How to be a food stylist: Jennifer Joyce

  • By Sarah Lienard - Senior writer - bbcgoodfood.com

Keen to to be the next glittering star in the styling world? From brushing turkeys with Marmite to adding allure to a stew, Jennifer Joyce shares her experience of working as a food stylist, and gives her top tips for breaking into the industry...

Jennifer Joyce: How to be a food stylist

A food stylist's job is to help create the kind of irresistible images that make you want to lick the page they're printed on. Experienced stylist Jennifer Joyce explains exactly what the role involves, from confident culinary abilities to carrying around bags bursting with tools of the trade.

How did you get started as a food stylist?

I started my food career in catering, eventually moving into writing for magazines and cookbooks. I co-wrote my first book, Diva Cooking, with a friend and it required us to style the recipes. Neither of us had styled before, and we found out the hard way that it was very different to just cooking. Luckily, catering involves making plated food beautiful, so my prior experience helped me. That was 13 years ago and since then I’ve written 10 cookbooks and have been writing and styling features for many of the biggest UK food publications. 

Sounds like you're kept busy! What is an average working day like?

I pack my car the night before, leaving the house at 7:30am. I’ll prepare and style 6-10 dishes over the course of the day, and we usually don’t stop for lunch, finishing about 5:30pm or so. Most days I have an assistant to help prep the ingredients and wash up. Depending on the location, I will get back about 6:30 or 7:00pm. 

What would we find in your bag on an average shoot?

I have a big toolbox I take with me to studios, containing anything I might need, such as a potato masher, knives, a mandolin, zester, thermometer and peeler. I also take a separate bag containing bigger items like a blender, a hand mixer, pastry cutters, blow torch and an assortment of all types of wooden skewers.

Are there particular foods that are harder to style than others? What’s the hardest dish to style?

Brown and homey foods, such as shepherd's pie, lasagne and stews, are particularly tricky - sometimes we’ll include raw chopped ingredients or fresh herbs in the shot to brighten the dish up. Creamy pasta dishes are probably the hardest as the sauce dries out very quickly. I sometimes use a small spray bottle to moisten things back up. I always try and set the shot up first with the photographer and art director (including plates and cutlery) so that once the pasta is ready we can shoot it quickly.

We hear rumours that all sorts of secret tricks are used to make food look more appetising such as glue in cereal instead of milk and hairspray to add shine – is this true?

Advertising and product packaging styling tends to use a little more trickery than editorial. I work on the latter so we pretty much just make the recipe. Sometimes we brush turkeys with Marmite to make them brown all over, but beyond that, not much.

What would your advice be to young people looking to carve out a career as a food stylist?

It's a very competitive field so the first thing is to have patience and not be in a hurry! The only way to learn and meet clients is to assist other food stylists. This usually involves working for free initially for six months and then you move on to paid assisting jobs. It can then take anywhere from six more months to a year to get your own jobs.  

Are there any relevant courses or qualifications that you would recommend pursuing, or would you say that experience is more important?

It's pretty vital to have a cooking qualification from a reputed cooking school like Leiths School of Food and Wine or Le Cordon Bleu. If you assist someone they want to know you can chop, cook and move fast. There are lots of stylists, like me, who are self-taught, but nowadays that’s rare. Working as a food stylist you have to know how to cook everything from pastry and a three-layer cake to a joint of meat. There isn’t time on a job to start looking things up - you need extensive knowledge about all types of food.

What would be your top tips for amateurs looking to improve their food styling and photography?

There are plenty of small things that you can easily tweak. Lighting is key - always shoot during the day near a good window. Use small plates that are plain in colour (white or light blue) to show off the food at its best. Try to keep a wide rim clear around the plate, instead of overloading it, to make it appear more elegant. It's important to have good props, plates and cutlery so buy a few nice things and use them over and over. The easiest way to photograph your food is from overhead because you will need the least amount of props and backgrounds. If you try to photograph a burger from the side you will need a base for it to sit on as well as a background. Keep things simple and the food will shine - too many dishes and accessories will only complicate your photo. If something is brown, then make copious use of green herbs, yogurt, red chillis, spring onions or lemon zest to perk up the colour.

What is the biggest misconception that people have about your job?

The title ‘food stylist’ sounds glamorous but it's very hard work, long hours on your feet and there's an insane amount of ingredients you need to track down and source. But saying all that, I do absolutely love my job and wouldn’t trade it for the world.

To find out more, visit Jennifer Joyce's website or follow her on Instagram. Jennifer's latest book, My Street Food Kitchen, is published by Murdoch Books.

Feeling inspired? Take a look at Tom Kerridge's five easy presentation wins. Whatever your skill set, we've got plenty of insight into kick-starting a career in the food industry:​

How to be a food critic
How to be a professional chef
How to be a recipe writer

Are you a food stylist with advice to share, or fancy trying your hand at food styling at home? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below...
 

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