Designing Food: An Interview with Lisa Golden Schroeder
26 Feb 2007

Dessert Parfait
Dessert Parfait
Photo © Mike Jensen
Taste of the NFL cookbook, a fundraiser for hunger relief
Styling by Lisa Golden Schroeder

For quite some time now, Lisa Golden Schroeder, one of the food styling industry masters, and I have been trading phone calls and voice mails, trying to find some time in both of our busy schedules to chat about the business. The thing that separates Lisa from other stylists, a part from her obvious talents, is her commitment to the styling community and a strong belief that helping others in the field is good for everyone. In addition to talks and classes on food styling, Lisa runs Foodesigns.com, a website dedicated to issues and resources for food stylists and photographers as well as periodically publishing The Tweezer Times™ with some of the most helpful styling tips you'll find. Luckily, I was able to pull some questions together for a little virtual interview that we could both work on as time permitted. Since there are other articles out there on Lisa, as well as a great "Lisa FAQ" on Foodesigns.com, I skipped over a lot of the more basic questions, and jumped right into the meat of the interview. 
SLW: What are your favorite types of jobs as a stylist, and how often do you get to do those? Lisa: My favorite jobs are editorial, i.e. shots that are very natural and real, with little intervention beyond preparing the food well and creatively composing/presenting it for the camera. I love when I can closely collaborate with the photographer with few parameters, which tend to be a natural (and necessary by definition) aspect of advertising photos. It seems to go in spurts as to when these kinds of jobs come up—and more and more I’m developing projects from the recipe beginnings and taking my own work into photo. I currently am working on a new web project for a client that is relying on my experience to develop menus/recipes and photos for the concept. So I actually am hiring a photographer I like to work with and setting up the shoot—this is the best kind of job from my perspective! And I wish I could do them all the time, but advertising and packaging jobs also have the biggest budgets—so this is the bread-and-butter work we all have to do.

 SLW: What advice would you give someone who wanted to become a food stylist? As someone starting out, are there any organizations you'd encourage them to investigate? Lisa: I’m a huge advocate of connecting with other colleagues—going beyond the cliché “networking” stuff. I think that the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) is a good organization to start out with, but local culinary/photo groups are essential to knowing what’s going on in your own marketplace (think about joining a local art directors club or going to seminars offered for advertising or other creative professionals—you never know who you’ll meet). The IACP has a special interest section for stylists and photographers and offers access to thousands of culinary professionals (from marketing communicators and corporate food businesses to cooking teachers and chefs) all over the world. The ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers) just launched a food photo specialty section too. With the web the world has become so much smaller in many ways, yet we still need to connect personally with other people in our own backyard. What you do, with your local group that gets together to go out to shoot in markets, etc. is absolutely fabulous. We can be friendly competitors and supporters of each other—I’ve found that the more I give to colleagues and wannabes in this industry, the more I’ve received myself. I’ve “fallen” into jobs or opportunities that probably would never have happened if I wasn’t engaged in trade groups and even recommended others for jobs—that have eventually led to other opportunities. You’ll find that being connected on lots of levels in your business community will establish you as a good “go to” person for information and a trusted person to successfully complete a job. 

SLW: Who inspires you? Lisa: I’m inspired by so many colleagues that share their expertise and care about their profession, beyond the work they do (Julie Hettiger, Dan Macey, Jim Scherzi, and others in the IACP who have volunteered so much on behalf of all of us). But that being said, I’m particularly fond of work done by woman photographers and stylists. I’ve come to realize that teams of closely in-tune women do some of the most beautiful food work—that’s sensitive and compelling. Donna Hay and Petrina Tinslay (Sydney, Australia), Joyce Oudkerk-Pool and Pouké Halpern (San Francisco), Deborah Jones and Sandra Cook (San Francisco), Mette Nielsen and Robin Krause (Minneapolis), and Beth Galton in New York City are all terrific. I love their careful touch and obvious love of food, creative propping (or ways of putting food in cultural context), and wonderfully magical lighting. Don’t get me wrong—there are fabulous male food shooters (obviously they outnumber women in the biz), but I really gravitate towards work that women have happened to create.

 SLW: As a stylist, you spend a lot of time working with food photographers. What make that experience great for you? What makes it terrible? If you had one piece of advice for food photographers, what would you tell them that would help create better work? Lisa: I admire the amazing vision of good photographers—and the technical aspect of what they do. They are truly artists as well as technicians, and it’s very fulfilling to work with photographers who are real collaborators. The ones who value the skills and talents that stylists bring to the party—and who know that we can make their work sing. What I would advise any photographer trying to build up the food side of their business is this: please understand the soft boundaries of job responsibilities. I won’t move your lights (unless you ask me to) and you don’t touch my food (unless I give you permission). We have to work as a team, respecting each other and what we each need to do. A terrible shoot is when the photographer doesn’t understand or care about this and who won’t communicate well with the stylist.
Zucchini Salad
Zucchini Salad
© John Mowers
for Lifetime Fitness magazine
Food Styling by Lisa Golden Schroeder

SLW: It seems that there has been a trend towards more natural styling. Some stylists I've talked to (ok, one of them!) avoids doing anything to the food to make it non-edible, including things like cooking the meat till it's actually done, no glycerin, etc. How much of this are you seeing? And, maybe more importantly, where do you think the styling world is going next? Lisa: I completely agree with what you’ve heard and seen—there is definitely a move towards capturing food in a more natural, less contrived way. Take a look at the most recent Bisquik boxes—the stack of casually stacked pancakes, with a very unstyled drizzle of syrup. Really quite nice for packaging…and a wave of the future. I’ve never used non-edible ingredients to style (petroleum jelly is probably the sole exception, though I usually use clear gel now instead—I’ll use it as “glue” for patching crumbling pie crusts, etc.) I used Zap-a-gap glue for the first time in my career just a few months ago—on a spiral-cut ham that was totally falling apart. And I only had the one ham to use for an advertising shot! So what do you do? But I generally avoid all the weird tricks some stylists seem to love—but the really good ones are moving away from that (if they ever used any of them). But sometimes it’s important to use methods that create a look that people expect--cooking some meats/poultry until they are completely done means that their “camera life” is significantly shortened. This is okay if shooting editorially, but for advertising it can be an obstacle if the client, art directory and/or photographer cannot shoot quickly enough to capture the food at its most appetizing point. Every job is so different, and the parameters/needs/goals of each shoot demands different problem solving. And if you can work completely “green” (the way most food is shot in Australia, by the way), I think it’s the way we all need to move. But that means that clients need to adjust their expectations. 

 SLW: OK, here's the question everyone asks... can you give us a couple of styling secrets for those hard to style foods? Lisa: Really, what a really good stylist does is take TIME to carefully and artfully present food for the camera. Any accomplished home cook can make their food look just as appetizing, if they think about color, contrasting shapes and textures and take time to consider the best moment in the food’s “life”. That being said, it’s our job to control everything, so all the pre-production, planning and prep can be the secret to styling difficult foods. Ice cream melts—so if you don’t want it to, what do you need to do to prevent this from happening? It can be hard to scoop if extremely cold—so to what temperature should it be “tempered” to make scooping easier? Melting cheese also changes quickly—how can you make it melt slowly and keep it looking fresh even if it needs to stand for a few minutes (a little steam works wonders)…a good stylist understands HOW food works, so they can predict an outcome and possibly intervene or change the outcome to work in favor of the camera. SLW: In photography, I get the sense that more amateurs (self included!) are taking on jobs and changing the way companies are using and paying for images. You see this a lot in the stock and news industries, where good quality stock photos are selling for $1 a piece, rather than the thousands they used to. Is this kind of thing happening in the food styling world as well with the introduction of home cooks into the publishing space through blogs? Or, do you see photographers picking up the styling duties as well? Lisa: I think that the increase in access to images has certainly caused a certain flooding of the market, depressing rates for commercial work. But for so much of advertising and editorial work, new commissioned work is still the best solution. Home cooks obviously do not have the level of professionalism that trained cooks/stylists have, but they offer a new level of accessible information about cooking and food to consumers. But there is also a lot of misinformation out there—I cringe when I see someone explaining why something happens with a recipe that is totally incorrect. And I’m not seeing much amateur food styling going on, beyond cooking web sites/blogs where people shoot in their kitchens to document their stories. BUT I think it’s wonderful to see such an interest in food and cooking, in an era of highly processed food, not enough time for families to sit down together to eat, and the increase in diet-related illnesses. I do not think that there will be a huge increase in photographers doing their own styling any time soon. It’s just too hard—as you’ve probably figured out. With smaller jobs it’s possible, but if a photographer wants to take on serious advertising jobs (where the money is), it’s too hard to juggle the photography, client, etc. PLUS actually style the food. But there’s a place for all food images—it just depends on the purpose of their use or their final goal. What quality do you need to illustrate raw meat in a grocery store circular that will be thrown away as soon as the coupon is clipped out? Sometimes down and dirty is perfect, while at other times it’s important to create work that can stand the test of time. I’m not saying that amateurs only create lesser-quality work, but you know that it takes time and experience to become accepted as a professional. SLW: How about stylists turned photographer... do you ever get the urge to click the shutter yourself? Lisa: Well, I actually do sometimes, but I would never put myself out there as a photographer! No, I see more photographers interested in the styling end (but more to make themselves better collaborators with stylists) and sometimes moving to styling full time. Iris Richardson, who started out as a chef, styles, but considers herself primarily a photographer now—but what I see when this happens is that either the photography or the food is compromised. One exception is on the more artistic end of things. Nir Adar, a stylist and food “artist” is a really good photographer. But only for his artwork, he doesn’t do it commercially for client products. As a stylist, I know it helps my work to really understand how the camera eye sees and to experiment with lighting, camera angles, etc. But I like to stick to the food side of the camera most of the time. 

SLW: Tell us a little about foodesigns.com. What made you start the site and how long have you been running it? Lisa: I was a stylist for years, with no on-going professional resources. I had been volunteering for Food on Film®, the only large seminar for food styling techniques (that is now defunct) for years. But otherwise there was no place to go for information. By 2000, I was styling part-time because I had little kids at home, and decided to launch a web site about food styling. I named it Foodesigns.com after my business name (Foodesigns Culinary Consulting) and launched it at the 2001 Food on Film® seminar. It’s been a work in progress and has gone through 2 re-designs since its first version. I’ve spent thousands of dollars and more hours than I can count on it—and it basically generates just enough revenue to pay for itself. But I love it and it coincided with the IACP approving the special interest section for stylists and photographers—so all of a sudden we had a community for all of us strange, independent photo professionals. Working in such a niche part of the business, it became a relief to have colleagues in other parts of the country (and world) to talk to and share with. A few years ago, when I was going through the first re-design, and after dropping the Style Share message board (which never really caught on), my designer told me I HAD to blog on the new site. At that time I didn’t really know much about blogging—and I was writing a 50-page publication quarterly (The Tweezer Times™) and couldn’t imagine having any more time to casually journal online every day or week. So I let the idea go…but see below!

 SLW: Foodesigns.com has some good interviews with professionals in the food-art community. How do you decide whom you are interviewing? Ever have anyone decline? Lisa: I’ve been really blessed over the years—because of the site I’ve “met” hundreds of people from all over the world. And gotten to know them via e-mail and telephone—and actually met some of them in places like South Africa, Australia, and London! Everyone has been extremely generous about interviews and allowing me to use their photos on the site. I think this is because I’ve always kept the site very independent—remaining a resource for everyone and supporting everyone in the business. I’ve chosen people that interest me—that are doing work that I admire or have an approach to what they do that is different from my own experience. I acknowledge that I have a very specific experience in this business that doesn’t reflect every other stylists’ out there—and I’ve always striven to find new voices to share what they know.

 SLW: Where do you want foodesigns to go from here? Would you like to be more of a collaborative effort, with different people posting their own ideas, or do you think you'd prefer to keep it more managed? Do you think it will stay more of an informational website, or do you think it might start becoming more of a free-form blog dedicated to food styling? Lisa: Your timing is perfect on this question. Because the site had grown like an octopus over the years, I’ve finally been knocked on the head that I’ve gotten too ambitious for someone sitting in her little office, trying to run the site, create new content, take photo bookings, and raise three kids! This cyber attack I’m overcoming made me realize that I want to keep the site going, but I need to focus on what I really like to do. And that is to write about issues that will help all of us in this styling community. The directory had become a security risk to the site and was taking too much technical oversight—so I’m hoping that it will be continued eventually at the IACP web site. And posting regular huge issues of The Tweezer Time™ has become a burden, rather than the joy it was when I first started it (I know I could make it smaller, but never could really do that). So I’m actually moving towards a more blog-like format. I’ll still maintain control of the content, solicit articles and submissions from other professionals, and keep the content objective and journalistic integrity (my original schooling was nutrition/food science and journalism, so I finally found a place to use my writing skills). I love blogs (yours and Heidi Swanson’s are my favorite), and they are evolving too. But what I see happening with The Tweezer Times™ is that it will become like a newspaper. I’ll be able to post new articles daily/weekly as they are ready to print, without the stress of quarterly deadlines. The beauty with the new format is that I can categorize postings for searching. So if a reader wants info about a specific technique, they can look for it. And for now, I’ll ask for specific feedback from readers, but won’t have an open forum—as I’ll still sell subscriptions and have secure access for subscribers. I think that there are starting to be more places for the free-form blog, so I’d like to keep Foodesigns.com/The Tweezer Times™ as an objective resource (though a little biased by what I think is important for professionals or students to know). But we’ll see…I’ve learned that I need to stay flexible because the business is flexible and the needs of this community will change as the future of commercial photography changes. SLW: Ok. Now my favorite interview question: What should I have asked, but didn't? Lisa: I’ve become a real nut about education—there’s been a very steady increase in interest in food styling and food photography over the past 5 years. Culinary students are interested, career changers are interested, the media is interested! So another good question is this: What is the future of professional development in this little corner of the commercial photo business? Food on Film® used to be the ONLY place to go to learn from other professionals, then Delores Custer (the Julia Child of food styling!) started teaching at the Culinary Institute of America. Otherwise there are still few places to learn about the business, what it takes, and how to learn it. Many of the established, veteran stylists learned on the job, assisted, or apprenticed with another stylist. That’s still a good way to break in, but the business has changed. Budgets are tighter, the way jobs are booked is in transition. You can’t run your portfolio around town then sit back and wait for the phone to ring. So if you want to get into the biz, you need to consciously invest in yourself. Find classes, workshops, offer to do things that might open doors to potential clients or jobs. I’ve started teaching workshops periodically and now coach/teach online classes that shed light on what this career is all about. I encourage wannabes to be sure they have the cooking skills they need, to take art/color theory classes, to travel, to read magazines about design, fashion, architecture, gardening! Anything that will help hone their creative eye and inspire their own special way of presenting food. I used to have a client that could tell if I styled something by the way I garnished their product. And this was a good thing! Lisa will be one of the hosts for the upcoming International Conference on Food Styling and Photography at Boston University in early June. You can also find her latest class info on Foodesigns.com.

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