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'No room for error': The unforgiving world of food styling

Eat | Drink | Explore

Experienced Adelaide-based food stylist Fiona Roberts says there’s more to a career creating appetising imagery than what Instagram and television cooking shows might lead you to believe.

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“The likes of MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules and Instagram has created a perception that food styling is easy,” says Fiona Roberts, “but the reality is that it’s really hard work.

“I’ve done shoots over two days where I’ve done 22 recipes. Could you imagine how many ingredients need to be available for a shoot of that length?”

Roberts is a trained chef who has a marketing degree and a masters in gastronomy from the University of Adelaide, as well as more than 20 years’ experience in food styling.

She has worked with publications such as Donna Hay Magazine, the Australian Women’s Weekly Cookbooks and Family Circle Magazine, and clients such as Coopers Brewery and Haigh’s Chocolates. She has also styled for TV commercials with brands including San Remo, Fasta Pasta and Drakes Supermarkets, and is the director of Fiona Roberts Food – a food marketing consultancy firm offering food event management, recipe development, food styling and food marketing services.

Fiona Roberts on-set shooting Goodlife Modern Organic Pizza. Photo: supplied

Roberts describes food styling as an “art”, in which you’re “preparing and presenting food in an appealing way”. It requires delivering exactly what a client wants under challenging conditions.

“You are on your feet for long hours, you’re often working in a studio with a concrete floor, so by the end of the day you’ve got sore knees and a sore back, and there’s lots of lifting and carrying involved.”

During one job, she was told a pie had to have a “proper natural bite mark” out of it.

“I had to bite into a cold pie. Now is that fun?”

An Adelaide Central Market cookbook recipe: Rockmelon dessert. Photo: supplied

Despite the challenges food styling presents, Roberts says it’s a competitive industry to break into. When she worked in London at the beginning of her career, she assisted on shoots for three years before starting out on her own.

“It’s one thing to create your own recipes and style them and potentially take the photos yourself – that’s the easy part of food styling,” she says of lifestyle food styling.

“I worked in the lifestyle genre but now do both: I do the commercial side and the lifestyle side.

“I think the skills that are required and the knowledge required to do the commercial side of food styling – where you might be on a TV set or a film set with a massive crew plus talent and you are just one little piece in the puzzle – is harder because you have to deliver.

“You have to deliver in a really finite period of time, and there’s no room for error.”

Roberts says the key to successful food styling is controlling the individual elements within a dish. As an example, she cites a Haigh’s Christmas pudding ice cream topped with Persian fairy floss with edible glitter sprinkled on top.

“Being a frozen dish, this image was photographed quickly before the semifreddo started melting and the fairy floss started drooping.

“Or the colour of the background and the props [for the rockmelon dessert recipe, pictured above] help lift the colours in the dish, and the soft natural daylight also complements the food to look light and fresh.

“But the reality is that every scenario is different and often the outcome requires you to think on your feet.

“If it’s not working you have to think very, very quickly and have things in your toolbox that might help the situation.”

The food stylist’s toolbox should include a pair of tweezers, spray bottles, a heat gun, a blow torch and multiple small blades, Roberts says.

And for home cooks eager to make their food look presentable, direct sunshine should be avoided at all costs.

“You want soft north or south-facing daylight,” she says.

Although her career centres on appearances, Roberts says audiences and chefs should never prioritise looks over taste.

“I have always been of the philosophy – I guess because of the background I come from – that flavour is the most important thing.

“It’s critical that the flavour delivers or else the reason for that appearance has been a waste of time.”

Coopers’ PubGrub styled by Fiona Roberts. Photo: Supplied

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