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San Francisco based food stylist Rachel Grunig has been styling food (as well as interiors and soft goods) professionally for eight years. She imparts her magic for a variety of commercial clients such as: Gatorade, Sahale Snacks, Amazon, Target, Pacific Coast Feather, and Minted.com (just to name a few). We interviewed Rachel to learn the secrets of creating mouth watering images.
1. What do you love about food styling?
I love food styling because pictures of amazing, delicious food can elicit incredibly strong, visceral feelings. I was working on a shoot recently where one of our shots was of pancakes....beautiful, thick, pillow-y pancakes with blueberries and a pat of butter and syrup streaming down the sides. The shot looked amazing; everyone on set, all day, couldn't stop talking about how they wanted to have pancakes for dinner. I love being able to create a picture that makes someone immediately think "I want to eat that. Right now."
2. What was your most challenging and or memorable food or beverage shoot? What made it so?
My most challenging food shoot included a Thanksgiving turkey that I styled for Amazon a couple of years ago. I hadn't styled a turkey before and was really nervous about it being a complete disaster. I did a ton of obsessive research on how to make the turkey look just right. The method actually isn't that complicated - basically, you cook the turkey halfway so that the skin is taut, then paint on a colorant mixture to make it look properly browned. I was just so nervous that it would end up looking "un-turkeylike."
It ended up looking beautiful in the shot and stayed perfect for the rest of the day. I got curious about how long the turkey could hold his pose, so I told my assistant to let it sit out overnight. When we came into the studio the next day, the turkey looked exactly the same as it had when I'd first styled it!
3. What are the five most important things to consider when preparing and shooting food?
1. Timing. A lot of food won't last long once it's been prepared, so make sure you have a stand in dish to use when you're composing your picture.
2. Get the freshest, prettiest produce you can find.
3. Be patient. There can be a lot of minuscule adjustments needed to get a dish looking perfectly thrown together without being overtly styled.
4. Prepare as much as you can ahead of time. If you're working with grains or noodles, you can cook them the night before so that there's less to deal with the day of the shoot.
5. Don't go in blind. If you're shooting something you're not very familiar with, do a test run to get a feel for the dish and how to handle the ingredients.
4. What are the five most important things to have in your bag as a food/table top stylist?
1. Good, sharp knives. I have three - a chef's knife, a paring knife, and a serrated knife.
2. Paintbrushes and basting brushes. You can use them to oil food, place droplets, and move around or clean up crumbs.
3. Lightweight prep bowls and trays. I use metal bowls and baking sheets; plastic bowls and trays work great too.
4. Cleaning supplies - paper towels, glass spray, and dish soap. It's mind blowing how many paper towels I go through on a food shoot.
5. Chopsticks. They're so useful for moving tiny bits of food around.
5. Is there something about a food shoot that would surprise people, sort of a “who knew,” idea?
There are a lot of little quirks and tricks in food styling.
One thing that always amazes me is that often, hot dishes are assembled and photographed cold.
Also, condensation or water droplets generally are not pure water, but a 50/50 mix of water and glycerin. The glycerin increases the viscosity of the water, so it moves more slowly and forms bigger beads.
My favorite trick is perking up herbs. Fill a shallow bowl with an inch or so of water and add a drop of dish soap to the water. Trim a little bit off of the stems of the herbs, then pop the herbs into water, standing straight up as if they're flowers. The dish soap weakens the surface tension of the water, so the freshly trimmed herb stems can suck up the water and get refreshed quickly.