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A Short History of Food Styling, From Soup Marbles to Instagram Glory


Hannah Frishberg | March 5, 2018
Though the internet is drowning in food photos, a good stylist still has a few tricks up her sleeve.

Behind many of the most stunning food photographs is a stylist. These culinary artists craft meals into ephemeral and (mostly) edible art installations for everything from fast-food commercials to decadent full-color cookbooks. While their work may take place behind the scenes, a careful eye can glean their impact on the final product. A food stylist is a combination chef and designer tasked with both making the food and making it beautiful. While social media often blurs the lines of collaboration, a food stylist does not typically photograph their creations — their job is to get each dish ready for its close-up.

“We prepare food — we consider plating, composition,” food stylist Maggie Ruggiero, whose work is frequently featured in the New York Times (which ran a profile of her back in 2014), told Per La Mente in a phone interview. “Sometimes the food is our invention. Very often, it’s a recipe, a product. We have to make it look beautiful in whatever setting is asked for. We collaborate.”

photo by golubovystock/Shutterstock

The job of a food stylist is infamous for tricks like supplementing food with bizarre but aesthetically pleasing products — dribbling motor oil onto pancakes in lieu of syrup, using plastic ice cubes, lipsticked berries, and cosmetic sponges in place of food that’s actually edible. But while taste can sometimes come second to appearance in food styling, many of these unsavory practices were made illegal in 1968, when a prominent company caught the attention of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission with what was determined to be an unethical tactic: putting marbles in its soup in pictures in order to keep the veggies from sinking to the bottom, out of sight. This, an FTC probe determined, constituted a false claim and thus a false ad. The case is credited as birthing the idea of consequences in the industry, most significantly “corrective advertising,” for commercial grey areas like food styling’s less-appetizing tricks.

Nearly a half century later, in today’s commercial world, many methods have been found to circumvent the law while inflating the appearance of food through less than natural, though still legal means. “I [once] literally sat in a room for 10 hours gluing sesame seeds on a bun, and I thought, ‘This is not the type of food styling I want to do,’” food stylist Lisa Homa told Serious Eats, describing a fast food commercial she participated in early in her career.

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.

The major impact Instagram has had on the food styling, many would agree, is oversaturation due to quantity. Hoang describes the sheer amount of food content available on everyone’s feeds as “overwhelming and watered down.” It has become a struggle, she says, to remain relevant. Ruggiero echoes this sentiment, adding that social media has created something of a groupthink mentality, with many Instagram users replicating photos of trendy food items instead of experimenting with original ideas. “It’s very often for likes, for followers, for admiration,” she says, as opposed to food styling, which is an art and should be treated as such.

Social media has created accessibility to the point of excess: the internet often feels as though it’s drowning in food photos, many of them unprofessional — obviously so. Many Instagram users have proved more lemming than innovator, and Ruggiero feels that the sheer number of people infinitely duplicating food trends — “the runny egg, the crumbly cake” — is what “encourages people like myself to go out and push the limits a little more.”

Unfortunately for amateur photographers, the secret to great food styling is less a hack and more of the old adage: practice, practice, practice. Knowing recipes in and out as well as understanding the tricks of the trade are qualities acquired over time. One good tip, though, is to work on your ability to find a diamond in the rough — almost literally. D Magazine describes Dallas art director Gae Benson “combing through crates of Doritos bags looking for perfect chips.” Food stylists often sift through tons of pieces of food — be it avocados, bagels, cherries, or Doritos — to find exactly the right one for their photo. 

The world of food styling has changed immensely over the past half century. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the notorious “marbles in the soup” showdown, a case that would lead to the conceptual birth of corrective advertising and change food styling forever. Instagram is only the most recent shake-up in the niche industry’s continual evolution, providing a larger platform for stylists and more accessibility for amateurs than ever before. In step with technology, food styling races ever forward.

photo by Pressmaster/Shutterstock

Read more about dining in the age of Instagram here.

To discover more distinctive culture, try Heritage | Fernet-Branca.

All images courtesy of Tyna Hoang, unless noted; photography by Madeline Kroeger and prop styling by Vernoica Olson.

Hannah Frishberg is a fourth-generation Brooklynite, writer, photographer, and the current Editor-in-Chief of Brokelyn. She’s working on a book about the many of lives of the Gowanus Batcave. Her spirit animal is the F train.


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