photos by Summer Brills

Three food stylists share their love for this often unnoticed career path.

food stylingA blend of ricotta and feta cheese are mixed together and spooned into a bowl of finely chopped sundried tomatoes. Spinach leaves are put into the microwave to wilt, but not for too long, as they must retain their vibrant green color. Two pieces of bread are filled with the decadent mixture and then smothered in a thin layer of butter. This will create the perfect crust. As soon as it hits the pan, it begins to sizzle and a golden layer begins to form atop the creation.

Jennifer Peterson and her assistant are assembling a mediterranean grilled cheese sandwich. And assembling is the right word. Peterson is a food stylist, working today in a photo studio at Meredith Corporation, home of Better Homes and Gardens and other magazines. Here, cooking is just the beginning.

“You look at a plate of food and, depending on how things are arranged, it can make the difference whether it looks attractive or not,” Peterson says.

Peterson always aims for attractiveness. That’s why she’s pulling out her tool kit. It contains tweezers, paint brushes, paint and a spray bottle. She tweeks the recipe she just completed in preparation for its photoshoot. It looks incredible—which is the point.

Food styling isn’t just playing with food all day. It’s an art form, one that requires a team of people to make it all happen.

food stylingThere’s the food stylist, who’s in charge of not only preparing the recipe but also placing the finished product on a plate in an aesthetically pleasing way. But there’s also an art director and a photographer needed to make the final shot. The end goal: making the reader think, “I want to eat that.”

To get that result, the stylist can spend hours rearranging the plated recipe, using a variety of tools to make final touches. Hundreds of photos are taken, but only a few of these shots will make the cut. Those chosen are used in books, advertisements and magazines. Despite the wide exposure of the work, there are few opportunities to study food styling in school. Many food stylists study the culinary arts before discovering the profession. That’s the path taken by Greg Luna, a staff food stylist at Meredith Corporation.

“For a small city it’s surprising how much work there is in Des Moines for food stylists”

Luna was a waiter throughout high school and received his Culinary Arts degree from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. But after six years working in the San Francisco restaurant scene, he moved back home to Des Moines to be closer to his family—and eventually pursue a food styling job at Meredith.

“For a small city it’s surprising how much work there is in Des Moines for food stylists,” Luna says. “Casey’s General Store does television commercials. There’s the Iowa Egg Council. Grey Dog Media is also here, which all have food stylists working for them.”

Although Luna has a culinary degree, it is not required that a stylist have one. Many simply enter the field because of their love for food and creativity.

That’s what initially led Peterson to this field. After receiving her food science degree, Peterson knew she wanted to pursue a career with food. She first interned for a food research company. But something didn’t feel right.

“I worked in a lab where we measured ingredients on scales and even wore a lab coat,” Peterson says. “It was a very different environment and not very creative, which is what I thought I wanted.”

food styling

She came across a flyer from Meredith Corporation that advertised an open position for a food stylist, while browsing a job board. Not knowing much of what the job entailed, she knew it would be a position where she could combine her love for art and food science. Peterson began working in the Meredith test kitchen part-time. After a while, the staff realized that she had an eye for styling.

“I never had any classes in design about balance or color, I just picked up those skills from the people I worked with on set.”

food styling“In the test kitchen, recipes are written by the editors and then tested to make sure they work and taste good,” Peterson says. “That’s when the editors realized the things I was preparing looked pretty and that I had an eye for food styling.”

The design skills food stylists incorporate in their work are not learned overnight. Rather, they’re gleaned from observing other stylists and through hands-on experience.

“Those principles of design are something you pick up on the job,” Peterson says. “I never had any classes in design about balance or color, I just picked up those skills from the people I worked with on set. Depending on how things are arranged, it can make a difference on whether the plate looks attractive or not.”

And it’s the input from the entire team that makes the final shot one that pops on screen.

Charlie Worthington, also a freelance stylist, has worked in the industry for 20 years. He’s the one responsible for hiring Luna as a staff food stylist at Meredith. Worthington held the position of senior food stylist for seven years before venturing into freelance work. After assisting him in the kitchen for about six months, Worthington made Luna part of the food stylist family.

“This is the best job I’ve had both financially and just because it’s just so engaging,” Worthington says. “You’re working with different people all the time. You’re working with photographers and art directors and people that are very creative. But the work is hard. It’s not easy.”

“This is the best job I’ve had both financially and just because it’s just so engaging,” Worthington says. “You’re working with different people all the time.”

The work itself can be challenging, but the creativity of this not-so-common art form and the tangible nature of the work are what keep stylists like Luna, Worthington and Peterson, in the field.  

“It’s fun to come to work and at the end of the day be able to look at seven really pretty pictures of food that make both you and other people want to eat it,” Luna says. “It’s also cool to think that readership is around seven million and I’ve worked on something that’s sitting on the coffee table of that many people’s homes.”