Food styling 101 with Delores Custer

Posted at 12/02/10 6:07 PM

MANILA, Philippines - If food were children, ice cream would be a juvenile delinquent.

That's what came to mind as world renowned food stylist Delores Custer explained the lowdown on what she does best -- preparing food for the camera.

In her 35 years in the industry, Custer finds ice cream the most difficult food to style, primarily because it melts easily.

When dealing with this dairy treat, she always has to use a stand-in (artificial ice cream) for a photographer to play around with before placing the real thing -- which she calls the "hero."

"Food is like children, it does not like to behave in front of company," Custer said, quoting fellow food stylist Helen Finegold.

She continued, "The camera sees the food differently. It has only one eye, and we have 2. We have to know how everything will be very very beautiful for the camera."

Like a doting parent, a food stylist needs to make sure that the product or dish she prepares looks its best when shown to the rest of the world -- whether it be through print, television or the Internet.

If it's a slice of ham, it has to be the most mouthwatering piece of meat one has ever seen.

"In the 70s and 80s, everything had to be perfect. Today, they want food to look its best, but it also has to look natural, real and doable. The person at home or the consumer should think that he can prepare this at home," Custer explained.

Tools and skills

Of course, in any task, one uses a certain set of tools.

Custer believes that her eyes and hands are enough, but some items can make her day a lot easier -- from tweezers and scissors to spray bottles and wooden skewers.

Having the tools, however, doesn't make one a good food stylist. For one, Custer said she had to be a good cook and a baker to make it big in her profession, debunking misconceptions that all they do is arrange things on a plate.

In some instances, Custer even had to prepare the same dish more than a dozen times so she can give her client more choices on what to feature on a television advertisement.

"You can play around when cooking, but you really have to know how to bake. That you can't play around with," according to the food stylist, whose book, Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera was recently released in the Philippines.

Custer, who has worked with practically all the major food companies in the United States (from Campbell's soup to Kraft and Pillsbury), also stressed that a food stylist has to be "a problem solver, persistent, has a personality that people enjoy being with."

On top of all these, she has to be in good physical condition (since you usually have to stand all day preparing food) and is willing to give 150% of herself to the craft.

"You have to know the techniques [in food styling]. I'd rather not call it the 'tricks of the trade,' though," she said.

Custer hopes that Filipinos will become more interested in food styling, not just as a hobby but also as a full-time profession.

It may be tiring and at times very stressful, but she said she is having the time of her life -- doing a different thing each day, playing with different props and ingredients.

"I get to play with food all day long and I love it," she exclaimed.

She jokingly added, "And yes, the pay is really good."

E-mail the author at karen_flores[@]abs-cbn.com. Visit her blog at http://asliceofkeix.blogspot.com.