Whether it’s a shot of ooey-gooey mac ‘n cheese or steaks fresh off the grill, photography is an essential component of all America’s Test Kitchen books, magazines, and websites. Even though the mouthwatering photographs often look effortless, behind every image is an entire team of Test Kitchen cooks, creative directors, stylists, and photographers.
For every magazine or cookbook, the photography team is assigned a list of recipes to photograph from an art director, which includes details specifying how each item should be captured, such as displaying only a single serving. During the day, test cooks on the photography team will make the recipes, paying close attention to appearance. It then gets taken into the photo studio where the art director, photographers, and food stylists work together to create images that will go in our cookbooks, magazines, and websites.
One freelance food stylist behind many of the Test Kitchen’s tantalizing images is Marie Piraino. Marie, a self-declared “food wrangler,” has the job of making food look attractive while also staying true to the recipe. Below are Marie’s tips and tricks to making sure our recipes are ready for their close-up.
1. Knowing Your Food
A big part of Marie’s job is keeping the food looking like it’s fresh out of the oven for the entire photo shoot – a process that typically lasts an hour (and sometimes up to six hours). She credits her success to her familiarity with food; as someone who enjoys both baking and cooking, she can predict how a dish will behave when being styled. Marie prefers working with room temperature-food when possible since it won’t change consistency or appearance as it cools down or heats up. Knowing how to keep greens crisp and gravy from separating is an important part of her job.
2. Keeping Food Fresh
Not all foods are easy to style. Gooey, melty cheese will harden over time, and peas quickly turn an unappetizing brownish-green. With years of food styling experience, Marie will often have tricks up her sleeve when photographing food with a short lifespan. With ingredients that may lose color quickly, like peas, Marie will keep some fresher, extra peas on hand to brighten the dish. With cheese and other ingredients that may need to stay hot or melty, Marie has some tricks up her sleeve. For soups and stews, she employs a hand-held torch (like the kind for crème brûlée) to heat up the surface and make it look glossy right before the shoot. With cheese, Marie applies a heat gun (like what you would use to strip paint) to make it “remelt.”
3. Setting the Scene
The photo studio can transform into dozens of different sets every week – from a bright summer picnic to an intimate Christmas dinner. Marie and the photo team rely on a huge supply of plates, silverware, napkins, tablecloths, and wooden boards to represent everything from a country breakfast to a romantic dinner for two. When a new shoot is about to start, Marie will gather groups of props for each scene. She then discusses with the photo team the props for each setting—whether the spoon is the right size, or the placemat the right shade of green. Each scene lasts roughly an hour, and then is taken down and a new scene is created.
4. Representing the Recipe
When food is set on the table, we smell, touch, and taste whatever it is we’re about to eat. But when Marie is styling a dish, she must keep in mind that she can only affect one sense – sight. With that in mind, she does her best to represent as many parts of a recipe as possible, providing visual cues about the final product. If there are mushrooms in the recipe, one or two recognizable ones should be positioned so the viewer can clearly identify the ingredient. When styling slices of cake or pie, Marie will refer back to the serving size so she doesn’t misrepresent a typical portion. The most challenging part of her job? To make the food look like it hasn’t even been styled – a fine line Marie walks with every shoot.
What tricks do you use to make your food look delicious at home? Let us know in the comments for a chance to win The Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2012. The winner will be notified by email on Tuesday, Sept. 11.