Ever scrolled through your social feed or flipped through a magazine and come across a plate of food almost too beautiful to eat? Thank the food stylist.
Of course, there are many hands that go into creating, photographing and publishing such work, but the food stylist has a hefty helping. From prepping the food to plating, there’s so much more that goes into what you see in the photo.
We caught up with three local food stylists to find out more about their tasty trade and the ingredients you need to pursue the career yourself. Let’s dig in.
First things first, what is food styling?
If this is the first time you’ve heard of food styling as a career option, you’re probably not alone. It’s a unique profession, mostly pursued by culinary school graduates or foodies with an eye for composition.
Food stylists typically work with chefs, photographers and more to source, cook, prepare, and then style dishes for a variety of mediums including (but not limited to) magazines, television, cookbooks, digital platforms, advertising, etc.
Food stylists make the food camera ready. Rishon Hanners likens them to makeup artists for food in the intro to her YouTube series Food Stylist Vs. which we love.
Now for the introductions.
Each has an impressive body of work that will leave you drooling. Keep scrolling for a Q&A and of course, some yummy food photos they’ve styled.
What were your first introductions to food styling?
Rishon Hanners: The first time I experienced food styling was on a tour of the studio and office building during my interview process before I became a Fellow/Intern with Oxmoor House Books after culinary school. I was taken on a photo set and watched them set-up, style, and photograph, and I’ll never forget! It was a shot of sliced turkey with stuffing and gravy. Must have been Thanksgiving. Ha!
Torie Cox: I didn’t even know food styling was a thing until my internship in the test kitchens at Time Inc. I had a lot of responsibilities, but one of my main roles was to assist the food stylists. When one of them went on maternity leave, I stepped up (or was pushed, rather) to the plate and the rest is history.
Erin Merhar: Someone in the Career Services office of my culinary school contacted me shortly after I graduated. He let me know that a food stylist had reached out looking for an assistant, as she had injured her hand. Literally, I became her right hand! She worked with a lot of clients in daytime television, so I immediately got to start working on live TV sets like The View and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon with lots of different celebrity chefs and Food Network stars.
What has your work looked like since the pandemic? What challenges have you had to overcome?
RH: The pandemic definitely forced us to pivot in multiple ways. We completely vacated our studio space for a time… I worked from home for a few months doing recipe development, food styling, and video projects. After that, we shifted to setting up a studio space in my home. I paired up with photographer Antonis Achilleos, and we converted my garage into a home studio.
Working with food, cooking up to 6 recipes a day in my own home was a huge adjustment… AND THE DIRTY DISHES!!! So many dirty dishes… I have been back working in the studio since July, it just got too hot to keep working out of my garage.
TC: The freelance world came to a halt in March of 2020. I didn’t work for almost 3 months. I quickly started hustling to make meals and desserts for anyone around town as a way to make some cash and keep busy. Keeping busy cooking for others kept me from sitting around in worry and dread, and cooking is what I have always done to relieve stress.
EM: Because this job requires working in person and on teams, work stopped suddenly in March as the states closed down many non-essential businesses. I was lucky to have a couple of jobs to keep me going in the March-May quarantine period, but only because we stripped our team down to just a photographer and I, and shot in his garage rather than a studio. I multi-tasked on set as the food stylist, prop stylist, and my own assistant (!)
And alternatively, in what areas do you think you’ve grown over the last year?
RH: The challenges we have had to overcome are pretty much endless… We are still having to figure out what a better, safer work environment looks like, and the growth is equally immeasurable. My food styling itself has grown this year, and I am doing projects that challenge me for brands I am proud to represent.
TC: I learned that it is OK to take breaks and to spend more time with my loved ones. My perspective on work/life balance shifted for the better. I used to think that I had to be working constantly, chasing the next job, but the pandemic forced me to change my mindset, and I kind of like the new lighter work schedule.
EM: There was a big boom in business as many people went back to work in June and we learned how to resume our work safely (masks, social distancing, temperature checks, lots and lots of hand sanitizer!). I’ve definitely become more efficient at planning and shopping for things, as multiple trips to various grocery stores is no longer practical or safe.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
RH: Not to be too cheesy, but I find inspiration from my coworkers and peers. The food photography community is so full of extremely creative people and they are all so beautiful and talented. They inspire me to grow as a creative human and as a food stylist. Working in teams allows us each to work off of one another (vibes), push each other out of our boxes and collaborate in ways I would never imagine as a solo creator.
TC: The pandemic has changed this a bit since my top two ways to get inspired are to travel and dine out. I get inspired by looking at other people’s work, whether on social media, magazines, or cookbooks. Reading restaurant menus, talking to people, looking at art… really anything can spark creativity!
EM: Cookbooks, digital publications like the New York Times and Instagram accounts of magazines and food bloggers that I admire. Plus, restaurant menus and dishes.
What advice would you give to a young person interested in pursuing food styling as a career?
RH: I was an assistant for 4 years before I became a solo stylist. Those years and experiences are invaluable. You will learn more from your mentors (stylists, photographers, editors, etc.) and being hands-on than you will from anything else. Find a mentor, find the work, get involved, network and talk to people. Tell them your interests and passions, and show them what you’re all about. Also, having a passion for food, in general, is a must. Cook. Eat. Repeat.
TC: The best thing you can do is ask to assist a stylist on set. The job seems glamorous but it’s a lot of dirty dishes, heavy lifting, long days on your feet, heavy criticism, braving the elements at times, etc.
EM: Look for opportunities to learn how to cook. Whether it be a culinary school course, doing an internship at a restaurant, or with a practiced food stylist. Create a collection of food images that inspire you. Practice, practice, practice with any photographer that is willing to do a test shoot. You will learn so much by seeing your food through a camera lens.
And of course, we need to know your favorite restaurant in Birmingham.
RH: Currently loving Helen and brunch at Automatic Seafood. Phenomenal.
TC: This is basically impossible because there are so many I love (and so many newcomers I haven’t tried!) I do eat Greenhouse for lunch on the reg, and the ridiculous cookies are not to be missed.
EM: Ahhh—this is tough! I’ve consistently returned to El Barrio since I moved to Birmingham 6 years ago. The food is fresh, flavorful, and the margaritas are on point.