Lights! Camera! Food! More taking up food styling as a career

Food stylists Tan Chun Rong and Sawarto show us how they make food look drool-worthy.
Mr Tan Chun Rong, who made the switch from food photography about a year ago, styling a plate of handmade udon at home.
Mr Sawarto styling a plate of tomato and prawn pasta. With a paintbrush, he coats the pasta, prawns and diced tomatoes with a tomato-based sauce to make the dish pop. The 35-year-old gets about six assignments monthly, up from four in 2012, amid growing demand for food styling services. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Mr Sawarto styling a plate of tomato and prawn pasta. With a paintbrush, he coats the pasta, prawns and diced tomatoes with a tomato-based sauce to make the dish pop. The 35-year-old gets about six assignments monthly, up from four in 2012, amid grow
Mr Tan Chun Rong, who made the switch from food photography about a year ago, styling a plate of handmade udon at home. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

More are making a career of styling food for the camera amid rise of social media

With a steady hand, Mr Sawarto meticulously rolled the thin strands of pasta into neat balls before gently placing them onto a plate.

He then used a blowtorch to bring out a delightful charred pink in the prawns, before picking up a paintbrush to coat the pasta, prawns and diced tomatoes with a tomato-based sauce so that they pop even more.

After 30 minutes, the plate of tomato and prawn pasta was glistening, the finicky prawns no longer slid off the pasta and it was finally time for that picture-perfect shot.

There are at least 15 food stylists like Mr Sawarto working behind the scenes here to make food look as appealing as possible, say observers.

This is up from a mere handful five years ago. The growing number of people taking up food styling as a career comes with the rise of social media platforms such as Instagram, where people typically share snapshots of what they eat.

And they are in growing demand. The number of assignments received each month has risen in recent years, say food stylists interviewed by The Sunday Times.

Mr Sawarto, 35, who goes by one name, gets about six assignments monthly, up from four in 2012.

It is a competitive business, he noted. "We put on make-up for food. We get to experiment with colours and textures. We can do whatever we want with the food without considering the taste, as long as it looks beautiful."

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    1. Choose buns with no creases on their surface.
    2. Grill the patty until it is an even brown colour.
    3. Grill the cheese but only till it is slightly melted.
    4. Dip the greens such as lettuce leaves in ice water. For an added fresh-from-the-farm look, spray with glycerin, a colourless emollient that can be bought at pharmacies or online.
    5. Assemble the layers using tweezers or toothpicks. Arrange each ingredient to its best angle.
    6. Add the sauce last to prevent the buns from getting soggy.

Self-taught food stylist Tan Chun Rong, 26, is one of the newer entrants to the business, having made the switch from food photography about a year ago.

"Our job is to make people feel hungry just by looking at the images," he said. He even has an assortment of spray bottles to create different droplet sizes, and paintbrushes of varying shapes and sizes to achieve certain effects.

Food stylists work with a wide range of clients, from classy restaurants to hipster cafes, airlines, supermarkets and cookbook publishers. Many have a background in advertising, photography or even art.

They can charge between $400 and a whopping $4,000 for a project. Many stylists, however, venture into the field not for money, but simply out of a love for food.

While a few learn the basics from food styling courses, many are self-taught, picking up skills from the Internet and books. Work tools include everyday items like toothpicks, glue, tweezers and tape.

Spray paint is used to add colour to the dish. Then there are other tricks of the trade, such as using Blu Tack, clothes steamers, oil, brushes, plasticine, pins, blowtorches and hairdryers to make the dish pop.

Techniques like washing vegetables in ice water so they look crisp, to brushing slices of roast duck with oil for that extra shine help to make food look more delectable.

It helps to know how to cook, say food stylists. During shoots, they may have to prepare ingredients, road-test recipes and cook dishes.

And in Singapore's vibrant food scene, these stylists have to be familiar with various cuisines. They often spend hours in the kitchen honing their culinary skills. Said Mr Tan: "Sometimes, what you plan might not turn out well on set. You are then expected to be versatile."

A shoot may take hours to plan and prepare. Some shoots can drag into the wee hours of the night, said 35-year-old stylist Elodie Bellegarde, who shadowed food photographers and stylists in Paris and London before setting up her business here five years ago.

A simple meal of chicken rice, for instance, can take between five and seven hours to shoot.

This includes finding the right-sized bowl to create a dome-shaped mound of rice, and poaching a few extra chickens so that the stylist can pick the best-looking pieces.

Food and product stylist Biona Boon often has to source for more than 30kg of ingredients for each video shoot. The 38-year-old said: "I often have to do the heavy lifting while sourcing and delivering them to the set."

But food stylist Angela Chia, 40, said: "When food turns out beautiful and amazing, there is a certain satisfaction and joy."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 22, 2017, with the headline 'Lights! Camera! Food!'. Print Edition | Subscribe