Stylist – Food

I got my start in styling in a round about way – as a photo assistant for the extraordinary fine art photographer Nic Nicosia, working in his darkroom, shopping for props and helping him concept ideas for his surreal photos. Later, I built and designed window displays for Neiman Marcus.

I Iived and worked in New York for nine years as a prop and wardrobe stylist. As a senior stylist, I went on to be a part of the team that opened the largest Amazon photo studio in the country at the time, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

I feel so fortunate to do what I love for a living, which at it’s essence is collaborating with other creatives and bringing a vision to life – the more daunting and elaborate, the better!

I currently live in Austin and style still life, product, food, wardrobe and interiors for national brands and publications.


Tina Bell Stamos recently moved from California and now she calls Austin home. I spoke with Tina about her roots, influential icons and successful catering business that led her to becoming the talented visual artist that she is today.

Where are you from originally?
I’m originally from a small town in Western Kansas called Stockton.  Population 1,300. Alice’s bakery was a regular Saturday morning stop and had the BEST donuts I’ve ever eaten. My kindergarten class toured her bakery and I swear, she was frying donuts in a Folger’s coffee tin on a camping burner; I think there’s something to that technique. We moved to Lawrence, Kansas when I was high school and I consider that home.

What college did you attend?
The University of Kansas – home to the great KU Jayhawks. That’s the only sport I watch and only if they are doing well. I’m a fair weather fan and don’t have cable.

The catering business took off so I decided to ditch the museum plan and go with food

Were there any other career options that you considered before going into food styling?
My degree is in Art History and was planning on grad school in museum studies. I love art but sadly, cannot draw my way out of a paper bag. So, I guess studying art/artist is the next best thing.  In the early stages of grad school, I decided to start a catering business to fund my education.  The catering business took off so I decided to ditch the museum plan and go with food.  I found my creative niche! I catered for 5 years and then segued into styling.  I’ve always wanted to work with food. It’s my best fit. I also develop recipes so I feel like it’s a balanced career. Visual + taste.

What made you decide on it?
While catering, I was contacted by Hallmark to assist on their newly launched magazine.  The first day I cooked bacon with tweezers and fell in love with styling.

I was really drawn into all aspects especially the visual approach to food.

Catering was taking it’s toll on my body and I knew I could not do it forever, so the timing to make a career shift was right.  I assisted my mentor who lives in San Francisco for about three years. Some of my first gigs were in Napa and San Francisco so it was pretty charming start. It’s a job that is challenging, you have to think on your toes and no two days are alike. I like that kind of work day.  I also have a pretty insatiable case of wanderlust and there’s a lot of traveling with this job.  Plus, I get to cook everyday and hang out with photographers…it’s pretty sweet!

Who are your biggest influences?
Iconic food inspirations would be James Beard, Alice Waters, Julia Child, and Martha Stewart (this is not always met with enthusiasm from others, but I love Martha). Every year, I attend a food retreat called Eat Retreat and always come back inspired and changed. It’s like summer camp for adults in the food world.  I think Chad Robertson from Tartine is a genius.  I can’t stop looking at Edible Shelby by Todd Shelby.  I want to eat at every single restaurant mentioned in that book.  I love Afield by Jesse Griffiths and photographed by Jody Horton – so beautiful!

Have you thought about becoming a food photographer?
No. I love styling.  I love photography and can take a halfway decent photo but I’ll keep it as a hobby.

Are you an all natural food stylist or do have tricks to make some of the food look real?
I don’t use a lot of chemicals on a food shot, but it’s kinda understood, you don’t eat the food on set. It’s been handled, might have a tee pin lodged in it. If it’s meat, it’s probably raw.  You have to be efficient on shoots and since you only see one side of things, you only cook one side.  So vegetables that look roasted have actually just been quickly browned in oil and only cooked on one side.

All food is prepared in components and then reassembled to work for the shot.  Meat looks best seared on the outside and finished with a torch so it’s totally raw on the inside.  You want it to stay plump and maintain it’s shape.  And then there’s ice cream or anything frozen.  Since you have about a 30 second window before it loses it’s barking you either have to go to set with dry ice and shoot fast or fake it. I always have a batch of fake ice cream in my kit just in case, so yes, I have tricks.

Do you have a favorite type of food to prepare?

At home, we try to keep eating out to a minimum and eat pretty healthy. It gets pretty wacky because I try to not throw away any food and I never follow recipes. I cook very instinctively and try to piece together what I have available.  Occasionally, I’ll obsess about perfecting a particular dish and will make it over and over again for months at a time.  After I got back from Spain, my obsession was the Spanish tortilla. Lately,I’ve been into making shrubs which are drinking vinegars.

Who is your dream client?
When I first started styling, it was Gourmet.  I still miss that magazine.  Right now, I’m in love with the direction digital magazines are headed.  For a bit, the quality of photos in magazines was really suffering but it seems like that’s on an upswing.  I’ve worked on several magazines that have sadly folded and that’s always been my favorite work.  It’s where you get to be the most creative, but as far as a dream client, I don’t
have one.

What projects are you currently working on?
Currently, I’m developing recipes for 2 chapters for a Better Homes & Garden’s Pantry Staples cookbook that will be coming out in 2014.  My chapter topics are quick casseroles and great grains.

Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to go into this profession?
Have buckets of patience!  It doesn’t happen overnight.  Not even close.  Assist as much as possible.  Practice, practice, practice. Have numerous skill sets that you can do.  Like styling + recipe development, or food and prop styling.

Be flexible, agreeable and check your ego at the door.

Food shoots are about collaboration of ideas and esthetics, but your ultimate job is to make the client happy. If they want you to loose the parsley sprig, do it.

What has been your most successful career decision so far?
To commit to the hustle.  We’ve been in Austin less than a year.  Before that, we were in California and before that, Dallas.  All within a three year period!  When we got to Austin, I didn’t want to go through the steps to reestablish myself in another place.  I was being very mopey about the whole thing.  I finally got over it, redid my web site and started building local connections.  I’m so glad I did because I’ve meet great people and gotten a good amount of work from my efforts.  I’ve accepted the fact that I will always have to tend to the not so fun parts of working freelance.  There’s not one thing or another that I did that was successful except for committing to this career and taking care of the details that go along with that decision.

Where is you favorite place to eat in Austin?

Oh lordy – so many!  I’m still exploring so it will probably change next week.  I love the son-in-law at Sway, everything at Elizabeth Street Cafe, the lobster roll at Perla’s and the ceviche at La Condesa.

How do you make food look so appetizing on a shoot?
There are a lot of little tricks for every type of food but I try and make things look “real.” For me, real means slightly messy, full of ooziness, crumbs, and gooey cheese.

Event planning like food styling, makes you think on your feet and troubleshoot, something that happens on every job

How did you get your start as a food stylist?
I previously had a career in event planning that helped train me to become very detail oriented.  Event planning — like food styling — makes you think on your feet and troubleshoot, something that happens on every job.  After a few years in the event planning world, I switched gears and embraced my passion for food. I worked for a well-known chef who led me to the recipe development mecca: America’s Test Kitchen.  At the Test Kitchen I developed original recipes, wrote articles and was head of the Cooks Country Magazine photo shoots where I developed my expertise in food styling and prop selection.

Did you have a big break?  
I’ve built my business with several large, national clients in a short amount of time, which is great, but of course, I always want to do more!

What’s the most photogenic food (needing the least help to look delicious)?
I think cakes.  You take so much time and care in making them that they pretty much style themselves.

What is the hardest food to style?
Ice cream, hands down.

Will you take us through a typical food shoot?  (like prep time, etc. so they see how much work you do before anybody even gets there)
Prep is ALWAYS needed but not always given; sometimes it feels like a luxury.  Simply having time to set-up your tools, what you’re using in the kitchen and on-set and setting out a plan for the day goes a long way in making the rest of the shoot run smoothly. Typically you’re “cooking” each component of a plate separately so organization is crucial.

Is the food usually edible?  If so, who eats the leftovers after the shoot?
Most food I style is technically edible but I wouldn’t suggest eating it.  Anyone who’s worked on a food set knows not to eat (or touch) the food!

Most food I style is technically edible but I wouldn’t suggest eating it

What is the strangest item you have in your styling tool kit?
Oh it’s filled with many strange items, I’m always worried what security sees when I have to travel… I’d have to say the strangest is my baby “snot sucker” aka baby aspirator. I use it to remove very small amounts of liquid. I recently used it on raw oyster.

What is the most challenging thing about being a food stylist?
Schlepping around all your gear!  You never really know exactly what you’ll need so if you’re like me, you bring EVERYTHING!  (Don’t look in my hall closet…)

What is your favorite thing about working in Texas?
I’m a fairly new “Texan”, I’ve only been here just about 3 years but it’s becoming home.  Moving from Boston, Texas feels very welcoming.  As a Midwestern girl, I appreciate a “good morning” or smile from a stranger. I’ve been lucky to connect with great food photographers, designers and restaurants and am excited to build more relationships in the industry.

What projects have you done lately?
For the past two years I’ve worked on the new Whataburger campaign with local food photographer, Jody Horton.  The campaign has been well received and we’re really proud of our work (it’s also pretty great seeing it in billboard form).

I’ve also been working in Houston with Ralph Smith (and recently, NYC at Michael Schrom’s studio), for Joe’s Crab Shack, which has been a fun and challenging project.

I also styled the recipes in the new Salt Lick Cookbook. Austin photographer Kenny Braun shot the book in its entirety and the local Pentagram office led the design.  I enjoyed working with these talented people and the pictures will make you want to drive straight to Driftwood for a BBQ fix.

What’s next? Exciting projects coming up for 2013?
I’m excited to continue working with Joe’s Crab Shack.  I’m also looking forward to adding a new burger client.

The start to the New Year also means I get to work with a regular client, the National Mango Board.  I develop mango recipes for their promotional materials and website and have recently begun styling those recipes since they moved their photo shoots to Texas.

How do you define success in your own career?
I think success is when you get called again for another job; you know you’ve made that client happy.

I think success is when you get called again for another job

What advice do you have for aspiring food stylists or photographers interested in shooting food?
Practice and assist. It’s a difficult career to wrap your head around and can’t really be learned except by doing.

Favorite breakfast taco?
Shocking, I know, but I really don’t do breakfast tacos, I prefer going straight to lunch… The Democrat from Torchys is the best.

Photos by: Kimberly Davis, Jody Horton, and Ralph Smith

Martha Gooding is a veteran Dallas food and prop stylist. ILTP met with Martha over coffee at Central Market recently to discuss what it takes to be a food stylist.

As a food stylist what does your normal work day look like?
Normally it’s a two-day, or part of two days, because you’ve got to get your information from your client. You have to go the store to buy supplies.  A lot of places will ship in stuff, depends on what you’re doing.  Let’s say you’re doing packaging for a product, they’ll send in that product but what you need is to add things to glisten it, like your paper products and stuff like that.  If it’s a restaurant they will send their proteins usually maybe their sauces and seasonings and then you buy everything fresh.  If it’s more editorial, you’ll buy everything.

Then you go to a studio and we pretty much bring the kitchen. I’d say the average start time is 8 o’clock and we start pretty focused on working.  Getting it out as fast as we can and usually when they take lunch we stand there and keep working.  I usually work with an assistant and they may stay in the kitchen cleaning and prepping the next job while you’re on set tweaking, moving and stuff like that.  It’s usually a ten-hour day, sometimes 12 or 14 hours.

Usually it’s just our tools, sometimes pots and pans, and sometimes burners, bowls. When it’s a job that needs dishes, I bring those also. I am the only one in Dallas who does that. If you get on a job and the food looks great but you’re on a tacky dish, it just ruins it.  When I was just starting, I would go get the dishes and then the next job I’d have to go get the same dishes so I started buying the dishes. Or they’d ask for something that wasn’t available because it was seasonal, you couldn’t find it.  So I started building my own prop room. And so I have probably 2,000 dishes, silver, boxes of silverware, new, antique, probably a thousand napkins, surfaces, glassware, and I can just pick for the job, pack and take.  I charge an hour to pack and a small rental fee, they save a fortune.

I have probably 2,000 dishes, silver, boxes of silverware, new, antique, probably a thousand napkins, surfaces, glassware, and I can just pick for the job, pack and take

How does one venture into food styling?
There are different paths to it.  A lot of them start in culinary school, that’s the new trend. The art of food styling as we know it, is about twenty-five years old. The first ones were home economists and they would do demos of food.  Let’s say Lone Star Gas is showing a new stove at this event or fair and they would set up the food and make it look pretty.  And then people started saying “Can you do that for photography?”  and pulling them into that and then they specialized in that because it paid so much more.  And then designers started doing it, people more in the design field.  Like a prop stylist might see a lot and then eventually she breaks off on her own. Then some people lately have been more culinary.

The thing about food styling is that what you do in the kitchen is not what you do on a food styling job.  It’s very different because we’re not going to eat it. It’s mainly speed because we charge so much per hour. I highly suggest that even if people have been to culinary school that they assist because you don’t learn it on your own. I think culinary schools are starting to teach some food styling and I really think that’s the way to go nowadays but I would still want to assist. It really calls for a MacGyver-type personality which is somebody that goes “I don’t know how to do this.  Let me think of ways to do this.”  You really have to have that kind of intelligence or you’re sunk.

what you do in the kitchen is not what you do on a food styling job

How did you get your start?
I was curious about starting and I called a photographer friend.  “Can I come talk to you?  I’m thinking about prepping, prop styling or food styling.”  And I also met with two reps but was pretty sure I didn’t want to rep.  Anyway we talked, he was a food photographer and I got home the phone was ringing.  “Can you come to work tomorrow? “  And I assisted the main woman in Dallas, the next day.

I came into it from the art and the food end.  I came from a family of caterers so I’d always been around food.  I ran the production art department at Mary Kay for a while and worked there for years.  So I’d been around design and all that. I assisted three years and continued to assist for eight years while I took jobs on my own too. It was twelve years before I felt halfway confident and 17 or 18 years before I felt totally confident. It takes forever because there are so many different variations of foods.

My assistant has worked with me ten years.  There will be foods and she’ll say, “I’ve never done that” or “I’ve never seen that.”  For example, there will be a slice of cherry pie and she’ll ask, “How do you keep the cherries in there?”, or  “I’ve never seen a wrap.” I remember when wraps came out about eight or nine years ago.  We didn’t know how to do wraps.  We didn’t have a clue, so we had to figure stuff out.  I also was an antique dealer, which was my first career.

What was your best career choice?

This one.  By far this one. This one entails all my others; the antique, the design.

What is your favorite tool to use while working?

Probably a knife. I love knives. You don’t need real expensive ones, just a comfortable one. I like having a lot because I’m running back and forth so I have multiples of stuff.

How do you determine success on a shoot?
You know if you’ve done a good job. You just know it.  It’s innate. It’s a non-verbal thing.  You might do a really bad job or a mediocre job and somebody goes “good job.” I remember when I assisted, I had assisted three years before I felt like I’d done a good job.  It was so counter intuitive to normal cooking that I would leave feeling like such an idiot.  I tell new assistants not to expect to do a good job because you don’t know what the heck you’re doing.  So a lot of it’s just you know you’ve done a good job.

What’s the best part of living and working in Texas?

Dallas is a really good place to work for food.

Dallas is a really good place to work for food.  There are different centers for food around the country: Dallas, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, LA and a little bit of San Francisco.  Dallas has more casual dining than most.  We have a lot of packaging.  We used to do a lot more TV than we do now.

Who inspires you?
I love Donna Hay. I’ve loved her work for years. I love the casualness of it. I like a lot of the popular chefs. The Food Channel does not inspire me whatsoever.  Not that it’s not good, because there is some good stuff, but as a whole. I like the Travel Channel more. It’s less censored and never boring.

What are some of the biggest challenges within a shoot?
It’s more about your relationships really than the product. When you work for a client that is part of a corporation, you’ve got the person giving you direction, the client, an art director. You have so many people trying to decide what upper management would want. Too many people on the shoot, the more people the more difficult it is to get your job done.

What are some of the tricks?
One is we use mashed potatoes for everything.  Let’s say I want to build a salad and I want it to stay fresh.  I’ll use cold mashed potatoes and stick my lettuce in there like florist clay to build and keep it cool and chilled.  If I’m doing a plate of nachos, I’ll put them in there and build the nachos like that.  If I want a turkey to look plump, I stuff his little insides as tight as I can with mashed potatoes.  It’s primarily a tool.

The other one we do is to use colors to paint things to make them darker. It’s usually a darkening agent and it’s all foods sprayed, like darker sauces and glazes.  Most of us use natural things.  There are some stylists around the country that use a lot of chemicals. I try to use pretty much natural.  Food looks better natural.

There’s a technique we use called stand-ins.  The other day I was doing a job and it had all these different plates, different steaks with different sauces, two different salads, drinks and bread.  They need to figure out their arrangement.  You’ve got to give them something.  I used to prepare it and sort of throw it out there.  Every time I did if it wasn’t ugly as all get out, they’d become attached to it.  Boom, make it just like that.  You can’t.  No two steaks are alike, no two pieces of lettuce, and no two pieces of broccoli.  So I give them the ugliest stand-ins.  Sometimes I’ll just wad up a paper towel or something dark and say, “Here’s your steak, and here’s your broccoli.”

The stories you hear where there are twenty executives crammed into a room and they are all fighting over the positioning of people’s lettuce.  How often does that happen?
It’s not executives.  It does happen though and it’s because the top executives aren’t there and everyone is trying to guess what they would want. These people are so trying to guess and it’s art in its lowest form.  It’s subjective.

When you look at food do you immediately deconstruct it and figure out how you would style it for a photo?
I think when I see food after this many years, you just know.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote the book Outliers.  He talks about how to become a professional, really an expert at something, you need 10,000 hours at least of experience.  Once that happens, I don’t really think when I style at my best I’m not thinking.  I can be talking to you or whatever – it doesn’t matter.  I believe that my best work is not done by me but through me.  That somehow the creative force of the group can flow through me, or an intelligence greater than me, can flow through me but when I try to do it with my little pea-sized brain fear comes in and it usually is very limited.  So I try to be just open for that flow and that’s when it works best for me.

 I try to be just open for that flow and that’s when it works best for me.

What is your favorite taco spot in Dallas?
My favorite taco spot is Velvet Taco.  They’ve got an Indian taco right now.  Oh my God, it’s so great!

What is your favorite barbecue place in Dallas?
We are barbecue aficionados. We make the most incredible pulled pork. My husband and I compete with our BBQ and we are getting really good.