How did you get started in the realm of food styling? I come from a background in socio-cultural anthropology and design. Out of college, I started working in research at Columbia University in New York City—a great job and a great opportunity considering my age and career. But I tired very quickly of the office life. I quit my job and stayed off the pressure to get a new one ASAP. I started freelancing as a food styling assistant to buy time, and I loved it. Since then, I’ve been working nonstop.
I’ve always cooked—maybe better said, “experimented” with food—and I’ve taken all types of courses, on cooking, food styling, design, typography, fileteado—whatever catches my curiosity. What attracted me most to food styling is that it’s done by getting your hands dirty. Everything is sensorial, with texture, form, color, shape and a shelf life. I love the lively stressfulness of food that’s about to give up on you, and the insecurity of never knowing what you’re going to find, and knowing that you’re never really in control.
How has your background in anthropology affected your work? The word anthropology comes from anthropos, which means human, and logia, or knowledge; in sum, anthropology is a holistic knowledge of humans as social and cultural beings. As food is one of the most human of all things, I’ve found a different way to interpret, understand and explore humanity across different cultures. I think anthropology has given me the sweet gift of a capacity to understand what’s really going on behind our culinary habits, our desires, our hungers and our customs, to get to a deeper expression of self and humanity—through food. I’m endlessly fascinated.
What should all photographers know about working with food? What is most unique about food is its energy and ephemerality. Food has a particular life span. To keep food energetic, alive and attractive, there has to be a harmonic dance between the photography and the stylist. Once food loses its freshness and its energy, it loses its amazing magnetism.
What are some misconceptions people have about the job of food styling? Generally, it’s thought that food styling consists of arranging a few vegetables in a pleasing way, shooting the photo and heading home. I don’t think people consider that being a freelance food stylist is basically being a small production company—web updates, emails, budgets, insurance, long hours, so much grocery shopping, schlepping, drafting, meetings, prepping, experimenting, shooting, reshooting, receipts, etcetera. I love my work, but it’s definitely more 360 then generally assumed.
What do you think of food styling today? Food styling and food art are getting saturated. What was once a more “secret” and artistic profession is now becoming cool, popular and confused with social media imagery. I believe in creating pieces—commercial or not—that are artworks based on craftsmanship, and that doesn’t fit too well with immediacy. I’m continuing to take the basic principals of food styling and applying them in more artistic and experimental ways, and fighting for the sultry humanity that gastronomic work can inspire.
What do you learn from your personal projects, and how does that translate into commercial work? Personal projects feed curiosity. They remind me that there’s always more to learn and try, instead of getting boxed in to closed ideas and habits. I’m reminded to leave room for a bit of chance and open my eyes to where things could go instead of forcing them. I believe in carving a path where there’s never been anyone. From there, commercial work arrives all on its own to copy those ideas. Self-producing personal ideas and showing how they resonate can convince clients to give them a try.
Would you recommend specializing in a niche area to a stylist who is just getting started? When I started out, I was told to focus on classic commercial work, juicy burgers and social media recipe videos—and I hesitated. Because that’s not me. During my free days with my own money, I experimented and created, simply as a form of expression and delight. So, the only thing I can recommend to anyone starting out is to follow your own instincts and purest desires, and avoid doing what other people say you should do at any expense. I suppose that’s a philosophy of life—“To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer is to have kept your soul alive.” Niche only works if you love what you do and you’re willing to constantly reinvent it. There’s no way to feign that. You can only do your best work when it’s an authentic expression of yourself.