Food Stylists Share Their Secrets
Once upon a time, the ice cream shown in TV ads was a mix of mashed potato, dry ice and food colouring. Under the heat of studio lighting, the real thing would dissolve into a slushy puddle. On the other hand, mashed potatoes curled beautifully into a scoop, and the dry ice gave off visible wisps of vapour. Eleven years ago, when I was working for an advertising agency, I saw a product designer creating perfectly translucent slices of lime for a citrus drink commercial, from acrylic.
Things have changed since, and most of the food we see in photographs and advertising films today is real food; it’s just not edible after it has been assembled. Given that their shoots often go on for as long as 12 hours, for just a few publishable photos, food stylists still need to cheat, but in different ways. The vegetables are never cooked through, fluffy phulkas are stuffed with cotton to keep them plumped up, and every single grain of rajma on that ready-to-eat packet is handpicked and then assembled on the surface of the gravy with tweezers.
Paan leaves are rolled into cones and held together with the aid of Superglue. Styrofoam chunks are placed under pieces of fish to make the bowl look fuller, and to angle the sea food’s most flattering profile to the lens. Glasses are often coated with glycerine and then sprayed with water to simulate condensation from the not-quite-chilled drink being poured into them.
Styling Indian food has its own set of challenges. Most of our gravy dishes are a muddy sludge, and our chapatis and puris just don’t have the structured appeal of a baguette or a pita. “Take rajma,” says Saba Gaziyani, food stylist and food photographer for brands such as Unilever, ITC, Tibbs Frankie and Masterchef India. “Every client wants to place the curry in a metal bowl, with some zari or brocade around it and a swirl of cream on the lentils. But they also want it to look different, and better than the competition’s packaging.”
Gaziyani has been in the industry for over a decade and has conjured up several self-taught tricks. To make rasam look good, Gaziyani strains it to make it look as clear as bouillon. The fresh curry leaves and mustard seeds are fried separately. The lighting and composition for the shot are done with substitutes, such as empty bowls and uncooked food. When the shot is ready to be taken, the food meant to be photographed is kept in place, and two people poise with tweezers over the bowl, one with the mustard seeds and the other with the leaves. Gaziyani must take multiple shots within a minute of the seasoning being dropped into the bowl, before the leaves and seeds soften. For a perfect roasted chicken, Gaziyani pleads with the poultry seller to leave the skin intact while cleaning the bird’s innards. If that’s not possible, she asks him to leave the innards intact, because no one is going to be eating the chicken after the shoot is done. Then it’s a question of basting it, and placing it at the right temperature in a large oven.
Considering how quickly food deteriorates under the lights, stylists need to go through vast quantities of food for one photograph. Gaziyani has picked through two kilos of banana chips to find enough pieces for a bowlful. For a shoot of medu wadas, 50 were fried, and the most perfect two selected from that. “We have to treat all our subjects like little babies,” she says. “And then we get asked why food photography takes so much time and money.”
Like Gaziyani, Ivan Fernandes works hard to satisfy clients. “To get one photo of Knorr Soupy Noodles, I need 150 packets of the snack,” says Fernandes, an ad film producer and food stylist who has worked on brands such as Amul, McDonald’s, Domino’s and Maggi. He boils all the packets of noodles, without the masala, until al dente, and then stores the slightly undercooked noodles in cold water. This stops them cooking and prevents the starch from absorbing any more water. He cooks the seasoning separately, and then strains it to separate the liquid from the solid particles. The soup is then thickened by cooking to make it look more appetising. Before the shot is taken, he pours some of the soup in a bowl. He then handpicks the noodles, making sure he has ones of different lengths and curls, and places them in the bowl in precise camera-pleasing positions. Finally, some of the strained, grainy seasoning paste is brushed on, like make-up for food. Among the most inedible things Fernandes has used, has been body wax, to simulate caramel.
While each stylist has their bag of tricks, ultimately it depends on the food photographer to make the shot look good. “Food photography and styling are all about presenting wonderful, aromatic, tasty dishes on a flat, two dimensional screen or piece of paper,” says photographer Jignesh Jhaveri. “The goal is to translate the additional dimensions of touch, taste and aroma…in [an] image. [Our] effort is aimed at making people want to eat it off the screen or page.” Jhaveri has photographed swordfish that have been stiffened with liquid nitrogen and placed on a bed of artificial ice. Both Jhaveri and Fernandes say that while the potato-and-dry ice technique is now passe, every stylist still has recipes to create a non-melting version of ice cream that looks every bit like the real thing, but tastes nothing like it. Fernandes says a dough made of cornflour, icing sugar, corn syrup and glucose works just as well for photographs. But ice cream is no longer the problem. The stylists all agree, that of all Indian food, it is baingan ka bharta that’s impossibly un-photogenic.