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.

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