Tips and Advice from a Professional Food Stylist

Tips and Advice from a Professional Food Stylist

(Image credit: Liz Apple)

"Food stylist" is one of those career titles that sounds cool and intriguing and vaguely glamorous. It also conjures up retro images of some poor soul laboriously painting fake grill marks onto a pork chop, or lacquering shoe polish onto a raw turkey to get a perfectly plump Thanksgiving centerpiece that's photo-ready.

But what does a food stylist really do?

As avid readers of food magazines, we've long been interested in the people who work behind the scenes to make each issue happen. And once you've been reading the same magazines for years, certain names start to become familiar.

Rebecca Jurkevich is one of those names. For years we've seen her food-styling work as a freelancer for Bon Appetit, Rachael Ray Every Day, Food Network Magazine, Oprah, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and others.

We chatted with Rebecca for a glimpse into the career of a food stylist — the process, the challenges, and some behind-the-scenes tricks of the trade.

Let's start with the basics: What does a food stylist do?

I like to think that I make food beautiful and presentable for photography — whether it's for stills or video motion.

So at what point do you get involved in the process of shooting a dish?

I get involved once the client formulates their idea — you know, what's the story, what do they want to shoot? They may send me a mood board to show the vibe they're going for, although that's really more important for the prop stylist.

They'll send me test-kitchen photos as a reference. But really, they send me a bunch of recipes and I start working from there.

Hold on — you actually cook the food?

For the shoot? Oh yeah, of course! Unless it's a feature about a chef, where the chef is actually cooking the food and I'm there to make sure it's plated in such a way that the camera will respond to it.

But for most of the jobs I do, I'm in the kitchen with my assistant. We shop for all the ingredients and we cook it and I plate it.

Do you ever alter the recipe to make the final dish more appetizing? Like serving a sauce on the side, maybe, or adding a sprinkle of fresh herbs?

Once I get the recipes from the magazine, I know they've been developed, they've been cross-tested, and they work. My job is to make it more beautiful visually.

Once in a while that means going back to the food editor and asking for changes to the recipes — and sometimes that happens. Sometimes I make a very minor tweak and I won't say anything at all. Sometimes it's a matter of suggesting another kind of change — let's julienne the vegetables instead of dicing them, for example, so that it will look better. Most clients are very receptive to a food stylist's ideas, because they want their food to look the best it can.

How would you describe your food style?

Natural, organic, loose, not fussy. If a food magazine is looking for something cutesy, like a teddy bear cake or something, they're not going to call me.

I'm fine with fussy food, but I'm not fussy with food. I worked with a stylist who gave me great advice: "Gravity is your friend." She meant let the food do its thing — you can always mess with it after.

When you're starting out as a food stylist, that's the hardest hurdle to get over, because you want it to be perfect and beautiful and great.

But it doesn't have to be perfect to be beautiful.

We've all heard about old-school food-styling tricks, like using mashed potatoes for ice cream, or putting shoe polish on a turkey. It seems like those days are gone. Are there tricks of the trade that you rely on?

Sometimes. I don't use tricks very often.

I definitely have a bottle of Kitchen Bouquet in my kit. Sometimes I will use instant mashed potatoes to stuff a burrito that you're not going to see the inside of, so it holds its shape, or to fill enchiladas, which collapse very quickly after cooking, so that they're perfectly round and beautiful.

But most of what I do is pretty real. We might help things along in a certain way, like I might angle a hamburger on a grill pan just so, for that perfectly imperfect char. But at the end of the day it's still a grilled burger.

Besides Kitchen Bouquet, what are other tools you never leave home without?

I have a kit that I bring everywhere. My go-to tools are tweezers, paint brushes, Q-Tips, water misters, a squeeze bottle for drizzling olive oil or sauce, toothpicks, pins, skewers, scissors, and small offset spatulas.

What are the hardest foods to make look pretty?

Ice cream is tricky because it melts. And to get the classic, ripple-y scoop, you need a lot of patience, which I don't necessarily have.

How did you get into this business?

I discovered food styling when I was in cooking school. I used to read Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine voraciously. I was that kid who would read the masthead and the credits, and that's how I discovered food styling. I just loved the idea. Even when I worked in restaurants, my favorite part was plating and making dishes look beautiful.

I fell into catering and ended up doing that for 15 years. Flash forward: I was so sick of catering after all that time, and finally I said I was done. And it was perfect timing because a good friend of mine had been assisting food stylists and she got a job at Martha Stewart. After two years, she decided it wasn't for her, but she introduced me to everyone that she knew.

I was at the point in my career where I'd run a kitchen, done my own catering, been a private chef — I decided I was going to be a food stylist. I started as an assistant. I figured it would take three years for me to learn what I had to learn. I got very lucky because I assisted really great people and I met really great people. I had become friendly with photographers and stylists who encouraged me and hired me, and it took off. I was very lucky.

What's the most common question you get about being a food stylist?

"Can you eat the food?" And the answer, more often than not, is yes. And we usually do!

I also get asked, "Does your food look this good at home?" No. Never. Never ever.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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