Meet the woman who makes the food you see in commercials look irresistible
There's a reason the burgers you see in commercials look different from the ones you get at the drive-thru window, and the reason is not that the food is fake.
The reason is people like Mary Valentin — professional food stylists, who take real food and make it look transcendent.
Valentin has been in the business for more than twenty years. She's worked with everyone from the Food Network to Kraft to Panera Bread to Godiva. When we talk, she has recently finished a big shoot for Jell-O, styling "teeny teeny tiny bite-sized tarts," topped with — exactly — 1/4 teaspoon of Cool Whip.
The crux of her job: to communicate the full visceral experience of what it's going to be like to eat something, using only images. "How do you convey temperature of food visually? How do you convey what mouthfeel is going to be? How soft or chewy or crunchy something is going to be?" she asks.
It is arguably the most glamorous possible job involving Jell-O. "It's such a cool-looking job from the outside, I think a lot of people — especially now that everyone takes pictures of their food for Instagram — everyone sort of feels like, 'Oh, I could do this.'"
But a strong Instagram game isn't enough to break in. "It's extremely difficult," Valentin says.
She speaks from experience.
An artist since she was old enough to "put crayon to paper," Valentin paid her way through art school — a BFA in painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — working in restaurant kitchens.
After college, she was getting by painting backgrounds for photo shoots when she stumbled on food styling by accident: while dropping off some canvases, a friend who worked at the photo studio offered her an emergency gig. The food stylist's assistant was out, and could she fill in the next day?
"I didn't know what a food stylist was at that point, but they offered to pay me, so I showed up, and it was really just this perfect marriage of my unrelated skills," she says.
Interest piqued, she found work doing "food propping," which, she explains, is actually a different job. "That's where you're making food for things where the food isn't the hero." Think of a Sur La Table catalog: The food looks beautiful, but the pots and pans are the focus. If you perused the toaster ovens on offer from the Sears catalog in the late '80s, it's possible you saw her craftsmanship.
Food propping eventually led to gigs assisting real food stylists. Valentin notes she's somewhat of an exception to the rule here: in general, aspiring stylists start with culinary school. "You need to be able to look at a recipe before the photoshoot and say, there's way too much baking soda in here, it's not gonna work," Valentin explains. "You have to have serious culinary skills."
But while formal training is invaluable — and well into her career, she opted to go back to school, ultimately finishing the pastry program at Chicago's Kendall College — the assistantships are where the bulk of the professional training happens. "It's like an old-school apprenticeship system," Valentin says.
Some people like the role so much they decide to stay assistants — it's lower pressure, and if you're good, there's no shortage of work — but Valentin ventured off on her own.
There's a reason to go for it: the top food stylists, she estimates, make somewhere between $100,000 to $130,000. A more typical range for senior-but-not-absolute-top stylist is $70,000 to $80,000. Assistants usually make between one third and one half of that.
A typical day
After more than 20 years in the business, Valentin has settled into a steady routine. She lugs the day's groceries into the studio — "There's a lot of schlepping involved with this job" — to meet her assistant and any other food stylists working on that particular project. (Like Valentin, most food stylists are freelancers, though some big companies like General Mills have in-house people, as do some lifestyle and cooking magazines.)
Once everyone's settled in, the meetings begin: with photographers, with clients, with the creative team. They'll go over the recipes and the order of the recipes; they'll plot out what the backgrounds will be for each shot, though a prop stylist — different than a food stylist or a food propper — is responsible for that part.
But is it real?
As we talk, I keep hoping we'll get to the part where Valentin reveals all the food secrets I'd heard about on '90s news segments (milk is glue!), but she doesn't. "You know, that's very old school," she says, when I ask about substituting ice cream for mashed potatoes. "That's really not done so much anymore."
While the "ethics of food styling are murky at best," writes Jaya Saxena at Serious Eats, "most stylists are aware of truth in advertising." According to Valentin, most brands are, too. "Most clients are extremely careful about portion and serving size and what you're actually getting for their own legal reasons," she tells me.
But if part of the reason is ethical, the other part is technological: Faking it just isn't as necessary as it used to be, thanks to the advent of digital photography.
Back in the film age, food had to be able to sit on set for a really long time. "You had to spray it with shellac, you had to do all this crazy stuff to make it look perfect for an hour," she explains. But none of that is necessary anymore, and "it takes half the day to prepare something artificially."
These days, it's about taking the real food and showing it off to its best possible — but real — advantage. If the burger in the McDonald's commercial looks better than the one you get, that's because they're making it "super fresh right at the moment," she says. Everything is nudged forward on the bun, and the bun itself is the most perfect possible bun, one that hasn't been squished by paper. "But it is a bun from their assembly line," she promises.
"You have to let the food do what it naturally does. It's a live animal. You can't make it into something that it's not. If there's a kind of bread that makes a lot of crumbs when you cut it, you need to show the crumbs," she says. "I guess that's my thing — I want the food to be comfortable with itself."
Not that she doesn't have a few tricks up her sleeve. "I use glycerin to represent condensation, because you have more control over it than water," she says. She'll use a garment steamer to re-melt congealed cheese on a tired-looking cheeseburger ("it melts again, and it looks perfect").
Once, when her team couldn't get d'Anjou pears for a shoot, they substituted another kind of pear, faking the d'Anjou's coloring with lipstick. "I think mine was L'Oréal British Red — it's the perfect lipstick for the d'Anjou pear."
Mostly, though, it's the real thing, and if you spent several hours at the grocery store picking out the platonic ideal of lettuce and painstakingly arranging each leaf, your salad could look like that, too.
The art of the grocery store
For most of us, grocery shopping is a chore. For Valentin, it's an art.
"Some people just hand [the shopping] to their assistants, but I love it." Her store of choice is Mariano's — Whole Foods opens too late — though she also has a network of specialty wholesalers, whom she can turn to when she needs something impossible. ("Somebody always wants to shoot a pomegranate in July, and it's just not out there.")
At the store, she's meticulous. "You have to go through all the tomatoes that have beautiful green tops, and hopefully a little stem, and you have to treat them like little newborn babies," she tells me. Shopping for hamburger buns means taking them all off the shelf, looking through them all, and putting the rest back. "You get the poor stock kid watching you do this, like, 'Oh man, what is this crazy woman up to.'"
"I try to be as gracious as possible," she says. Sometimes, cashiers roll their eyes as she polices their bagging (raspberries don't go at the bottom), which she understands. Just as often, they're excited to learn how the food will be used.
If there's a downside to the job, Valentin says it's the physical price you pay for hunching over perfectly arranged arugula salads all day. "You're really carrying a lot of heavy stuff around, you're on your feet for 10, sometimes 12 hours a day, and you're leaning over the set at an awkward angle — it's kind of everything that's bad for your back," she says, noting that, along with culinary skills, regular ab exercises are an essential part of food styling.
While not everyone may be cut out for professional food styling, the field is a reminder that even the drabbest of foods have the potential to be elevated to art. "You want to create a little romance when you're shooting your food," she says.
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