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Want to share that food photo? Put your delectable best foot forward
Professional food stylist shares tips for presenting food at home or in photos
Ever look at a food photo and wonder why the dish looks so irresistible? Peering at that image, you can almost smell the delectability. You can nearly taste the flavors and feel the texture. Most likely a food stylist worked hard to make that photo draw you in.
In her book "The Food Stylist's Handbook" (Gibbs Smith, $50), acclaimed stylist Denise Vivaldo shares tips and secrets of the trade. The book is packed with information for readers who want a career as a food stylist, or for those with a desire to create mouthwatering photos for their blogs or to share with friends on Facebook.
Vivaldo has been a food stylist in Los Angeles for more than 25 years. Originally a professionally trained chef catering in Hollywood, she was discovered by Aaron Spelling and put to work on his TV shows building food presentations for the camera. Her company, Food Fanatics, styles food for cookbooks, packaging, TV and film.
She gets about 40 calls a month from people who want to learn how to be food stylists, so she offers seminars on the subject.
Over the years, Vivaldo has seen food photography styles come and go. Decades ago, shots taken above the food from the diner's perspective were more formally arranged. Current trends feature food in a more relaxed way using fewer props. Camera angles are different, and often they are extreme close-ups or use selective focus.
"Food is trendy," Vivaldo said. "It changes the same as fashion. Bloggers used more relaxed approaches and that rolled over to food styling. Everything looks more natural (now).
"The food has to tell a story. You are just a pair of hands to make the food camera ready. If you are representing (the restaurant) Le Bernardin, then it's more formal. Sometimes the story you are trying to tell is informal: a mom making scones on the kitchen counter."
She says professional food photography is all about selling — a restaurant, a product, a person or a lifestyle.
And when it comes to products, some of them can present problems. Especially food that is brown.
Pulled pork or dark, sticky barbecued meat? She says those can look like dog food. Or how about a vending-machine Beef Bourguignon that is sold in Cryovac bags? She says she and her business partner, Cindie Flannigan, had to search through a mountain of bags to try to find carrots to doll up the shot.
Asked about disasters, she revealed that once an enormous trough of soup created havoc on the set.
"The client wanted to use a 40-gallon terrine," she said. "Most often we build a false bottom with wet paper towels or mashed potatoes. The food on top isn't hot because the heat would steam up the camera's lens. So I told my new assistant to use mashed potatoes."
Everything was going well until halfway through the shoot, when those potatoes started inching their way to the surface. Seems the assistant had thought the mashed potatoes seemed too dry using Vivaldo's formula. More milk was added to make them creamy.
Professional food styling isn't for people who lack patience and endurance. Some clients, she said, just won't let go. They want to tinker endlessly with the shot. After ironing and using a stack of green napkins, for example, they decide they want yellow napkins instead.
"They like us because we laugh about it. You can't argue or fight with your clients, even if they are wrong."
I asked Vivaldo to tell me the specifics for photographs she had styled that were shot by food photographer Jon Edwards.
Flourless chocolate cake with chocolate sauce photo: "Hot chocolate sauce is difficult because of the lighting. Most often we use natural lighting. This looks so pretty because it is all about the cake. The top isn't perfect, and that's appealing. And the puddle of chocolate is gorgeous. Where, some might ask, are the raspberry and the perfect dollop of whipped cream? I think without it, it makes you want to eat it."
In her book, Vivaldo says that if chocolate is too shiny, spray it with a "dulling spray" such as Krylon Matte Spray or Blair Matte Spray Fixative. Or if the chocolate is too dull, brush on a little oil.
Green beans photo: "The beans are tossed with red onion and grape tomatoes. It's purposely messy and shot close up. We literally wanted the platter to look like someone just put it on the table. Like your mom did it. Get up close and all you really see is great beans. I sautéed them (the components) separately — the tomatoes in one stage, onions in one stage. And I undercooked the beans, which is true of most vegetables."
Pomegranate martini photo: "One of the things that is pretty about this photo is that the glasses are different sizes. You always work in odd numbers, so three is perfect. There are too many issues for the camera if there are four. The background is an old stripped door with the paint peeling off. Beautiful.
"Remember (for the set), you only need a 12-inch square. I tell people that it is only the size of a napkin. Fill the glasses on the set; that way there aren't drips on the sides of the glasses. I put the fresh rosemary in at the end, to look like a pine bough, and some fresh cranberries. And I tell people to always finish the arrangement to the camera. I spend as much time looking through the camera as the photographer."
Whole chicken photo: "These chickens were in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes. So it is raw chicken with paper towels stuffed in the cavities. Then it is brushed with Kitchen Bouquet and spritzed with paprika. It looks so pretty."
Abracadabra, food styling magic.
• • •
The apple tart on the cover of Vivaldo's book looks so mouthwatering, I asked her to share the recipe. She says the crust is foolproof and works with innumerable fillings.
RUSTIC APPLE TART
Yield: 10-inch tart, about six to eight servings
1-1⁄3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg yolk
3 tablespoons ice water
2 pounds Granny Smith or Pippin apples, peeled, cored, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 large eggs
1⁄4 cup packed light brown sugar
1⁄4 cup heavy whipping cream
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1⁄2 cup raspberries
Prepare crust: In a food processor, pulse flour, sugar and salt a few times to combine. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. In separate bowl, whisk together egg yolk and water; sprinkle over flour mixture. Pulse just until mixture comes together to form a dough. Press dough into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out dough to a rough circle, 1⁄8-inch thick. Carefully place dough on a rimmed baking sheet.
Prepare filling: Sprinkle apple slices with lemon juice and cinnamon and arrange in the center of the dough, leaving 2 inches of space around the edge. Fold edge of dough up and over, crimping where necessary.
In a bowl, using an electric mixer, beat eggs and brown sugar until pale and creamy. Beat in cream and vanilla. Pour over apples.
Bake for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for 25 minutes or until filling is set. Let cool before garnishing with raspberries and slicing.
Source: "The Entertaining Encyclopedia: Essential Tips for Hosting the Perfect Party" by Denise Vivaldo (Robert Rose, $24.95)