The Food Stylist’s Handbook (A Book Review)

Think of this book as the little black book of food styling. It’s got what you want to know about the business.

The food styling world, just like the chef’s world, has its own rock stars. Delores Custer, who incidentally, also released her own food styling book last year, is the indubitable queen and Denise Vivaldo may be the lady-in-waiting. Vivaldo’s company, Food Fanatics, styles food for everything from cookbooks to movies and her sixth and latest book, The Food Stylist’s Handbook, blows open the business of being a food stylist.

Vivaldo begins with the requisite What A Food Stylist Does by giving an almost poetic answer: “… to help produce a photo that sells a dream, brand, product… every picture tells and sells a story.” And how. The book is a veritable honor roll of breathtakingly styled food photos with nary a sprinkle, speck, or sheen out of place. This is a book to turn to for inspiration. The brief history of food styling is fascinating; I chuckle recalling and seeing before me once again the props-heavy set-ups of the 80s. Throughout the book are orange (for maximum visibility) pages offering pertinent information: Food Styling FAQs, Food Stylist Personality Profile, Most Common Mistakes New Food Stylists Make, What They Don’t Tell You About TV Cooking Shows, etc.

Clearly discussed are the various niches of food styling – TV, packaging, magazines, cookbooks, etc. – starting a food styling business and marketing it. There’s even a chapter on making money and selling [your] styling services appended with sidebars on topics such as dealing with clients, a recipe testing billing worksheet, and more.

The book is well-written and concise and it’s clear that Vivaldo is generously sharing her knowledge, but it can’t be forgotten that this is a food styling book. Some online reader reviews have expressed disappointment that this book is more business and not technique-based. I’ll have to agree. The majority of this book is about starting one’s own food styling business. To be fair, there’s an amply illustrated section on building one’s own food styling kit – finally, so that’s the thingamajig they use to get those grill marks! – and who knew a can of Scotch Guard Fabric Protector would be so useful? There’s also quite the daunting list of Good Things To Have in the Trunk of Your Car and I begin to see now why the food stylists I know travel in vehicles the size of tanks.

The chapter that most people would be interested in is, unfortunately enough, the final one. Aptly called Tricks of the Trade, it’s a 100-page – what I call – a revelation, detailing and revealing the gimmicks food stylists employ. Categorized by food group – i.e. poultry, meats, burgers (including fluffing buns!), breakfast, vegetables, and desserts, it’s an engrossing look-through of stylists’ methods and mostly, madness – all in an effort to get that perfect shot. I’m still stupefied to discover that getting that perfect fried egg requires cooking the yolk and white separately!

While most people would rather that a food styling book focus solely on technique, this is a book that I feel has much to offer. Its emphasis is more on beginning a food styling business yes, but there’s so much more to being a stylist than turning out a perfectly tanned roast chicken or producing perfectly layered cakes. See beyond the technique and glean from the information provided here whether you really have what it takes to produce those pretty pictures.

The Food Stylist’s Handbook
By Denise Vivaldo
Hardcover: 264 pages
Gibbs Smith
Available at Fully Booked.

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