I’ve learned food styling and it’s how I practice.
Last week, I was thinking about that first day, that first phone call. How nervous and scared I was. How excited I was. And I thought, maybe there are other people out there who could use a little help – food bloggers, restaurant owners taking shots for their social media accounts, people who are curious about food styling. A top 10 list would have helped me so much on that first job.
I had a hard time choosing my top 10, and so, I’m including a few ‘honourable mentions‘ at the bottom of the list. I’m sure some other food stylists might disagree with my choices, but these are the 10 items I find myself using over and over, that I won’t leave home without.
Top 10 items in my food styling kit:
1. paring knife – I usually take a chef’s knife along when I’m working, but a small sharp paring knife tucks neatly away and can be used for slicing or spearing food. The tip of the knife is useful for nudging things around with some delicacy when you can’t find your tweezers (which happens often). A paring knife is also useful for opening plastic food packaging like bags of rice or frozen shrimp.
2. diaper wipes – Absolutely essential for me. I use them to wipe down backdrops and clean up smears and smudges on plates. You will often see me on set with a diaper wipe in one hand and a fistful of cotton swabs in the other. I find it useful to wet the end of a cotton swab with a diaper wipe to clean up tiny crumbs and splashes.
3. paint brushes – I keep an assortment of sizes in my bag. Larger ones are great for brushing crumbs (and cat fur) off of backdrops. Smaller brushes are perfect for painting olive oil or sauce on food to make it look a little more luscious.
4. scissors – Good for snipping chives, fresh herbs bacon and many other ingredients. Also useful for opening packaging and cutting fabric.
5. spray bottles – I keep 3 mini spray bottles in my kit – one with olive oil, one with a 50/50 mix of glycerin and water and one with plain water. I use the olive oil the most. You can brush olive oil on just about anything that needs a little shine – meat, greens, vegetables and a little goes a along way. Start with a small amount and increase if necessary. The glycerin and water mixture can be sprayed on the outside of a glass to look like condensation on a cold drink. Plain water is great for perking up salad greens that have gone a little limp.
6. glass beads – I keep a small Ziploc bag of about 20 of them in my kit (I got mine at Michaels). I mostly use them for styling soup – lay them in the bottom of a soup bowl, and ladle enough broth over them to just cover. Then, with tweezers, arrange chunky ingredients like meat, vegetables or pasta on top. The glass beads prevent your ingredients from sinking to the bottom of the bowl, and, you can place them exactly where you want them. Ladle in a little more broth if necessary to make your soup look more natural. Glass beads also come in handy as a wedge under things like chicken breasts or steaks when you want to angle them a little more towards the camera.
7. tweezers – I can’t live without tweezers on set. I got the tall set on the left at Cucina Moderna and the smaller two are Tweezerman tweezers – the red ones are slant tip and the silver ones are needle tip. My hands are fairly small but they feel oaf-like in relation to what my tweezers can do when placing food and garnishes in position.
8. cotton swabs – Mostly used in conjunction with diaper wipes, these are probably the #1 item I can’t live without. I use so many on shoots that I actually keep an whole box of Q-tips in my bag. Again, I find it useful to wet the end of a cotton swab with a diaper wipe to clean up crumbs and splashes.
9. lighter – I actually don’t use my lighter that often but when you need to light a candle on set, there’s nothing worse than asking around, hoping somebody has one. It’s embarassing and I hate feeling unprepared, so I always keep one with me.
10. duct tape – Duct tape is one of those things you just never know where it could be useful. It can secure bunchy or wrinkly fabrics, can be balled up and shoved under food to prop it up, can keep dishes or silverware in place – seriously, you just never know.
– plastic tray – Think cafeteria-style rectangle plastic tray. I found one at Value Village and when I arrive on set, I place all of the food styling items I need for the day on my tray. When I use any items, like scissors or tweezers, I always try to remember to put them back on the tray, that way I’m not wasting time searching for things that I’ve left lying around.
– heat tool – I bought one of these for scrapbooking years ago. Now I keep it in my bag to melt things like cheese and butter. Mine looks like this. It gets pretty hot so I melt things in stages, take a shot at each stage and then choose the best photo later on in post.
– Kitchen Bouquet – A teeny tiny drop of Kitchen Bouquet in water can look like white wine – add less for lighter wines like Pinot Grigio and more for yellow oaky Chardonnay. If you add even more you can mimic the look of cola or coffee.
– modelling clay (aka Play-Doh) – Can be torn into small pieces and formed into almost any shape for propping up food that needs a little ‘lift’.
– paper towel – Food styling can be messy, and, you often have to wash your own dishes in limited space – paper towels come in handy for clean up and drying dishes.
FYI – my actual ‘kit’ – I keep all of my smaller items in a large zippered make-up bag and then store everything, including my plastic tray, heat tool etc, in a large cloth shopping bag with handles.
My list of everyday run-of-the-mill household items may not seem like much, but now, when the phone rings?