Think of a food stylist as a chef cum magician all rolled into one as they have an in depth understanding of how food works and reacts to certain ingredients through culinary science. Sometimes food does not turn out the way it is supposed to be and they know the tips and tricks to transform a disaster into a winning dish. Not only are they able to cook and style the food, they can style the tabletop scene as well. Essentially they need to ensure that the food is ready to shoot at the appropriate time and looks great throughout the shoot.
I typically work with a food stylist in a few scenarios such as when there is no chef to cook the food, which is typical for startups that outsource their food manufacturing to a food factory, on cookbook shoots where the food stylist is in charge of testing the recipe beforehand and cooking on the shoot, on brand shoots and on restaurant shoots where we need to complete a long shot list in a day.
Food stylists play an especially important role when it comes to recipe testing prior to shoot day as sometimes what is envisioned for the shoot can’t come to reality due to the recipe, the ingredients or the presentation. Thus tweaking of the recipe may be needed or maybe scrapping the entire idea and coming up with a new concept could be the way to go. Food stylists are also in charge of choosing and buying the best ingredients and produce, prepping them, plating and styling the food. Typically the food stylists would prepare 2 to 3 times the amount of ingredients for each dish unless the nature of the project requires them to prepare even more for certain shots. Some of them have an extensive prop library which they provide as part of their services so you do not need to source for suitable props for the shoot. At times, food stylists have to trick the eye for levitating shots which requires more finesse from the food stylist to manipulate or rig the food in such a way that it looks realistic although you could see a bunch of rods stuck to it. Occasionally the food was altered such that it would look good on camera but is totally inedible in real life.
Typically for restaurant shoots, the chef is involved in cooking and plating the food so I provide tabletop styling services, minor tweaks to the food and cleaning any oil or dirty spots on dishes so that it looks good in camera. For elaborate table scenes, while I can perform the job I usually recommend my clients to hire a food stylist so that I can focus on the lighting and photography aspect and this usually means we can do more shots in a day.
Sometimes I may be called upon to manipulate the food as it was uncooked or the food is to be presented in a certain manner. While I do provide solutions to such situations as they happen on the shoot without any prior warning, I do give a heads up to the client that it would take time, would likely result in a delay of the shoot and we may be unable to complete the shot list. That is why a creative brief, mood board or reference images are key and something that I always ask from my clients prior to the shoot regardless of how long we have worked together. This is so that I can anticipate the problems and provide solutions to what they wish to achieve during the shoot.
A look at their portfolios is a great way to assess their style to see whether it is right for the project. For certain food that are more complex and tricky to handle such as ice-cream or pizza for example, it is best to work with food stylists that specialise in them or have worked with such food extensively. I typically speak to them in depth about the scope of the project as it tells me whether they are experienced and can perform well for the project that I have.
Food stylists fees vary depending on their experience and the scope of the project. For tabletop styling shoots, food stylists typically charge $800 per day whereas for food styling shoots their day rate starts at $1600 per day. Pre-prep days, ingredients shopping, prop shopping, provision of props from their prop library are usually excluded from their day rates and are additional add-ons to the project. Typically prep days and prop shopping rates are 50% of their day rates but varies based on the food stylist. If you do need them to double up as a prop stylist, let them know in advance as that may affect their fees. Many food stylists work either alone or with an asssitant so it’s key to find out whether the fees quoted includes their assistant as well.
Food stylists play a key role in a food shoot and they get booked out quickly so it is essential to plan ahead if your project requires an experienced food stylist! Reach out if you have questions!