Everyone in the industry I’ve met over the last two decades seems to have a food styling story to tell. Some mention ridiculous and occasionally dangerous techniques employed by impulsive and misguided individuals. I’ve been regaled with numerous tales of an infamous 1980s ice cream food stylist who everyone hired because of her skills, yet secretly feared because of her demeanor. And of course there are the divas with seemingly endless demands, messy artists who can trash a studio in the first ten minutes of the prep day and only make it worse as the shoot progresses, and the new stylists on the scene that seem to get all the hottest bookings until they burn out after a year or two and become real estate agents.
I’m happy to plead ignorance of how I fit in this strange world of professional food styling. People talk, I suppose; I just keep showing up. At the beginning of my food career, I was trained in hospitality and have always tried to please the people willing to hire me. The European instructors at my culinary school beat it into me (sometimes literally) that it was essential to work efficiently and leave the kitchen in a cleaner state than it was found. My grueling years in restaurant kitchens taught me how to work long hours on my feet and to find creative solutions to the difficult tasks thrown at me on a daily basis. The old maxim “You’re only as good as your last job” is something I try to live up to on a regular basis.
DEGREES OF DIFFICULTY
So how do I hope to present myself to clients, both current and future? I wish to be known as the guy who arrives with the skills to create the tough shots. I’ve been asked a million times over the years, “In your opinion, what’s the hardest food to style?” My response has never varied: The number 2 most difficult food to style is pizza. The absolute number 1 most difficult food to style is ice cream. Pizza has always been a personal passion of mine and I enjoy making it both at home and in the studio, and perfect pizza is challenging to create. But ice cream styling is a whole other skill set. It requires preparation, specialized tools, close attention to temperatures and timing, meticulousness bordering on the neurotic, and sometimes just having a really strong scooping arm. Midway through my styling career, I set out on my journey to develop the techniques necessary to become the 2000s version of that 1980s ice cream styling icon (without the attitude, of course).
What does that mean when I’m hired as your ice cream food stylist? Like any other shoot: It starts in pre-production — we’ll discuss your shot list and I’ll need to determine how much product will be necessary and when it should arrive at the studio. Based on this estimate, I’ll recommend how many freezers will ideally be needed to hold both the product, as well as the styled items. Any of the other essential details will be discussed well in advance (studio temperature is high on that list), so I can ensure there will be as few surprises as possible during the shoot.
PREPARING FOR THE SHOOT
Prep days for scooped ice cream are absolutely necessary, as I will roll up to the studio armed with multiple temperature probes for each freezer and for the internal temperatures of the ice creams themselves. Any temperatures outside of an ideal range can make it impossible to create an acceptable scoop: Too cold and the ice cream is not only too hard to scoop, but the texture of the product itself becomes compressed and hard-looking; too warm and the ice cream will melt too quickly or have a mushy-looking texture. Large format tubs of ice cream are then cut to maximize the number of perfect scoops I can take from each one. Everything is inventoried and the freezers are labeled with their contents. Ingredients are sorted, hero cones are chosen, temperatures are adjusted and re-adjusted until everything is ready to go. When the day of the shoot arrives, everything will be in place. All of the product will be ready to scoop or style, my experienced assistant(s) will have everything sorted and labeled based on the shot order, my full range of customized ice cream scoops will be laid out and ready for action.
FAKE OR REAL?
“But, really, can’t you just make fake ice cream instead of going to all of that trouble?” Sure, I could make fake ice cream and have done so for a few very specific shoots. A scoop of “ice cream” that doesn’t melt and will take a 10 hour day of abuse on set definitely serves its purpose — if and only if the product we are shooting is not the actual ice cream. One example of this would be toppings. Syrups and sprinkles can quickly destroy a perfect scoop of real ice cream. If you’re selling syrup, I’d probably make fake ice cream for your shoot. We’d have the luxury of time and the ability to easily and quickly make duplicate scoops. Another instance would be if the shot requires a stand-in for the purposes of lighting, camera movements, or any other time-consuming factor that might come up. When everything’s in place, the hero, or real ice cream, is put in place of the stand-in. Otherwise, if my client is marketing real ice cream, I am legally bound to use their real product for the shoot. There are no shortcuts in ice cream styling.
If you have an upcoming project that involves an ice cream food stylist and you’d like to discuss the details, send me an email or give me a call. I’m always prepared to provide anything from simple advice to a formal quote. Or follow me on Instagram to see what I’m up to behind the scenes!