Feast for the eyes

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By Food styling is big business and it's all about making food look irresistible for the camera using anything from paintbrushes to blowtorches, says Arundhati Basu
  • Published 13.03.11
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Ivan Fernandes’ tool box is armed with 12 different kinds of knives, a blowtorch and even syringes; Pic by Gajanan Dudhalkar, (top) Fernandes’ shoot for the gourmet section of HyperCITY, a lifestyle store in Mumbai; Pic by Ashish Vaidya

It’s an exercise in the seduction of the senses as a platter of burnished sausages, browned to perfection, is placed under the discerning eye of a large-format camera. Crispy leaves of lettuce, luscious red rings of tomato and thinly sliced onion rings add colour to the juicy sausages. The set: an advertising print shoot for the Republic of Chicken and one that is drool-inducing.

“You want to eat the picture, right?” smiles food stylist Indranie Dasgupta. She adds with a smile: “That’s what drives me.”

The chemistry of gastronomic temptation begins at her work table.

Dasgupta belongs to an army of ‘en vogue’ stylists in India who are changing and re-writing the rules of food presentation for packaging, restaurant menus and brochures, magazines, cookbooks and television commercials.

It’s all their handiwork — that perfectly balanced tall burger in a food magazine, the cheese oozing off a pizza in television advertisements or the impeccable grains of rice peeking from the edges of a biryani handi on a menu card.

In her mock kitchen/studio, food stylist Sujata Sadr is busy dressing up a dish. A low calorie Turkish Salad that will appear on the menu card of Delhi restaurant, Nirula’s Potpourri, gets her fine touch. The ingredients are nothing out of the ordinary — iceberg lettuce, black olives, some herbs and cubes of cottage cheese. But by the time she’s done a couple of hours later — after brainstorming with the photographer and the food director — the platter looks more than tempting.

“The picture has to make people want to pay a substantial amount for just salad, especially since it’s the main dish,” says the food director as she passes a critical eye over the platter. Sadr tweaks the arrangement and makes the portion look more buxom till it wins a smile of approval from the team.

Sadr brings the traditional Turkish look to life with the help of some ‘props’ that include a couple of lemons, boat-shaped bowls, turquoise blue table mats and carefully scattered small ceramic jars.

Sujata Sadr stresses on the importance of staying calm while shooting food; Pic by Dinesh Khanna (above) Sadr’s work for Setz, a high-end, multi-cuisine restaurant in Delhi; Pic by Rupinder Sharma

The food stylist’s world is an entirely visual one. “God lies in the presentation. Like jewellery accessorises a woman’s beauty, styling does the same for food. Today, stylists are indispensable for people like us in the food business,” says Sangeeta Goyel, marketing manager at Bikanerwala, who works closely with stylists whenever the eatery works on packaging and promotions.

“The food has to look irresistible for the camera no matter what. After all, seeing is eating,” says Ivan Fernandes, a top-notch stylist in Mumbai. “To that end, we have our tricks of the trade to stimulate the senses,” laughs the 35-year-old.

So yes, the edible and inedible arsenal at the disposal of the food stylist can catch you off guard, alright. And however tempting it might look, think twice before digging into the food lying around the stylist.

“What we make is strictly for the camera,” warns Dasgupta, one of the most experienced stylists in the trade who has styled shoots for Pizza Hut, Nestle, Domino’s, Haldiram and dishes for recipe books for Samsung and LG.

At times she dabbles with — hold your breath for the moment of truth — mashed potato and icing sugar to whip up ice cream for the camera. And when she has to make chicken gravy look perfectly delicious, she cooks the gravy separately from the chicken, polishes the chicken with oil for effect and props it up in the gravy with the aid of toothpicks!

Similarly, for Shubhangi Dhaimade, a leading stylist in Mumbai who has been in business for over the last 13 years, a large part of the styling is about problem-solving. “It’s sometimes about coming up with quick fixes for ice-cream melts, sinking soufflés, and thin or thick sauces while the photographer needs time to get the lighting right,” she says.

(From top) Attention to the minutest details, says Indranie Dasgupta, is essential for food stylists; Esther Amanna prefers using real ingredients while shooting food; Esther’s handiwork using chocolate muffins for a Mumbai restaurant’s menu card
Pix: Rupinder Sharma, Gajanan Dudhalkar, Girish Mistry

There are, it turns out, many clever ways to make the dish look mouthwatering. But there are some who are partial to real food. Esther Amanna, a 29-year-old stylist in Mumbai, uses cornstarch for ice cream to get the perfect melt, or uses a blowtorch for perfectly browning a chicken. “The maximum length I go to for using artificial stuff is probably using fake ice cubes for drinks,” she says.

Fernandes too prefers to play with the real thing. “To get the effect of full cream I use milk thickened with corn starch and corn syrup instead of paint. Then, in place of using paints for chocolate, I make my own chocolate fudge paste or use Nutella (a hazelnut flavoured spread).”

According to Saba Gaziyani, a professional food photographer who doubles as a food stylist (and has been styling since 1994), real food looks the best. “Over the years I have had enough experience to know when to use what and how to use it. When I am shooting a pizza, I know that mozzarella cheese at the right temperature brings on the best stretch rather than using chewing gum for the same,” says the 40-year-old.

The arsenal of a food stylist says it all. Right from tweezers and paint brushes to a varied collection of props, the stylist literally leaves no stone unturned to make the food the hero.

In Fernandes’ rugged, iron toolbox that’s as functional as it looks, there’s an assortment of 12 different kinds of knives –— a paring knife, a carving knife, a cleaver and even a butcher’s knife among others to a blowtorch, a heater for melting cheese, scoopers and syringes. Meanwhile, he has such a huge inventory of props from different shoots that he has rented an apartment primarily to store them. “I have five cupboards stuffed with them and two cupboards full of table mats,’’ he says.

Amanna’s repertoire of food styling tools — earbuds, tweezers, melon cutters and the rest — find place in a funky kit-bag, while Dasgupta admits to pangs of nervousness every time she steps out with her own kitbag. “It contains so many lethal looking knives,” she laughs. A prop-room in her studio at Khirki Village Extension in Delhi stores all kinds of odds and ends, from oil bottles and salt and pepper mills to artificial flowers that she buys during her overseas trips.

Delhi-based stylist and graphic designer, Vishwesh Sant, prefers to go shopping for props for every shoot. “I like the idea of fresh props. Though I do keep basic props at hand like white plates, table mats and linens in muted colours,” he says.

(From top) Shubhangi Dhaimade stays ahead of the curve by reading up on food and
researching the latest fashions in home products and blends of chemicals to emulate foods and liquids; according to Saba Gaziyani, a stylist’s expertise also calls for knowledge of art and composition;a shoot by Gaziyani for a frozen food brand.
Pix: Gajanan Dudhalkar, Saba Gaziyani.

How important is a food stylist in the world of food? It’s a question that is probably easily answered by the long lists of clients that each stylist boasts of and the fact that well-established names can charge a client anywhere between Rs 25,000 to Rs 40,000 a day depending upon the nature of the shoot.

“The stylist brings in a certain expertise that is not only about knowing food but that also calls for an immense knowledge of art and composition,” says Gaziyani. Her website, www.foodphotographics.com, is witness to a varied list of clients (read: Tropicana Juices, Vadilal Ice Cream, Smith & Jones, Kurkure, Parle Monaco Biscuits) as well as international clients in Qatar, Sri Lanka, Canada and London among others.

At Amanns Creations, a styling company, Amanna has a large number of international clients in the UK and the UAE besides clients like Amul, Maggi, Saffola, Pillsbury, and Baskin- Robbins within the country.

Of course, they are mostly connected to food through a background in hotel management training or home economics and find the kitchen the perfect hangout. Just as a chef needs to know his marinade and herbs and how to season a fish, so does a stylist need to know his way around food.

“My enthusiasm for cooking makes it all easy for me. For instance, I know how to squeeze lime juice on chopped apples to prevent them from turning red. Or what to add to rice to make the grains visible during a rice shoot,” says Sant.

So, they end up spending hours slaving over a single shot in a day for hours at a stretch or style several dishes in one day, without grousing about it. “The number of hours we work in a day depends upon the textures of foods, the season, the mood,” says Anuj Parthi, a food photographer and stylist whose studio has some five different ovens.

And when foods misbehave, and the time spent on styling one dish seems painstakingly long, patience becomes the key watchword for the food stylist. “I have to keep the ingredients and the garnishes looking fresh, crisply cut and inviting to look at,” points out Sadr.

The 52-year-old keeps calm even as she realises during a shoot that the iceberg lettuce that the chefs have sourced is not as fresh as promised. Or if can she can’t spot the ice cubes she needs to keep the ingredients fresh, she doesn’t panic and her shoot doesn’t stall. “It’s all part of the game. You keep innovating as and when you need to,” says Sadr.

On the other hand, Dhaimade keeps ahead of trends by reading up on quirky garnishes and researching the latest fashion in home-ware and blends of chemical elements to perfectly emulate foods and liquids.

But yes, a passion for food is what keeps them going. As Amanna says: “How can I get bored or feel miffed with it when I am in love with my work? At the end of the day, if you are in love you eat, when you are sad you eat, when you are fighting you eat. Food is the universal experience that brings the world together.”