Yes, everyone knows food stylists use glue instead of milk when they’re shooting cereal commercials. “That’s what everyone asks when you tell them you’re a food stylist,” says Greg Lofts, who has made food look as delicious as possible for shows like Hallmark Channel’s Mad Hungry, TLC’s Kitchen Boss, and even behind the scenes on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. But Lofts says the glue trick is just the beginning. From blowtorched turkey skin to the joy of processed, name-brand products (“Don’t buy the organic shit; it doesn’t work”), Lofts reveals the lesser-known tricks of the trade. Check them out, along with plenty of illustrative food porn taken from Lofts’s run on Mad Hungry, straight ahead in this slideshow.
“You know, properly cooked spaghetti, even if it’s al dente, tends to be self-leveling to a degree,” says Lofts. What you need is architecture, spaghetti that “holds its structure and its muscle.” The secret: shock cooked pasta in ice water to firm it up before shooting. “It’s like your scrotum when you jump in an icy lake. Everything just tightens up.”
Lofts says that impossibly smooth skin doesn’t just happen: “I ladle boiling water directly over the bird the day before I’m going to roast it. It shrinks the skin up really tight.” But that’s just the beginning: “You air dry it in the fridge overnight so it gets really dry again. So when you roast it, you’re starting from a point where the skin has already shrunk around the flesh. ” And what if the skin still isn’t taut? “If you do get a little bit of wrinkling after it’s been roasted, you can wave a blowtorch over the skin gently and it will tighten up again.”
It’s not food coloring that keeps things like guac and pea soup from turning brown under the hot lights of a shoot. “I use vitamin C capsules. It has to be the powder, the kind that you can pour out of the capsule. Because what is vitamin C? Like, citric acid basically.” The other bonus: “It doesn’t impart a lot of flavor. So even if the talent is tasting it, you can get away with it.”
“It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are as a cook or stylist: If you break open a potpie like that, it’s not going to look quite that full and abundant.” The solution: “What you inevitably have to do is, you have to have filling on stand-by,” so you can fake the volume. “If you don’t fill in the holes, you get these caves.”
“Sometimes for TV they’ll set up a beauty area for close-up food shots with totally separate lighting. But for this we were filming directly on set, so we were working with a lot of light.” That means pie crusts that look perfect in real life will end up looking washed out on TV. Lofts’s solution: “I like to go really dark. So in the last ten minutes of baking, if I’m doing a double-crust pie like this, I’ll spray nonstick cooking spray on it” to get it darker. “Pam is the best. Don’t buy the organic shit; it doesn’t work.”
“Ah, the ol’ syrup-pour shot. Every Eggo ad you’ve ever seen, I can guarantee you that they’re not pouring syrup.” Real syrup, Lofts says, is too loose. “You want to see it cascading down and slowly pooling.” That’s why stylists use dark honey instead of syrup. “The way that it pools on the plate, the way that it runs down the pancake. It has the same behavior as syrup, but it moves in slow motion.”
Perfect pancake coloring isn’t achieved through painting or color correction after the show: “No matter what a recipe says, for the television camera I always cook pancakes on cast iron and with a really clean vegetable oil. In life, you would use butter, but butter gives a lot of brown, black.” As for the pan: “Cast iron’s great because it gives a really nice marbling effect to the surface and a great color. I have a Wagner double-burner griddle that I love to use. I bought it at flea market, and it’s probably 60 to 80 years old.” The other big secret here: There’s cardboard propping the pancakes up, otherwise they’d look too floppy.
You’ve probably heard stories of stylists faking ice cream with mashed potatoes or shortening, but Lofts says those methods don’t work. “When you put ice cream in your mouth, you really want it to be at that temperature where it’s custardy and creamy,” and only real ice cream gives that effect. The problem: Ice cream melts, fast. “Under those incredibly hot television lights, you have to have a way of holding the ice cream, so I just put a baking sheet in the freezer, and I scoop the ice cream directly onto the baking sheet, refreeze the scoops, and get them super hard.” Then, once the lights’ heat hits the scoops, they melt to the perfect consistency.
“Anytime you see perfectly silken whipped cream on-camera, I promise you the stylist is using the cheapest, most processed brand of cream they find.” The reason? “There are chemicals in it. And what the chemicals do is they act as stabilizers, so the proteins don’t break down and deflate. Otherwise whipped cream will water out on-camera.”
“When you’re doing a beauty shot, you really do need things to hold longer than they would need to in real life, because sometimes they need to sit on set for 20 or 30 minutes before a shot.” And Lofts says maintaining a perfect shine on chocolate sauce can be particularly tricky: “You need it to keep its sheen and its viscosity, so it doesn’t get a crust.” Lofts’s secret ingredient: “Good old corn syrup. I hate to sound like I work for the corn lobby, but corn syrup really is your friend in food styling. And it’s gotta be Karo.”
A lot of work goes into the seemingly innocuous garnish. “You melt your chocolate, straight up, over a double boiler or in the microwave, then you flip a rimmed baking sheet upside down and pour the chocolate over the back at the thickness you want the curl. So if you want your curl paper thin, you want a paper-thin layer of chocolate. And the curls in this shot have a little more thickness, so you go a little thicker. Let it cool back to room temperature, and then you use a bench scraper, and you hold it on a really acute angle and you really just push down on the chocolate with the bench scraper.” In other words, home cooks should abandon hope of ever re-creating these curls at home “unless you’re a really ambitious home cook, and you really want to wow people.”