– by Wendy Morley –
In my previous life as managing director of a publishing house, I often worked with food stylist Marianne Wren. We produced a lot of full-color, beautiful cookbooks, and much of that beauty came from the magic hands and artistic eye of Marianne. What does a food stylist do? Makes the food being photographed look both beautiful and delicious. Here, an interview with the woman whose work has graced the pages of many cookbooks, magazines, print ads, commercials and films.
*All images except image of Marianne courtesy Clean Eating magazine.
* All food styled by Marianne Wren.
Wendy Morley: Did you always enjoy cooking, even as a child and teen?
Marianne Wren: Yes, I was always in the kitchen as a kid. My mother was a great baker so I was always interested in helping. At Christmas she would make all kinds of gingerbread and it was an assembly line of kids decorating. I started making dinner for the six people in my family when I was 12 both to help out and to break away from the two-week rotation of standard meals Mom made.
MW: I did. I graduated from chef school and started working in restaurants. It was great experience but just wasn’t a great fit for me. I ran my own catering company for a while, specializing in weddings and cakes.
WM: Food styling seems like a career a person might stumble upon, where maybe there is no stylist for an event and the chef steps in to help and then says, wait a second, this could be my career! Did anything like that happen to you?
MW: Sort of. I was busy running my catering business when my sister, an art director in Vancouver, called me about food styling. I knew about the job but had never pursued it. She thought It would be a good fit for me. After 19 years I guess it’s time to tell her she was right.
WM: Being a food stylist isn’t just being on set; you go home and cook for the next day’s shoot. So in a way, you’re working day and night, aren’t you? Is this countered by the fact that you have days off sometimes, or times when you don’t have a job for whatever reason? Is it feast or famine?
MW: It really depends on the recipe or the shoot. It varies from day to day. I will always do baking ahead of a shoot but most recipes are prepared right on set the day of the shoot. Generally we shoot four to six recipes per day so you have to be very organized and work quickly. If budget allows, a good assistant is a must for food prep. Since I’m freelance I don’t work every day. I could be booked for a one-day job, multiple days or a few weeks at a time for larger projects like a cookbook. While styling is feast or famine I also do recipe development, so if I’m not on set I’m in my kitchen testing or in front of my laptop writing recipes.
MW: It helps to live where there is work available. Larger cities like New York, LA and Chicago in the US generally get more business than smaller cities. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are the hubs in Canada for print and film work.
WM: Did you study this? Take courses? Apprentice? Get an agent? How does a person get started in this industry?
MW: I went to culinary school after I got my degree in Criminology at U of T*, and received a Certificate in Food Styling from the Culinary Institute of America. But this job is really best learned hands on through assisting established stylists. I worked for free for a few years learning from other stylists until I was able to land clients of my own. Assisting is really the best way to get a real understanding of what this job entails—the planning, shopping, cooking, styling and clean up are all important and part of the job.
*Note: I do not believe Marianne is implying a degree in Criminology is necessary to become a food stylist
MW: Having a great knowledge of and love for food is a must for this job. Any art or culinary skill is always an asset. I would suggest contacting stylists in your area, asking if they need assistance and offer your labor for free. It is really the best way to learn.
WM: Can you tell us something surprising about food styling?
MW: I think people would be surprised that everything we shoot is real food. If I am shooting canned soup packaging I can only use what comes out of that can. If it’s a recipe, the recipe must appear as written. I do have tricks to make things look juicy, but generally it’s just bringing out the natural beauty in the food that is already there. I compare it to a make-up artist, they use tricks to bring out a person’s best features. I do the same, but with food.
WM: What is the best part of being a food stylist?
MW: I like the variety of it, working with different teams every day. It’s never boring.
WM: What drives you crazy?
MW: Having to explain to strangers at a party what the heck a food stylist does!