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Eat and Drink

Secrets of food stylists

A model would never take part in a photo shoot without being prepped first. The same holds true when the model happens to be a hamburger or an apple pie.

In order to look right for the cameras, dishes are prepped by food stylists, who ensure that the food in cookbooks, magazines, advertisements, and packaging looks as good as possible under hot lights.

The perfect look used to be the goal. Now, casual-looking food is in, but the work of food stylists is as important as ever.ETHICAL ISSUES

Food stylists sometimes get a bad rap, with the assumptions that they use tricks to make food look better. “What food stylists really do is develop ways to hold food so that it looks good over time,” said Delores Custer, who’s been working as a food stylist since the 1970s.

Magazines don’t want stylists to use fake food and companies are not allowed to overpromise. So if, for example, a company is selling a primavera sauce, the stylist can’t add more vegetables. What they will do, stylist Lisa Homa said, is “go through many jars to find one with everything you need in it.”

Stylist Sarah Brian said the food that stylists cook is almost never cooked exactly according to the recipe. “For example, if you cooked all the vegetables in stir-fry together, they would get soggy and none of the ingredients would stand out.”


Ice cream is a notorious fake food. The melt-less concoction is made of Crisco, confectioners sugar and Karo syrup. The ice-cream technique isn’t used much these days. However, stylists do still employ tried-and-true techniques. Here are a few:

Acrylic ice. Ice cubes don’t sink, and they’re not completely clear, so stylists use hand-crafted acrylic cubes that allow for light to shine through.

Half-cooked poultry. When you cook a turkey or Cornish hen through, they tend not to brown evenly and the skin pulls away from the bird. To fix that problem, stylists will often leave a bird half-cooked. To get that perfect brown look, they’ll brush on a mixture of Angostura bitters and kitchen bouquet (a coloring used in gravy).

Glue as milk. A glass of milk is always a glass of milk, but milk in cereal? That’s a different story. Oftentimes stylists will use Elmer’s Glue, so the cereal won’t get soggy.

Making perfectly seeded buns. A big part of a stylist’s job takes place in the supermarket, where they must look for the perfectly round orange, the best wine label or, the perfectly seeded bun. If a hamburger bun doesn’t have enough seeds, stylists will often use Elmer’s Glue to create the appearance of more. The nice thing about Elmer’s, Custer says, is it dries clear.

Stacking a sandwich up high. Stylists will often use toothpicks to boost lunch meat.

Making a drink look chilly. Custer uses Karo syrup and water and brushes the mix on the glass to look chilled. She also said that adding some detergent makes a drink look just poured.

Making pizza cheesier. To make a pizza slice coming out of the oven look really good, the stylists will cut a slice out of the pie before cooking it, fill the slice with extra cheese and then tuck it back into the pie. When the pie is baked, this slice can be pulled out and the cheese will ooze.

Instant mashed potatoes to the rescue. Instant mashed potatoes were once used as a stand-in for ice cream. Now they’re often used as a sculpting base to prop up another dish. “Sometimes we’ll use them to fill a bowl of something else halfway. Recently, I used them to fill an apple pie (later topped with the apples),” Homa said. She stressed that it was not an ad for an apple pie.


Melting butter. Everyone likes melted butter on the top of their pancakes. To do that, stylists will warm up a spatula with a torch, and right before shooting, they’ll tap a pat of butter.

Giving swiss cheese more holes. Custer makes holes with pastry tips.

Crust fixes. Brian said she’d often glue together broken crust with Vaseline, as glue doesn’t stick well to pastry.

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