Almost every photograph of food you see on a daily basis has been styled—that includes packaging, restaurant menus, magazines, cookbooks, and billboards.

Most people have heard rumors about what the food actually is, and I’m always really amused by the things they think we do. If I’m at a party, people will inevitably start their own private conversation about what food stylists do to food, excluding me from it.

People always say, "I hear they use mashed potatoes for ice cream." I’ve personally never used mashed potatoes. We don’t use shaving cream for whipped cream, we use actual whipped cream or Cool Whip. People say, "I know you use glue for milk." Well, we can’t, because glue dries and turns clear when it’s dry.

Kim Hartman

Food stylist


Kim has been working as food stylist for 20 years. She styles food for clients who span the globe, including Kellogg's, Stacy's, Sargento, Arby's, Palmero's, Red Lobster, and Barnes and Noble.

Is it glue? Is it plastic? Would you eat it? A food stylist explains. Image 1.

Milk vs. "milk"

The rules of advertising dictate, by law, that we have to shoot the product we use. In the sixties, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint order against Campbell’s Soup, because it had been putting clear marbles in the bottom of the bowl in order to prop up the alphabet noodles, which otherwise sink to the bottom.

We can’t alter the product, but if, say, we’re only selling hot fudge, and not the ice cream, the ice cream doesn’t need to be real.

If we’re shooting a cereal like Fruit Loops that has coloring in it, the milk turns a rainbow color. So we need to use a fake milk. We can use this nasty-smelling white hair tonic from the 1950s—it’s hard to find now, but we used that to pour in between the flakes and cereal, because it’s an oil-based product that doesn’t make the cereal soggy before it gets shot.

But if you’re selling the milk, it has to be real.

 ↑ Krave cereal, styled by Kim Hartman

Image by Hopes & Fears

The art of scooping

If you’re doing a week-long ice cream job, basically you’re bent over in a chest freezer surrounded by dry ice for four days. It’s physically difficult and mentally challenging because it’s very temperature and time-sensitive: it has to be stored in freezers at a specific temperature for a couple of days to get it to the right scooping consistency.

Finding the right “scooping” temperature is difficult. Ice cream that has purer ingredients will freeze better at a higher temperature than ice cream that has a lot of guar gum, which has to be deep frozen. It also depends on the person scooping. If you’ve got a strong arm and you can pull through that ice cream with your hand then you probably want it a little hard. I can’t pull ice cream very well at all so I need my ice cream a little bit softer. But it can’t be so soft that you don’t get the perfect ripple the client is looking for.

Usually if I take an ice cream job, it’s one scoop without ‘inclusions.’ Inclusions are cherries and nuts which affect the scoop, because if you’re scooping, and it hits the inclusion, you get a hole in the ice cream. So I try not to take ice cream if I can avoid it.

Is it glue? Is it plastic? Would you eat it? A food stylist explains. Image 2.

Is it glue? Is it plastic? Would you eat it? A food stylist explains. Image 3.


← The ice cream is real, styled by Kim Hartman

Photo by Justin Paris

Rivers of thousands of pounds of cholocate

When they do a commercial for a chocolate bar, with a big luscious pour of chocolate—and they do this all the time—they’ll buy thousands of pounds of chocolate and sometimes pour the chocolate on top of a model that’s fifty times larger than the actual candy bar. Because on a standard sized block of chocolate, it’s really very difficult to make that kind of a pour look good with such a small surface area. I’ve been on shoots where they’ve literally had rivers of chocolate running through the studio and flowing into a giant vat.

They’ll spend a week figuring out what viscosity the chocolate needs to be to get the exact pour that you want to have in the commercial. So they’ll probably have four hundred pounds of one viscosity, and four hundred pounds of another, because they may be pouring five gallons at a time.

Tubes, rigs, turntables and "hero food"

Say we’re doing something for a restaurant, and they use a frozen chicken breast; we might get better-looking chicken breasts from Whole Foods, because they’re plumper and more evenly-cut. Or if we need to darken edges of a hamburger, we use a little colorant so it doesn’t get too dark if you’re overcooking it (but you don’t want it to be too pink).

Or the steaming baked potato with a steak—it’s not actually hot, it’s room temperature, and they’ll rig tubes around the plate in order to make it look like the steam is coming out of the baked potato.

There’s so much preparation that goes into setting up the shot, that by the time you have anything perfected, you have hardly any steam left in the baked potato to shoot it.

We can’t alter the product, but if, say, we’re only selling hot fudge, and not the ice cream, the ice cream doesn’t need to be real.

Is it glue? Is it plastic? Would you eat it? A food stylist explains. Image 4.

Is it glue? Is it plastic? Would you eat it? A food stylist explains. Image 5.

The plate may be on a motion-controlled turntable, and someone is making sure there isn’t a single crumb or drop of water or smudge on the plate, and you have these cameras snorkeling in and out of the shot in order to get a flowy film look.

You’re probably doing thirty or forty takes, so you’d have to switch out the hot plate every couple minutes. They spend the whole day beforehand with “stand-in” plates, working out the movement of the camera and everybody’s role.

The final plate that’s going to be photographed is called the “hero food.” Once the “hero” food is on set, everyone does what they need to do. It’s kind of like a ballet.

Food styling trends, from tidy to crumby

Food styling is trending now towards a homemade, realistic look. When I started as an assistant 23 years ago, everything was very tidy and trim, with very straight lines– no crumbs on the plate, kind of sterile. The language that people are using today is 'aspirational.'

I do a lot of work with a cake company, for example. Say I’m cutting a square out of a 9x13 inch cake—it used to be a perfect square. These days, it’s okay if it’s not a perfect square, or if the icing drips down into the cake a little bit, or there are a few crumbs on the plate. The image of the cake on the front of the box shouldn’t look so complicated that your average consumer wouldn’t feel comfortable trying the recipe.

↑ Image by Hopes & Fears

Is it glue? Is it plastic? Would you eat it? A food stylist explains. Image 6.

Is it glue? Is it plastic? Would you eat it? A food stylist explains. Image 7.


← The Pizza Pull and the Root Beer Floats

Photo by Tate Hunt

Pizza is difficult

Pizza is one of the more difficult things to do. Even a couple of days can change the way cheese looks completely. The cheese could look very dried out and hard, even though it’s fresh and melted hot, and it doesn’t make a nice cheese pull.

You have to play around with the cheese in the oven until you hit the sweet spot that the client is looking for. But it’s a challenge I’m always looking to take on. When you do get a beautiful looking pizza, I think it’s really pretty. I recently worked on pizzas which were shot from a low angle, and they had lots of prosciutto on them, so the light could filter through the back of the meat. It was translucent.

No-styling styling and keeping au naturel

I notice foibles all the time, for instance, things that are overly oiled to make them look shiny, like a hamburger, which just wouldn’t look that way naturally.

The other day, I was shopping for my family in the frozen food aisle, and I could see on a pizza package where they had married two pieces of cheese to make it look like there was a nice drip coming off the pizza. I could see it—there was a line between where the cheese really was and what they added to it. 

Often you’ll be given a recipe that literally doesn’t work and you have to figure out what you can do to make it work on the fly. You need to know how to cook meat because clients want a steak that isn't bloody but perfectly rare in the center when you slice it open. You have to know how to work with different cheeses if they want a perfect pizza pull. You could have a nice, beautiful roast or a ham, and when you cut into it there’s a muscle or a giant piece of fat that you didn’t know was there. Always have a backup.

The job relies on having a visual sensibility, but also understanding the chemistry of food.


images by Tate Hunt , Justin Paris & FYI Paula Walters and via