How to Cook for the Camera

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Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures


To try the bruschetta described in this post, click here for a recipe.

As I have always maintained, food styling is really just cooking for the camera. Sure, sometimes one needs to undercook and brown the outside of a turkey, or use Crisco and Elmer's glue to make corn flakes look their best, or use motor oil instead of pancake syrup (I have never done this by the way, and hope I never do), but these things are best suited to stiff advertising shoots.

Most of the food you see in food magazines is just real, natural food, cooked carefully to hold up as long as possible in front of the camera. There are usually no hot lights--many photographers use natural light, or strobe, which only goes off the moment the picture is taken, so really, the food stylist's main enemy is time and air (which dries things out, congeals hot things, melts ice cream, etc.).

A good food stylist might cook the components of a dish separately so she can control the way it all comes together. Keeping ingredients separate and distinct so they can all be "read" the moment someone looks at the photograph is one of the main goals. Even something as tiny as a thyme leaf will make a big statement if the stylist places it just so, usually after seeing what the camera is seeing. Another important aspect of food styling is selecting great ingredients, so careful and resourceful shopping is a crucial skill, especially when an ingredient that is out of season is needed.

If actors are eating during a scene, you will want things that are easy to chew, are not overly rich, and don't include anything that might stick in their teeth.

The basics of cooking for a film are really no different from those of cooking for an editorial shoot. If you have the choice, you should elect to do things that will hold up well on set, since they will likely be out there for a much longer time, although some of that time might be spent in the background rather than on center stage. If actors are eating during a scene, you will want things that are easy to chew, are not overly rich (since they will probably have to take bite after bite in take after take), and don't include anything that might stick in their teeth, like parsley or poppy seeds.

The main difference between cooking for a still photograph and cooking for a film is that you must be prepared for multiple takes, and it is sometimes hard to know in advance how many takes there will be. Each scene is rehearsed just before shooting, and although the scene is written and storyboarded, a lot can change in rehearsal. The actors, the director, or the director of photography may have an idea that can take things in an unexpected direction.

Let me give you an actual example from Julie & Julia: there is a scene in which Julia, her sister (played hilariously by Jane Lynch), and Stanley Tucci are having a snack in a restaurant after collecting her from the train. We had many beautiful cheeses ready for this scene, not knowing which three Nora would want to see on the table (You never want to say, "Sorry, that's all I've got, no options.").

Then, once the scene was rehearsed, we saw which cheese Jane Lynch would cut into. Once we knew this, we had to quickly get a lot more of that one cheese. She would be taking the same exact slice out of the wedge of cheese in every take, which might have been as many as 20 in order to cover every angle. We also had to make sure that the cheese was at the same degree of runniness each time for continuity purposes, which was no easy task.

This was a minor challenge compared to some others we encountered--another was finding August-y looking tomatoes in the middle of March. Thanks to a few dependable vendors, namely Shushan Valley Hydro Farm in NYC's Greenmarket and Eli's Manhattan, which always seems to have decent tomatoes whatever the month, we were able to make you feel like going home and making bruschetta (even if it isn't French).

Here are some things I learned about cooking for a movie:

    • Anything an actor touches is a prop, and that includes food. Anything in the background is set decoration.
    • The script holds many secrets--a simple, single line in the script may represent an entire day of filming the same dish from multiple angles in multiple takes.
    • Though parsley may look pretty atop a poached egg with hollandaise, it may not look so pretty between an actor's teeth, so rethink it.
    • When making toast for say, bruschetta, or poached eggs, try not to make it too crunchy (loud, loud, loud!), not to mention hard to chew. Also not pretty onscreen. The actors need to be able to talk during and after eating.
    • Always expect the unexpected.

Recipe: Tomato Bruschetta

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Susan Spungen is a cook, food stylist, recipe developer, editor, and author. More

Susan Spungen is a cook, food stylist, recipe developer, editor, and author. She is the author of Recipes: A Collection for the Modern Cook and co-author of Martha Stewart's Hors D'Oeuvres Handbook. Susan was the Culinary Consultant and Food Stylist on Julie and Julia, the upcoming feature film.
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