The phrase “Are you ready for your close-up?” applies not only to actors, models and media personalities preparing for the big screen or their latest photo shoot, but also to a different type of performer — the edible kind.
When you look at pictures of food on menus, in magazines or on TV and say to yourself, “That looks good,” it means someone — most likely a food stylist — has helped that burger, cupcake or cocktail pose for the perfect shot.
Portland-based culinary educator and food stylist Delores Custer, who has been in the business for more than 30 years, knows all about what it takes to make food look good — so much so that she has literally written the book on the topic.
In Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera, Custer carefully outlines the step-by-step process involved in the preparation of hundreds of different foods, and the tools, tips and techniques used to prop, prep and picture beautifully styled food. The book also contains anecdotes and short narratives about her experience working with some of the biggest names in food and culinary arts, including Julia Child and James Beard.
According to Custer, food stylists became an important part of the marketing and advertising teams for large food manufacturers in the United States as part of a period of increased interest in gourmet foods during the mid-1960s to late ‘70s. The goal was to entice American families to try “exotic” new food products at the dinner table, and to kindle their interest in dining out on “new foods” like sushi and tacos.
“This was during a time that we called the ‘golden years,’ ” says Custer, who was a part of what she categorizes as the “second group” of food stylists who helped shape the industry into what it is today.
“The very first group of food stylists — they were all women and they were all home economists. You had to have a degree in home ec or food companies wouldn’t hire us. A little later, there got to be so much advertising going on and such a need for these people, that it grew and they changed our name to ‘food stylists.’ “
Custer recalls a time when food stylists were highly coveted and were treated like the rock stars of the food industry. As long as a stylist could make a company’s food look mouth-wateringly appealing, they could write their own ticket.
She remembers the moment when it all came together for her.
“I was at NYU getting my masters in Food & Nutrition and while I was there, I had kept our lab organized and a production company wanted to shoot a commercial for Reynolds aluminum foil, ‘the best wrap around,’ and they needed a ‘lab look.’ So they asked NYU if they could rent the space.”
Custer was in the right place at the right time.
“And then they asked me if I could help this person that was getting the foods ready for this commercial and I said, ‘Gee, that sounds like an interesting day,’ so I spent the day with this person.” Custer later learned that what she was doing was food styling, but until that time, this role of part production designer, part chef was filled by home economists.
“Until that day, I didn’t know the career existed, and that was the day that changed my life.”
After the rigorous task of compiling hundreds of images and working with photographers from New York and Los Angeles to help complete the publication of her book, Custer says she feels a certain sense of satisfaction and confidence in knowing that her knowledge and experience will be preserved. Now living in Portland, she continues to teach classes in food styling to people interested in starting their careers in the field.
After growing up in the Albany area, coming back to Portland was an easy decision to make.
“The West Coast was tugging. I had grown up here, my daughter is a chef in Seattle, I have good friends here — I needed a city after New York, and Portland just seemed perfect,” Custer says. “It’s also a wonderful, wonderful food city. That couldn’t make me any happier.”