As a whole, however, the industry has moved toward honesty and making food attractive through natural means. “People think food styling is all about tricks and artifice,” Ruggiero said, “and it used to be that way.” Not so much anymore, though; now if it’s ice cream you’re shooting, ice cream is what you’ll use. “People talk about the polyurethane turkey — that’s a myth.”
This matters even more when it comes to working for journalistic publications. “One of the reasons I like shooting for the New York Times so much is because a recipe is a recipe,” Ruggiero says. “Nothing happens to that food that doesn’t happen to the recipe. The fact-checker calls you and asks, ‘Did you do this, did you do that?’ We take it really seriously. I love that.” If a stylist adds an ingredient that’s visual — even a tiny sprinkle of parsley on top — publications will retrofit the recipe to reflect as much. Quality magazines take their recipes’ realism very seriously, especially since, in the age of Pinterest fails, readers will be resoundingly disappointed if their hard-earned results don’t look like the picture on the page.
Styling food for television or the movies, meanwhile, presents a whole different set of challenges. The pace and energy are different as well, and it “can be more laborious: longer hours, larger quantities of everything, bigger set, bigger crew, etc.,” says food stylist Tyna Hoang, a former pastry chef who has styled for high-end grocery stores and organic energy drink companies. “It’s really amazing how many hands on deck it takes to create something digital,” she went on, noting that, in video creation, the final product is “always impressive.”
Food designer Janice Poon, who styled the gorgeous but grisly meals on the 2015 show Hannibal, spoke to GQ about creating food that not only looks the part in a single frame but also plays into the show’s arc and narrative. Regarding a molded polenta meant to resemble a lamb tongue, Poon called it “triple-layered deception,” adding: “It isn’t even what it says it isn’t.”
In the age of Instagram, food styling has become quite glamorous and, in some ways, more accessible — perhaps overly so. Having a camera phone and some appreciation of lighting doesn’t automatically put one on par with a professional food stylist. Although the proliferation of photos of finished products might make the process appear simple, a great deal of skill goes into food styling — skills many amateur stylists lack. “There are so many self-proclaimed ‘stylists’ out there these days,” Hoang says. “But there’s so many things urban workshops and YouTube tutorials can’t teach you.” Indeed, when it comes to food styling, pros tend to swear by good old-fashioned hard work, like “putting in the time to assist and apprentice without rushing to slap a label on yourself,” Hoang reflects.