To Make the Mouth Water

Integral to America’s food obsession are the stylists who make it look good. Our panel of industry experts talks about photography and the art of arranging spaghetti strands.

Autumn Salad. Photograph by Sharyn Cairns, styling by Deb Kaloper.

When you pick up a cookbook, flip through a gleaming food magazine, or visit your favorite cooking blog, it’s easy to forget that the gorgeous food you see wasn’t just the work of a cook.

Food stylists, photographers, and art directors are crucial to that final shot—making sure a salad stays farm-fresh instead of wilted throughout a long photo shoot under hot lights.

We’ve brought together a panel of experts from the food world to talk about in-camera work vs. retouching, the visual appeal of organic vegetables, and what to have for dinner after a long day of playing with food.

Jennifer Aaronson is the editorial director of food and entertaining for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. She is a graduate of Cornell University and the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, and has worked for a variety of food magazines, including Food & Wine and Saveur.

Food stylist Deb Kaloper lives in Melbourne, Australia. Her work includes recipe development, menu planning, and styling of props and food for editorial and advertising clients such as Vogue Living, Waitrose, Tupperware, and Nestle.

Deb Perelman is a self-taught home cook, photographer, and the creator of the Smitten Kitchen cooking blog. Her first cookbook, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, will be published by Knopf in 2012. Deb lives in New York City with her husband and delicious baby son.

Michael Ray is a Pittsburgh-based food photographer specializing in artistically lit food photography used in advertisements, packaging, recipe cookbooks, and specialty publications for a wide range of clients.

Artist Carl Warner lives and works in London. His book, Carl Werner’s Food Landscapes, was published by Abrams in October 2010.

First off, how did you all come to the world of cooking and photography?

Deb Perelman: I came to cooking mostly because I was really picky and wanted to be able to make food taste the way I wanted it; I came to food blogging because I became a bit obsessed with finding what I considered the ultimate version of recipes and wanted to share them. The photography came much later. I thought I had no interest in photography, but my husband had a manual Canon Rebel when I met him and bought a digital version when it came out shortly thereafter. I kind of stole it from him and still haven’t returned it.

Michael Ray: I’ve wanted to be a photographer since the second grade, when I looked into it for a class project. I went to the Art Institute, worked at a graphic design firm in Kentucky, and then went on to work in a catalog house in Chicago. After that, I returned to Pittsburgh and started my own commercial freelance business.

Jennifer Aaronson: I went to cooking school and worked in restaurants for many years before starting work at various food magazines.

Deb Kaloper: Growing up, I was surrounded by delicious food and great cooks. My Nonie (Croatian for “grandmother”) gave me my first cookbook for my fourth birthday! Although I had studied psychology at university, I always felt “at home” in a kitchen so I moved into the restaurant world. The hours were insane and the pay was terrible, but it was rewarding on so many other levels: I worked alongside such incredibly talented chefs and artisan food producers, and we made beautiful food. It was worth it. I had been “chefing” for quite a few years when I met Danish photographer Mikkel Vang and stylist Christine Rudolph. They often ate at the restaurant where I worked. They asked if I would like to shoot with them, and that changed things again. Cooking merged with photography, and I found myself writing recipes for them for shoots and cooking and styling the food. It was fantastic!

Carl Warner: I went to art college, as I wanted to be an illustrator, but photography was so much more immediate, and I fell in love with creating images. From there I went into the advertising business, where I have been for the past 25 years. During the past 10 years I have been working on and developing this idea of “food landscape,” which I have now become well known for.

We are conditioned, in the Photoshop age, to assume most images in fancy magazines or websites are either the result of fancy foodwork before the camera snaps or retouching after (or both!). Are there some things that just have to be done the old-fashioned way and can’t be faked or fixed later?

Deb K.: To be honest, most shoots that I work on (especially for cookbooks and magazines) are very organic: We make the food, we shoot it, and then we usually dive in and eat it! There is not much mucking around with retouching before or after, aside from a spray of water or a dab of olive oil. Fresh, quality produce just can’t be faked and always involves a trip to the market the morning of a shoot. Also, the food really does have to be cooked properly. An overcooked and dry piece of meat is always going to look dry, and if it’s undercooked and too rare, the texture will give it away.

Jennifer: We don’t do much fancy foodwork, if anything at all. All the food we shoot is real and able to be eaten afterwards. We really strive to make our food look exactly how it would when you cook it at home. We’ve learned to know how food will look through the camera and thus style our food accordingly. Even if we know that something may be touched up in Photoshop, we still strive to make it as perfect as possible before hand and not rely on the retouching. I would say we still do things the old-fashioned way here.

Carl: I try to do as much as I can in-camera, as I believe that the real thing is always better than something fake. I also think it is too easy these days for photographers to just expect retouching to make up for a lack of effort and perseverance; it makes for a lazy way of working and places too much reliance on the retoucher to create the magic for you. This in turn devalues the craft of the photographer and leads people to think that you don’t necessarily need a talent to be able to create amazing work.

Michael: Besides playing with some HDR photography, none of my work is retouched.

Deb P.: I’m not big on retouching images, in part because I’m completely Photoshop-incompetent and also because I really want to show the food the way it is so that when you make it, it looks the same. It means I’ve got little expertise on what you can and cannot pull off in Photoshop.

But, with a keen eye and if you cook a lot, you can see where you’re being, you know, bullshitted. You know that spaghetti doesn’t land like that on a plate and would have to have been arranged strand by strand, or where the pan size isn’t what they suggest in the recipe but something that makes the end result look better. But I think any food you have a desire to eat has an angle it can be shot from that will remind you of this. The trick is finding it.

Chili Crab. Photograph by Sharyn Cairns, styling by Deb Kaloper.

Local, organic, and seasonal foods have become more popular in recent years. Do food trends affect your work? Are there popular ingredients or dishes that are harder or easier to style?

Jennifer: Martha has always been about local and organic. We are very seasonally focused and try to shoot at least a few things a year in advance to take advantage of fresh, peak-of-the-season produce. I can’t think of popular ingredients of dishes that are harder to style—I do find salads challenging sometimes, making them look dressed enough but not wilty. Beautiful, in-season produce is the easiest to style. You don’t have to do much to it and it just looks gorgeous. The herb story in our April issue is a good example of simple freshness doing all the work and really shining.

Deb P.: I hope that the interest in local and organic food is less about the trend of it and more about an interest in changing our food chain for the better. I get a lot of inspiration from the Greenmarket in New York City, and also from restaurants that cook seasonally. Once you start eating tomatoes or salad greens or asparagus when it’s in peak season and condition, you get a little spoiled by how good they can taste and look, and the off-season supermarket versions of the same pale in comparison. It’s really hard to make pale-centered, mealy supermarket tomatoes look like anything you’d want to eat. Freshness and quality definitely translate in photos.

Many clients want to stick to a strict brief: They try to make cooking effortless, not inspiring, for their readers.

Deb K.: Food trends definitely affect what I do, depending on what my brief from a client may or may not be. I’m thrilled with the new trend toward local and organic foods, and I get super-inspired by all of the produce at the markets.

Recently I wanted to do a shoot with these amazing pink, purple, and white heirloom rainbow radishes that were just stunning. The client loved them and thought they were beautiful, but asked, “Where did you get them? Are they readily available? Can I find them at the ‘normal’ grocery store?” In the end we had to use regular radishes, because they would be easier to find.

Many clients want to stick to a strict brief: They try to make cooking effortless, not inspiring, for their readers. I understand that perspective, but I think that the combination of food, cooking, and photography should inspire! Hopefully, once inspired, people will begin to try new foods, or grow some of their own produce and start cooking healthy meals for themselves and their families.

Any job has its ups and downs. What are some of the challenges of working in the food world?

Michael: It’s actually a great career. Very seldom do I wish I did anything else. The only downside may be the long hours: On shoot days, I’m usually at work at 7:30 a.m. and leave around the same time in the evening.

Carl: The biggest problem I face in working with food is the fact that it perishes so fast under the studio lights, especially in warm weather (not something we suffer too much from here in London). Food can wilt, change color and dry out before your eyes, which can be very stressful when working on a large set.

It’s lame that my days are consumed with first-world problems: My pan didn’t deglaze enough! My chicken stock isn’t loud enough!

Deb K.: Shooting out of season has to be the trickiest: One week you have baby turnips and the next week you don’t, but you need to shoot them today for a recipe you wrote a month ago when they were in every grocery store, so you’ll have to find them from somewhere. A local community garden has saved me more than once! And shooting Christmas stories for magazines in August can present tricky problems, with no candy canes, Christmas trees, or plum puddings readily available.

Deb P.: At times, I think it’s lame that my days are consumed with first-world problems: My pan didn’t deglaze enough! My chicken stock isn’t loud enough! I’m tired of eating short ribs for dinner; will I ever get this recipe right? And so on. This idea that you can be bored of food, something so much of the world doesn’t have enough of: I try to remember this when I have a hissy because a pie dough inexplicably fell apart.

How does knowing that your cooking will end up on the web change what you decide to eat?

Jennifer: We always strive to have our food look as good as it tastes. I don’t know that having recipes on the web has changed much of anything for us since we’re such a visually driven magazine. The iPad has changed how we think about content, however—we can now bring our food to life with videos, stop animation, etc., so we have been thinking of recipes and techniques that lend themselves well to that format.

Deb K.: I suppose that you always try to create something that will look new or different, like using an unusually colored heirloom vegetable, or a differently shaped fish like a garfish, or cooking by a different method like steaming in a banana leaf. There are so many amazing images out there that it’s fun to try to create something that looks a bit different, or even to just challenge yourself by doing something in a new way. Once I was barbecuing a fish for a shoot and thinking about the fish’s scales, and then thought it would look cool and taste really good if I covered the fish with thin lemon slices, like lemon scales. It worked really well, and looked fresh and different.

Deb P.: I buy more flat-leaf parsley than I ever would if I wasn’t taking photos and knew stewy and/or monotone foods need a pop of color. Worse, there are times that I love a dish and am happy with the recipe, but am profoundly unhappy with the way the photos came out (usually dreary dark days, since I work with natural light) and never get to sharing the recipe. Which is so silly.

Do you see food as just another medium in which to work, like oil paints or watercolors, or is it different? Do you throw the food away when you’re done?

Carl: A lot of my work is about creating one thing out of another, so I am equally at home making forests of leather boots or cities from car parts. But I have a great passion for food and I love all the textures and colors, which makes it a wonderful, natural, organic palette to work with. We tend to throw away the food that has been on set all day, as it is usually stuck together with glue and pins, but the rest we share out with the crew or send to a homeless shelter if there is a lot.

Some people criticize me for wasting food like this, but I don’t see my work as a waste of food just because it is not being eaten. A few bags of vegetables in my hands brings a lot more happiness and smiles than a meal cooked with the stuff ever would (in my hands, anyway!) and when the imagery is used to promote healthy eating, it is being put to even better use.

Deb P.: My site is more or less, “This is what I’m cooking and we’re eating and I wanted to tell you about it.” Basically, I make something because I want to and then I share it. But with the cookbook I’m working on, it is different, as I’m working on recipes that I might have no desire to eat—certainly not four rounds of brisket, for example, in April (my cookbook testing is far more exhaustive). My solution has been to pack things away in the freezer and when I have a few larger dishes in there, bring them a local church that runs a soup kitchen.

Michael and Carl, you’ve both worked a lot with processed food. Are you fast-food fans? Do you have a favorite chain? How is it to work with fast food when it’s been so roundly criticized?

Michael: Every food has its challenges, and I don’t care about its political persecution. I’m a fan of Wendy’s and Max & Erma’s.

Carl: No, I never eat fast food. If I photograph a Big Mac or an apple, I approach it in the same way as any still-life advertising photographer would: You are being paid to make it look beautiful and delicious. Whether I choose to eat it or not is another matter.

I also do not think that there is anything wrong with fast food; I just subscribe to the better options and would not encourage people to eat it regularly if they want to live a healthy life. I think you can always choose not to work with it, but if you have to pay the mortgage and feed the kids you don’t always have to choice to tread the moral high ground. I also believe that many of the chains are trying to address these criticisms and move with the times, but unless people are encouraged to make a healthier choice, fast food will be with us for quite some time yet.

How a meal is presented and the choice of plate, flatware, or tablecloth make a difference. Any tips for readers looking to make their next dinner party extra-beautiful?

Deb K.: I don’t think that you really have to go crazy fancy when having friends over for dinner. I’d rather spend extra money on quality produce or a good bottle of wine instead of the newest designer water jug. But if you have a cupboard of crystal glasses and beautiful china that you got for a wedding present and never use, break it out—don’t wait for a holiday!

Deb P.: I’m embarrassingly clueless about stuff like this, mostly because I’ve never had the space or range of dishes to try anything cute. But think it would be impossible to make a table of homemade food look bad. You walk into someone’s home and the table is filled end-to-end with lovingly prepared, imperfectly pretty food and the aroma is magnificent, your gut reaction is going to be happy, to know that you’ll be fed, treated well, and that you’ll spend time with people you’re hopefully quite fond of. So I’d fuss less about the dishes and cloths and do everything in your power to be done cooking/fretting and ready to hang with friends when they arrive.

Jennifer: I think a great, basic rule of thumb is to stick with a single color palate. My preference is always for white—white plates, white cloth, with simple glasses and flatware. Food really pops on white; it lets the food, instead of the dish, be the star. You can bring another color in through flowers or votives or some such, but it’s good to keep things simple and not overcomplicate with a variety of colors, textures, and patterns.

What do you have for dinner after a long day of playing with food or retouching photos?

Carl: I love to cook Italian, so I will make a quick fresh pesto sauce with some pasta, washed down with a crisp cold glass of white wine or three.

Jennifer: Usually something pretty simple since I’ve eaten all day—maybe some cheese and crackers or a salad to make sure I get my greens in (and not just eat sweets!).

Deb P.: Hopefully, whatever I was working on that day. Nothing’s more of a bummer than failing so badly at a recipe that we order takeout. Well, except for the part where we get to eat spare ribs for dinner.

Deb K.: I love all types of food, but my favorite is simply prepared, fresh, seasonal produce, especially after a big day at work. I like to steam whatever vegetable is in season with garlic, squeeze over lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil, grill a piece of fish or lamb, and dinner is ready in 10 minutes—perfect.


TMN editor Nozlee Samadzadeh is the internet’s only “Nozlee.” She grew up in Oklahoma, loves airports even when they’re miserable, and cooks dinner from scratch every day. More by Nozlee Samadzadeh