If you surf social media, read a magazine, or watch television, chances are you’ve encountered the work of a Food Stylist. As the name suggests, being a Food Stylist means styling food for different contexts, to present food beautifully and to entice viewers or readers to make recipes or buy food.
There are varying degrees of involvement for Food Stylists – some are simply employed to make the given components of a meal look good on a plate, whilst others are tasked with thinking up, cooking, styling and then photographing everything. At either end of the spectrum, a passion for food is key.
As a Food Stylist, there is also growing scope to marry sustainable thinking to your craft. Sometimes this might include cooking with and styling seasonal produce or using your skills to style the latest meat replacements or plant-based recipe.
Food Stylist, Writer and Content Strategist Jules Mercer says one of the best ways of incorporating sustainability into the role is through storytelling. “Food styling is creating a picture of food, which is always or often accompanied by a narrative,” she says. “The narrative is where you can incorporate sustainability in so many ways.”
Jules says using ingredients that “sit comfortably in a sustainability story, highlighting producers working with great products” is another good practice.
What are the job responsibilities?
- Responding to briefs given by a Creative Director or Editor, and in some cases helping to develop these briefs
- Designing and styling sets
- Sourcing certain food items that might be unusual or difficult to find
- Sourcing appropriate crockery, cutlery and other props for a given set (although, often, this is a separate job called Props Stylist)
- Developing recipes ahead of a shoot
- Cooking or otherwise preparing food for a shoot
- Photographing the food or, more often, helping to direct a photographer
- Editing images, and where appropriate helping to lay them out on a magazine page
- Managing waste and leftover food at the end of a shoot
- Liaising with journalists or PRs for information on recipes, brands or products
Who might your employers be?
There is a huge variety of employers who require the help of Food Stylists. Magazines, newspapers and websites that share food recipes will often hire Food Stylists to develop recipes and style food for their publications. Additionally, you could be working for work for television and film producers to style any food seen on screen at a given time.
Food Stylists might also choose to work for book publishers. Their skills can come in particularly handy for cookbooks, where recipes need to be illustrated in an enticing way. Finally, some might choose to work for brands or ad agencies to produce promotional materials that can be used in communications and advertising.
Each of the working environments offers huge stimulation, Jules says. “Most people working in food are bringing bags of passion and curiosity,” she says. “They’re all wanting to feed people the best they know how. Sure, there’s a lot in the food system we need to fix, but there’s also so much good happening every day.”
What qualifications do you need?
It’s widely agreed upon that at least some sort of culinary qualification is needed to pursue a career in food styling. Jules, for example, has a Certificate in Cooking and Related Culinary Arts from the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland.
Where and how you study will decide how long your course is. If you opt for a university degree in something like Culinary Arts Management, you can expect to study for the usual three years – or four if you choose to do an industry placement in your third year. Others choose to go to specialist cookery schools and colleges, where certificates can generally be earned over the course of several months.
Some good courses to explore further would be:
- Culinary Arts Management BSc Hons at the University of West London
- Culinary Arts Management BSc Hons at Ulster University
- Professional Cookery diploma (levels 1-3) at City & Guilds College, London
- Professional Cookery diplomas (varying specialties) at Le Cordon Bleu, London
- Professional Cookery Level 3 at Newcastle College
As with a lot of jobs that are media-adjacent, work experience is also key. “I had an internship at the BBC when I was starting out, and that’s where I saw there was a whole world of food journalism to explore, which obviously included styling,” says Jules. “I apprenticed for many years which was an excellent time of my life, working with really lovely and talented people.”
Other kinds of work experience might include shadowing a more experience Food Stylist or working a placement at a magazine or newspaper.
What is the salary like?
According to Glassdoor, the average Food Stylist in the UK makes £26,141. Some Food Stylists will earn this by working in-house at a magazine, newspaper, publishing house or brand. Others will do so through freelancing. In this case, they’ll be able to set their own rates.
Where will you be working?
Again, this is dependent on what type of Food Stylist you become. A Food Stylist which is engaged in recipe development as well as styling, will spend a considerable portion of their time in the kitchen – either at home or at an in-house kitchen. If you’re also involved in the photography and picture editing, prepare to spend a lot of time at the computer performing these tasks. And if you’re also involved in the writing side of the job, you could find yourself working in a newsroom alongside other journalists.
What’s the career progression like?
When working in-house, there are good opportunities for progression for Food Stylists. You might begin as an intern or junior, and work your way up to senior or Food Director. When working freelance, there are good chances to progress too – you might begin working with smaller indie brands, and eventually move onto well-known chefs, brands or restaurants.
Is there demand for this job?
With social media, blogs, online magazines, as well as print media, the world is more visual than ever. Add to this a growing passion for food and cooking which many developed over the pandemic, and Food Styling is arguably more prevalent than ever. Good food styling helps to inspire people, but also provide guidance. Jules says her own preference is “throwing food on a plate that’s real and honest”.
Additionally, as the public becomes more aware of the part they can play in addressing the climate crisis, pivoting the practice towards sustainability will be useful. With so much testing and development, food styling can be a wasteful industry. However, Jules says adopting practices to negate this is increasingly popular.
“Smaller shoots feed many families and neighbours, but larger shoots can have a bit of excess produce, which is where tech steps in,” she explains. “Apps like Olio make sharing food in a community immeasurably easier.”
Overall, Jules says this is an important job. “Food styling is creating a picture of food, which is always or often accompanied by a narrative,” she adds. “How we’re going to feed ourselves in the years to come is a really important and fascinating topic.”