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Food Stylists Ensure It Looks Yummy in Ads and on Packages

April 17, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ Delores Custer’s recipe for success:

- Take a large portion of artistic ability and mix it with a love of food.

- Blend in such tools as cotton swabs, eye droppers, spritzer bottles, tweezers and fine scissors.

- Simmer with long hours, and ...

Voila 3/8

You have a thriving career as a food stylist.

Custer is among about 500 New York food stylists who ensure that things appear succulent and yummy in TV commercials, in magazine spreads and on product packages. Other media centers, Chicago and Los Angeles, have scores, if not hundreds of them, too.

Initially, she didn’t think of her efforts as art. Now, she confects another opinion.

″I tell my students that it’s just like starting with an empty palette or an empty canvas, and they have to fill that with what’s inside of them,″ said Custer, who teaches food styling at New York University, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and elsewhere.

A former co-worker and protege of Custer’s, Mariann Sauvion, points out that appealing photographs entail a painstaking meticulousness.

″If it looks wonderful, it should, because someone took eight hours to make sure every crumb is in the right place,″ she said.

To be sure, much of a food stylist’s life is far from glamorous or artsy.

The hours are long, starting early in the morning and sometimes ending in darkest night; Sauvion forked over a good $600 last year for equipment, and like any free-lancer, she also must pay health insurance and other expenses.

Still, she’s not getting indigestion over the minuses. The pluses far outweigh them: A good food stylist can earn $350 to $650 a day. Moreover, Sauvion said, it’s a creative and challenging pursuit.

She recalled getting into it 10 years ago because she was feeling stagnant as a chef, and a friend suggested that she prepare feasts for the eyes instead.

″I was always getting into trouble,″ she said, harking back to her salad days at a restaurant. ″Waiters would say, ‘Faster, faster ... they’re not going to take a picture of it.’ It just seemed like a natural progression.″

Now, of course, they do take pictures of her food. These days she’s preparing food for the photos in a cookbook about peppers from around the world and working on spreads for Prevention magazine.

She also does a lot of work for Fortunoff, which will call her a month or two in advance to reserve her time. ″Which is really a nice feeling when you get to that point in your career,″ she said.

Some food stylists get to a point where they’re known for a certain forte. Sauvion refers to the ″Cool Whip Lady″; Custer agrees that the woman is renowned for packing a wallop with her dollop.

Many food stylists have home economics degrees, like Custer, and of course there are those like Sauvion who had all of the cooking and baking skills.

Some also come from backgrounds as painters, jewelry designers, photographers and art directors. They can arrange a salad all right, Custer said, but when it comes to baking or roasting a turkey ... well, the results can be a turkey.

Although the tales of how food stylists ″cheat″ are well-known lore at this point, Sauvion said such techniques are going down the garbage disposal.

In part, that’s because strict federal guidelines limit just how much leeway a food stylist or advertiser has. The rules stem from a 1970 Federal Trade Commission order to stop Campbell Soup Co. from putting marbles in its vegetable soup to push the noodles and veggies to the surface.

Food stylists are prohibited from cooking their own pie if, say, the product being sold is a brand-name pie. But they can dress it up, surround it with pretty plates, napkins or flowers, or employ some other artistic legerdemain.

Similarly, if a particular kind of ice cream is being flogged, then the advertisement must use that ice cream. But if the object is a generic ice- cream photo for, say, a newspaper food page, stylists can pull out the old trick of using mashed potatoes as a substitute.

Usually the tricks are used because food fails to hold up under studio conditions. ″Photographers take a while to get everything lit, and food dies,″ Custer said.

She recalled a pet saying of her mentor, the doyenne of food stylists, Helen Feingold: ″Food is like children. It doesn’t behave around company.″

Sauvion admits to painting a few turkeys (with angostura bitters and detergent) and frosting a Styrofoam cake (which was just going to serve as background). But she said, ″Everybody’s really getting away from that. Everybody’s really getting into cooking real food. And the consumer no longer expects things to look perfect.″

Sauvion said she has had client companies veto a particular photo of their product because ″it looked too good.″

Still, food stylists strive to serve up what they call ″hero food″ - the prettiest, most appetizing of its kind, whether it’s lettuce, a burger or cookies.

One time Custer spent all day baking chocolate chip cookies, trying to come up with that hero for a commercial. Finally, about 4 p.m., she had a batch of gorgeous cookies and told the director the food was ready.

In the interim, someone ate them. It took another six hours to bake a comparably beautiful batch.

″We try to be very careful with our hero food. You tuck it away,″ Custer said, ″because sometimes those things do happen.″

It is easy to see how food styling can become food obsession. More than once, after a hard day’s work that extended into the wee small hours, Sauvion’s fallen into bed exhausted and talked in her sleep.

One time, she was working with chicken parts and as her husband was getting up for work - just a short time after she had gotten into bed - she was murmuring: ″No more thighs, Vincent. No more thighs.″

That left her husband wondering: ″Who’s Vincent? And whose thighs 3/8?″

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