You’ve done it. Don’t worry, we all have. You’ve ogled over a billboard of a mile-high sandwich or stared longingly at a cookbook cover, wondering whether the object of your affection is real or not.
Chances are it is real, delicious, and was prepped by longtime chef and food stylist Dan Macey, or one of his counterparts.
“Food styling is preparing food for the camera and trying to make it as eye appealing and mouth watering as you can without having anyone taste it,” said Macey.
There are only 250 food stylists nationwide and the big players in our area — QVC, Bell and Evans Chicken, Dietz & Watson, and Campbell’s Soup — attract 20 food stylists to the Greater Philadelphia region. QVC was the catalyst for Dan’s career change from science writer and editor to food stylist in late 1998 when New Hope native Pamela Anderson hired Dan to do food styling for her cookbook which frequently aired on the popular shopping network.
A food stylist goes beyond just prepping foods for cooking segments on national TV shows, advertisements, magazines, newspapers, packaging and TV commercials. Dan’s services include food writing, product development, nutritional analysis, product launches, and recipe development and testing.
His clients include “The View,” “Good Morning America,” Emeril Lagasse, Alton Brown, Harper Collins/William Morrow Publishers, Harvard Common Press, Sharp Appliance, Kitchen Aid, USA Weekend, Better Homes and Garden, Sarah Lee, Mid-Atlantic Dairy Council, and Dove Chocolate. In a typical week, Dan could be doing a cooking show in New York on Monday, prepping Sodexo foods for photo shoots in Allentown on Tuesday, handling Dietz & Watson meats for packaging in Newtown Square on Thursday and building Jersey Mike sandwiches in Central Jersey on Sunday.
“The biggest misconception is that we use fake food. We almost never use fake food. There are laws, if you’re selling a particular food, you must use that food,” said Dan. “We need to tell the story of the recipe or dish in a second. So if it’s a mushroom dish, you’re going to have to see the mushrooms. We may have to go through hundreds of frozen dinners to find a mushroom that looks like a mushroom.”
Dan’s most dreaded food to work with is not ice cream, where he has to go through 50 scoops of ice cream for just one shot. Sometimes the hardest foods to work with are simple, everyday staples – pizza (the cheese pull is no easy feat), the quesadilla (if it is done right, everything is completely melted, making it impossible to see the ingredients) and the sandwich. Picture an ad you’ve seen recently for a swoon-worthy sandwich. This ad didn’t just showcase one ingredient, every single detail of that sandwich — the cheese, the pickles, the meats — made your mouth instantly water.
A food stylist must be a quick-thinking problem solver: often making foods do things they don’t naturally do, like getting smoke rings from a pork shoulder or shaping food to look like a foot. To make meats look more beautiful, Dan fills out a turkey with newspaper or cooks meats on one side to appear larger. “The hardest part is figuring out what the clients want and what your message will be. If it’s a fresh turkey breast sandwich, you have to see the brown edge of the turkey, to show it’s been roasted and is fresh. If it’s just white meat, it could be anything,” said Dan.
Being a food stylist isn’t always a cakewalk. When working a cooking show, Dan is the first to arrive on set at 6 a.m. and often the last to leave. A three-minute pot roast segment may take up to three days of work. A three-minute pot roast segment could require eight pot roasts, including one pot roast that requires basting live and another finished pot roast the host takes out of the oven.
A day or two before the shoot, Dan will do his food shopping, searching for the right size tomato or lemon with a perfect hue. Dan is responsible for bringing all of the ingredients and some of his tools such as pots, pans, measuring cups, linens, or a table cloth. The kitchens in some TV studios have the bare minimum, many don’t even have a sink or oven. Dan has to do most of the chopping, cooking, and cleaning in his New Hope home.
The food stylist is a silent artist, rarely getting credit for their work. Next time you are engrossed by a food photo, take a moment to think about all the prep work that went into that sandwich or pot roast.
The Turkey Sub cover photograph credited to Sodexo, Dero photographer. Remaining images credited to Todd Trice.
This originally appeared on Main Line Dish.