“Food Styling: The perfect outlet to combine an artistic eye and culinary talent.” – Sarah Cook, BBC Good Food Magazine
Since starting my food blog, and even before, I’ve always been very keen to attend courses and to learn new skills. Given that I’ve always been interested in cooking, most of the courses I’ve taken have had a culinary twist.
I’ve also always secretly wanted to be a student at Leiths, so I when I saw a Food Styling course on offer with Sarah Cook, the Deputy Food Editor at BBC Good Food Magazine, I put my name down and hoped for the best. The course was aimed at writers looking to improve their food blogs or those looking to explore a career in styling and I hoped I would be able to pick up a few tips and learn some new skills that I could put into practice through my blog. I was lucky enough to get a place before Christmas and the course was spread across six Tuesday evening classes (2 hours) and one Saturday (half day) for the final project shoot.
Surprisingly, I was one of only a couple of food bloggers on the course out of over twenty students. It was a little bit like being back at school, with a whole load of new faces and homework (!) but everyone was really friendly and Sarah, our tutor, was probably one of the nicest people you’ll ever get to meet in the business. Most of the students worked in other industries, such as fashion, publishing and photography, and were also curious as to what Food Styling entailed. Others worked in completely different sectors, such as banking, and simply wanted to take the course as an outside interest or hobby.
I was perhaps most surprised to learn that there are so many varied jobs and projects that you can work on as a Food Stylist. For example, you can work freelance or in-house, editorially (for a magazine or newspaper), on a cookery book alongside a photographer and designer, or in brand advertising and packaging, as well as in television.
I think there is a common misperception about the job, for example, that it mainly entails sticking mashed potato on a plate in place of ice cream or making ‘fake food’ look ‘real’ for the cameras. Not so, as I found out from Sarah and other guest tutors, such as photographer and blogger, Stuart Ovenden and Food Stylist, Writer and Chef Jennifer Joyce.
Throughout the course, we learnt how to critically evaluate food photograhps, looked at trends, legistlation and how to start a stylists tool kit. There were a number of practical sessions and demonstrations with tips from Sarah along the way. The fun part was being let loose in the Leiths kitchens, surrounded by copper pans and trainee chefs. No, Food Stylists don’t use mashed potato in place of ice cream. The key to making food look ‘pretty’ is to use fresh food and to practice, practice, practice. Sarah has a particular fondness for baking, so it was great to watch her demonstrate how to ice a cake and to get her (constructive) advice on our own efforts!
We also worked towards a final project, where we were tasked with styling one of our own recipes with guidance from Sarah, which would then be photographed for our portfolio by Stu Ovenden, a BBC Good Food photographer and blogger. This was a bit nerve-wracking, but was huge amounts of fun and all the final dishes were extremely varied and included hand-decorated macarons, homely pies, a great British fry up and my own twist on Polish pancakes filled with cream cheese.
Learning about the industry was a realy eye-opener. As a Food Stylist, you are also Home Economist. Your cookery skills as well as the ability to multi-task, stay cool under pressure and be super-organised are key. On any given day, Sarah might be required to write the recipes according to a particular brief, organise a shoot and work alongside a Food Photographer and Props Stylist to bring the feature together. The Food Stylist shops for all the ingredients, a task which is often made much harder as magazines shoot three-four months in advance. The next stage is cooking the food, often on the day of, or even on the morning of the shoot, or whilst the shoot is happening! The main thing is to ensure that the food is fresh and is shot as it would look at home, as well as being given a final test before going into the magazine. Although you have to allow for the fact that things can go wrong, you generally only also get one chance to get it right; magazine food shoots are tightly packed in terms of timing and content. You might also be working with 5-6 dishes per shoot as well as working to a specific budget – so the pressure is really on!
Generally, British magazines follow Australian trends, with Donna Hay’s work perhaps being the best example of a successful Food Stylist, Home Economist and cookery book author. Sarah was very proud to now work full-time for BBC Good Food Magazine as their Deputy Food Editor. The magazine is also keeping up with digital media, with iPad moving covers (a shoot that looks like a movie but that is made up of individual shots) and an award-winning iPad app, as well as frequently uploaded content online. Sarah’s ‘top tip’ was to get some experience on a moving cover shoot, which are the latest big thing.
All in all, I found this course really interesting. It was a good balance of practical styling, as well as tips from Sarah and her guest tutors, with great information about the industry. Sarah was extremely bubbly and chatty and was very keen to share her experiences and stories and answer all our questions. I found the length of the course (6 evenings and one Saturday) to be just right – I had been looking to do something longer than a one day course and I was able (just about!) to get into London with a bit of back-up with childcare.
As to a career in Food Styling, well, I think I was quite surprised at the long hours involved, and very often, magazine shoots are in quite random places (lofts/studios/locations) starting very early. So for me, with two little children, it would be quite hard to get off the ground. However, Sarah did mention that many Food Stylists work freelance and that the biggest agency for Home Economists, Food Stylists and Props Stylists is the HERS Agency in London. The best thing to do would be to get work experience on shoots, with experienced stylists and build up your own portfolio.
As a blogger, the best thing for me to was get to work with Sarah and a professional food photographer, which really helped me understand how a shoot comes together and how to get your food to look as good as it does in a magazine – if only for my final project!
Leiths School of Food and Wine offer two great courses for food bloggers or aspiring food writers and stylists - Food Writing with Lulu Grimes and Food Styling with Sarah Coook. I paid £270 to attend the Food Styling course, but noticed that the price has now gone up to £450 for 6 evenings and one 1 Saturday (final project shoot) – possibly due to a higher demand!
Value for Money
A little note on the course cost – I should point out that some of the sessions included practical food styling and all the ingredients were included. The only ingredients that weren’t included were my final project food costs and I also had to take in a few bits (toppings) for a trifle as part of a team task. Sarah is one of the most experienced people in the industry (plus there were additional guest speakers) giving advice. Sarah has worked as a Food Stylist for five years and is now Deputy Food Editor for Britain’s top selling (with a circulation of 351,430 copies) cookery magazine. Also, you are paying a certain amount for the prestige of a Leiths course, and I did receive a Leiths certificate. I have, in the past, paid in excess of £230 for a one-day cookery course, so all in all, even at the higher price, I think the cost is justified. However, taking this course doesn’t guarantee you a path into Food Styling!
The Food Styling and Food Writing courses at Leiths are consistently fully booked, so you have to be very lucky to get a place!
If you are interested in topping up your skills as a food blogger or gaining new ones, you could look into local courses, online writing courses or you could also consider basic cookery courses or a digital photography course (next on my to-do list.)
You can also follow Sarah Cook @Sarah_Cooking on Twitter if you want to ask any burning questions of your own!
P.S Stu Ovenden’s blog Appledrane is stunning and regularly features shots from his shoots as well as foraging photos!
P.P.S Check out Roswensian’s Blueberry & Vanilla Cake - also a Leiths final project student.