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Food styling, a marriage of sight and taste

Before any delectable meal is tasted, it is first a treat to our other senses. Everyone knows that taste is nothing without smell—but what is a feast if not a delight to the eyes?

This is precisely what the art of food styling aims to portray to the famished onlooker. From the tiny grains of perfectly cooked rice to the rich, hearty color of a medium rare steak, and the crisp vibrancy of freshly steamed vegetables, it’s certainly not easy to encapsulate all these elements in a single photograph.

But there are many facets to food styling—the plating, set design, and skill used to produce the edible masterpieces piled on a plate are part of an intricate and artful process, one designed to please demanding appetites with just one glimpse.

Art of inviting

“Honestly, I never thought of going into this field as I thought it was a hassle,” says Anthony Abad (AB-CAM, ‘21), a freelance content creator who recently got into food styling and photography.

Aside from needing proper equipment and knowledge, Abad initially thought that preparing well-detailed meals seemed complicated—an unfamiliar territory. “The most I would do for food photography in the past was to take a few photos on my phone of the food that I will be eating,” he explains.

After being stuck without face-to-face production work, he decided to delve into a field that would allow him to learn again. Unexpectedly, he fell in love with food styling and photography.

For long-time chef and food stylist Nancy Dizon-Edralin, food styling is the art of inviting. “You make it appealing so people will be encouraged to use the recipe or buy the food you are advertising,” she explains. With this, the customers not only get to know the food but the brand too.

Being a former wedding planner, Dizon-Edralin shares that she had always been curious about food styling, and she eventually dabbled in the art of plating. “Then little by little, I started with food styling…My curiosity led me to reading, studying, and learning it from school,” she says. Dizon-Edralin later landed a job as a food stylist in Food Magazine.

Even after all this time, she still finds food styling a worthy challenge—an outlet for her to release her creative side. In fact, she likens it to painting, wherein colors and accents are employed in harmony to make a visually appealing creation. “The only difference is [that] you can enjoy the food after the photoshoot with people who participated,” she jokes.

Counting every last drop

But producing mouth-watering dishes isn’t for the faint of heart. While Dizon-Edralin only has one assignment a month, a lot must go into the process of making food pop out in pictures. “I submit ideas and menu proposals. After approval, I will develop and test the recipe. Usually, this process takes three to five days,” she expresses.

Once the perfect recipe is concocted, a lengthy set design and photoshoot process would take place.

On organizing the set design, Dizon-Edralin was quick to remind not to overcrowd the set design and ensure that the focus is on the food and not on other elements.

To combat this, she mainly goes for a “creative and appealing” look where less is more. “I want the readers to trust me and be confident that they can do it too,” she adds. But quality must alwaysbe at the forefront. She puts effort to make sure that even details of the food—like sauce drippings and microgreens—stand out. “I always ask the photographer to zoom in to see every detail,” Dizon-Edralin notes. 

On the other hand, Abad typically creates 15 to 20 photographs a month. A typical set design would take him at least 30 minutes to conceptualize, but on some occasions, he would need more time if the set doesn’t match the food well. On top of that, a lot of retouching would be done to get the perfect shot. “If there are freshly cooked dishes and I would only be able to shoot them at a later time, they would not look as presentable or fresh anymore,” he frets.

For him, the “clean look” is the best route to go, suggesting that meals don’t need to look dynamic or loud to attract clients and consumers. However, Abad is not someone to shy away from other styles, expressing his intent to dive into other styles soon. “Maybe something that has more action in the shots, such as ice cubes falling into a glass of coffee or honey dripping down from the dripper to a plate of pancakes,” he articulates.

An edible magnum opus

While Dizon-Edralin believes that food stylists in the Philippines and abroad are well-compensated, Abad worries otherwise. Despite the tiresome work hours, food photographers and stylists are still underpaid. “Many think it’s just as simple as clicking a button, and [you] magically have stunning work,” he asserts. He reiterates that people need to recognize how much time, skill, and money have been invested in making the food dazzle in photographs.

For Abad, the satisfaction of this work extends even after the perfect shot has been taken. He stresses, “Your clients, as well as their customers, acknowledge your work and appreciate you for helping their business grow.” 

Both artistic creators agree that the art of food styling is not easy, but they are quick to encourage those who desire to follow in their footsteps. Dizon-Edralin gently reminds that one must be “open to criticism” to grow as a creator. And in the profession of food styling, its utmost importance lies in captivating the audience.

After all, food styling is more than just showcasing a palatable pièce de résistance; it needs to give the viewer “positive reinforcement [to make them] more comfortable and confident with what they [are] spending on.”

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