The wonderfully strange secrets of a food stylist


Food isn't always naturally beautiful. Unlike your face, which looks good in all lighting and times of day (obviously), plated grub isn't always attractive. 

Just like that Instagram shot of mashed potatoes you can't get to look better than a gloopy blob of who knows what, stylists struggle with making even aesthetically pleasing foods look appetizing. 

So what's an Instagrammer or professional food photographer to do? Mic chatted with professional food stylist and blogger Tara Bench to get the scoop on how she gets all that food to look good. 

Mic: First of all, what is a food stylist?

Tara Bench: I'm there to make the food look its best and most delicious in front of a camera.

How did you learn to be a food stylist?

TB: I learned on the job as a junior food editor at Martha Stewart Living magazine. I spent several years as an assistant food stylist to the other editors and then was given opportunities to do my own work. A lot of my learning came from watching and being around it, but a lot came from hands-on experience and practice. 

 What does a typical day on the job look like?

TB: A typical food styling day comes after a few big days of prep, grocery shopping and recipe organizing. I come to the photo shoot with a plan of what I'm going to make first, how long it will take to make and style, and a knowledge of how long the recipe can sit on set before I'd have to make it again. Then the day is just full of cooking! There are often tweezers and tricks involved, but typically I'm simply making recipes, styling them on or in the props provided, making sure they are smiling for the camera and then hopefully getting a minute or two to sit down in between! 

What's the least glamorous part of food styling?

TB: Of course, there are the dishes. There's always clean-up at the end of the day. 

What are you looking for when you style food?

TB: A food stylist's job is to pay attention to the minute details of cooking: the browning pattern on a roast chicken, where the drips are happening on a fruit crisp or the curl of a lettuce leaf. I look for the best ingredients to cook with. I consider the props or dishes the food will be in on set. I look for where the light will hit the food, and what angle the camera is looking at it. I look at all of this before and during food styling a dish.

Are there any foods that are impossible to style or always look bad?

TB: Slow cooker recipes! (But not always.) You can make slow cooker recipes look good, but the occasional one just falls flat no matter what. It's mostly those that have turned all the same color while simmering so long. Even though they might taste good, they aren't the best to style. Not much is impossible to style. I will say there are times I've almost given up styling sausage. You start to see one thing and then it's no use!

What are some common tools used in food styling?

TB: Common tools for food stylists are tweezers. They come in handy when moving things just so on a plate, or removing that one pesky piece of parsley. We also use brushes a lot, little paint brushes. We use them to brush on a glisten of oil, water or sauce; to brush away crumbs; and to gently nudge things into place. 

What are some of the weirdest?

TB: Every food stylist has their tool kit of unusual tools. I keep a set of dental tools on hand. I have an ice teaspoon I use a lot, and I keep glycerin and maraschino cherry juice in my kit. 

What's the strangest technique you've used to make food look good?

TB: I rubbed a certain food with Corn Huskers lotion to make it look perfect! It worked. I learned the trick from a friend and promised to keep it on the down low, so I can't divulge what I used it for.