A Day in the Life of a Food Stylist
If you are a people person, have strong culinary technique and know how to problem solve on the fly, chances are you might make an excellent food stylist. That is according to Los Angeles-based food stylist Adam Pearson, who for the last decade has been styling the dishes seen in catalogs, magazines and cookbooks for such clients as Target, Crate and Barrel, and The Food Network.
I was in culinary school trying to figure out what I wanted to do after school, and I read about food stylists. I really felt like it was a good fit for me.
Problem solving in the food styling world means fusing culinary and design techniques in order to make recipes or food items look as enticing as possible. Because many stylists work as freelancers, salaries vary widely depending on where they live and the clients they work for. Payscale.com estimates that a food stylist with an associate degree just starting out in New York City makes a median salary of $43,000 per year.
To get an in-depth sense of the industry, and learn how to become a food stylist, we give you a day in the life of Adam Pearson.
Q: What is a food stylist?
A food stylist is a person who prepares food for the camera, photography or film. My jobs consist of mostly photography for cookbooks and editorial work.
Q: What do you do in a typical work day?
As a food stylist my job starts before the shoot day. Usually the client has sent recipes and art direction about a week before. This allows me time to source any out of the ordinary ingredients and figure out any prep work that might be able to be done before we shoot. If there is a lot of baking to do, we typically do that the day before.
The day of the shoot we get to the location or studio early; the majority of work I do is shot with natural light, so our day is over when the sun sets. Having an early start time allows us more time to shoot. Once at the studio we start prepping the first recipes to be shot. Clients arrive about an hour after us. We have a chat about the shot list for the day, go over the props, and then get to it. Total number of shots per day usually depends on the type of job: Cookbooks 8-12 verses advertising 2-6. Each type of job has different requirements and expectations.
I work directly with the photographer, art director and prop stylist. We set up and plate each of the recipes, taking time to get the food looking its best, making sure the props are perfect, then get approval from the client. When the shoot is over, we pack it all up and divide the leftover food. We try not to create too much waste.
I don’t often see the images again until they are in print.
Q. How did you become a food stylist?
I was in culinary school trying to figure out what I wanted to do after school, and I read about food stylists. I really felt like it was a good fit for me. Not knowing anything about it, I read what I could and started emailing local food stylists to see if I could assist or shadow them.
I sent about 10 to 15 emails and got one response! And it was a good one. I teamed up with an established stylist and for the next two years I followed him around the country from job to job learning the ins and outs of the industry. After two years of assisting, it was time I set out on my own.
There is no proper education or certification to become a food stylist. My best advice would be to go to culinary school, then try and find a stylist to take you on as an assistant. There are some stylists that teach workshops.
Q. What skills are required to be a great food stylist?
Confidence, people skills, the ability to problem solve and an eye for composition are a good start. You really need to know how to cook everything, from souffles to scallops and everything in between. I always say food styling is 10% technique, 10% managing clients expectations and 80% problem solving.
Q. What is the craziest thing you have ever prepared as a food stylist?
Off the top of my head, I’d say an eight pound suckling pig. It was a European recipe and trying to get a hold of a pig so small/young here in the States proved to be a challenge. Most butchers I called to source it thought I was crazy. It was a little sad, but delicious!
Q. Do you work solo, or do you have a team?
I’ve worked with no assistants and up to four on larger projects. Like in any kitchen, having a solid team makes the day smoother. I consider myself very lucky to have two awesome assistants. I’m not able to take them on every job; budgets dictate that.
Q. What type of clients do you work for?
Anyone who needs a food stylist and has a budget to book one. I work with authors and publishers, advertising agencies, PR agencies, production companies, major brands, fast food companies, small restaurants and major retailers.
Q. What advice would you give people who want to get into food styling?
Whether you have a culinary degree or just a strong knowledge of cooking, my advice would be to assist an established stylist. Food styling is different than working in a restaurant. When you assist you get the opportunity to not only learn to style food, but learn about all of the other parts of running a business like invoicing, bookkeeping, as well as building relationships with photographers and art buyers. It’s not an easy industry to break into, so don’t give up!
Ready to learn more? Culinary arts training such as Pearson’s can provide a firm foundation for a career in food styling. Some culinary schools offer specialized coursework in food styling essentials. If you plan to work as a freelancer, taking a few business management courses may help bolster your invoicing and bookkeeping skills. Explore your training options and learn more about this unique career.
- Adam Pearson, interview with the author via email, October 2015
- Salary Report, Food Stylist, New York, New York, http://www.payscale.com/