Explaining Hollywood: How to get a job as a food stylist

A Hollywood food stylist decorating a lot of cakes on a table.
Hollywood food stylists design food in a way that helps tell the story.
(Juliette Toma / For The Times)

Brett Long walked into Smart & Final armed with two questions. First: “How many coolers do you have?” And second: “Can I buy all your dry ice?”

Long is a food stylist who has worked on photo shoots for print ad campaigns and cookbooks, as well as on video sets for commercials and television shows. His job is as much about preparedness as it is creativity. “I ended up going to three or four Smart & Final stores and bought out everything,” he said. “Dry ice is surprisingly expensive. But I’d rather be overprepared.”

That means making 8 gallons of ice cream for one shot of the perfect scoop (in the perfect hue, with the perfect amount of sprinkles). And because it was on an outdoor set in 100-degree weather, he used the coolers filled with dry ice as deep freezers. He prepped it so well that the ice cream needed to sit out for an hour before it was scoopable. But that was the point — because there’s no coming back from melted ice cream.


“The camera team, the lighting team, they’re helping to create the most beautiful, idealized thing of what ice cream can be,” he said. “I never want to be in a scenario where everyone else is ready to go at 15, 20 takes and I’m like, ‘Ugh, that was all of it.’”

The Times talked to Long and fellow food stylists Caroline Hwang, Anna Lee and Alyssa Noui for advice on how to get into the industry. Here are some of their insights.

Who becomes a food stylist?

Long said his route to becoming a food stylist was something of an accident. But the idea had always been in the back of his mind, ever since he saw the food fight scene in “Hook,” the 1991 Steven Spielberg movie starring Robin Williams as Peter Pan.

“Everything is super brightly colored, nice amorphous shapes and blobby texture .... From the first fistful of whipped cream or whatever it was that was thrown, I’d never been so jealous of being in a food fight in my entire life,” he said.

After attending the French Culinary Institute in New York and while working as a pastry chef, he was approached by a friend who asked if he had food-styled before and whether he could help out on a cooking show.

“I had done an internship with a cookbook publishing agency,” he said. “I’d seen photos from the photo shoots and was a pastry chef, so I understand how to execute well. So I said, ‘Yeah, I can do that. Sure.’ Maybe a healthy level of delusion is necessary for anybody to accomplish anything.”


Food stylists have strong culinary backgrounds and both creative and organizational instincts. They have an eye for visualizing composition, textures and lighting and a sense of how all of it works together. They also know how to multitask.

Hwang, who has styled for commercials and cookbooks, was working in New York as an illustrator when she decided to pursue cooking as a career and started working at restaurants and for caterers. But she quickly realized she wasn’t going to make enough money to pay off her private art school debt. A friend and prop stylist encouraged her to start assisting a food stylist. “I thought, ‘This is the perfect melding of cooking and creative,’” Hwang said. “I’ve always loved the glamorized environment of photo sets. I fell in love with it.”

But don’t underestimate a key skill set: Food stylists have to be highly organized — for shopping, sourcing specialty ingredients, food prep and, well, schlepping too.

“You have to know the right questions to ask preproduction — making sure you have absolutely everything you’re going to need — cooler, truck, tent,” said Noui, currently a food stylist on Fox’s “MasterChef.” “Are you landing in the middle of a campsite, and nobody thought to bring any wood for the campfire?”

Problem solvers will thrive. Especially if a creative director wants a three-story Midcentury version of a gingerbread house complete with furniture, rugs, pillows and paintings for a stop-motion animated video in a matter of days — made from gingerbread whose color isn’t too “molasses-y.” That means finding the precise recipe to provide enough structure with the right color.

“There are construction gingerbread cookies vs. actual gingerbread cookies you eat,” Hwang said. The ones you eat would crumble. “We tested several different construction gingerbread recipes. We precut all of the shapes for the house and then it bloated when it baked, so it had to be trimmed down even more.”


The key is to “bake full sheets and then cut it with X-acto blades while it’s warm. There’s a gingerbread science,” she said.

That science-mindedness helps, Long said: knowing “what food can do before you find yourself in a corner and say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do this.’”

Understand how food behaves at every step, from the time it is sourced and purchased to the moment it lands in front of a camera lens. Know how it’s going to look 30 seconds or 3 minutes or 30 minutes later. It can mean the difference between looking incredible or looking inedible.

And as much as they might prepare, food stylists have to be ready to think on their feet. There will be times when “you have to fight your way out of the chaos,” Noui said. “Which I’m always down to do.”

How do you get started?

The consensus on getting started is to assist another food stylist for at least two to three years. It’s the best way to build relationships, a portfolio and problem-solving experience.

“I know some people have never assisted, and they have come up through social media,” Hwang said, but among the best stylists are those who have “spent several years learning the ropes.”


“Become someone’s right hand for a while,” Noui said. “As they build their team, you build your leadership skills as well.”

Start a portfolio. Lee said that when she couldn’t find consistent work as an assistant, she reached out to photographers who also wanted to expand their portfolio of food shots. Those photos led to a website, which can be listed on online food stylist directories.

With a background in film studies, Lee landed on the set of “Life of Pi” in Taiwan, working as an art department coordinator, and built friendships in the art department; food styling is considered part of props. From there, prop masters introduced her to other prop masters who were looking for food stylists. “Slowly I started styling in the TV and movie world.”

In starting or switching careers, bumps along the way are inevitable. “There were moments early on where I was thinking, ‘Have I made the biggest mistake of my life? People don’t know me. Who’s going to call me?’ It can feel paralyzing,” Long said. “But I pressed on. Meeting one person turned into meeting two people and so on. ... That has kept me going for almost 10 years now.”

What are the career paths?

The career paths for a food stylist can be broad and varied or focused and niche. The demand comes from a wide assortment of sources, including commercials, movies, television, cookbooks, editorial spreads, social media and food packaging.

In Los Angeles, there are a lot of opportunities to work on wildly different projects. One day Hwang might be building a Midcentury gingerbread house for a Google Pixel video; another day, she might be preparing 10 to 12 dishes for a cookbook photo shoot or setting the table for a TV commercial.


“I work on anything and everything,” Hwang said. “It doesn’t make sense for me to be in one realm.”

But there are food stylists who do only television and film work.

When dealing with scripted stories, “you’re really trying to help create a world,” said Lee, who just finished working on scenes for the upcoming season of HBO’s “Succession.”

It can require “big-picture research on what the food looked like in a certain time period and the culture or even economic class,” on top of making sure shooting goes smoothly for resets and retakes.

“And the food has to taste pleasant if actors are eating it,” she said, which also means coordinating dietary restrictions.

Some stylists focus on something incredibly niche. A specialty might be cake or beverages. “There’s a guy who does only beer; he has a special truck,” Noui said. “There are people who only do ice cream. Those are the nerds I need to meet.”

But if you go the television route, a top goal is to become a culinary producer, she said. This requires a lot of multitasking. In order to organize a whole season of smooth shooting, the producers need to understand the camerawork and lighting, but also how the chefs or the food weaves into the story.


“How do you break down a recipe to its most important parts?” she said. “Chop the onion [on camera] if that’s part of the story, or [have] it already chopped and portioned perfectly in a Duralex bowl? [When] do we see the simmer and the moment it’s poured over the chicken?”

How do you make money (and what kind of money)?

Independent food stylists charge day rates, and those rates range from $600 to $1,800 for a 10- to 12-hour day, depending on the project and/or client’s budget.

For a scene that isn’t necessarily about food, a stylist might be on set for only a couple of hours; that’s the low end.

“If you’re being brought in for a commercial that’s food-heavy, and you’re the lead stylist, and you’re working for up to a week,” the rate might be $1,250 a day, Long said.

Anything linked to advertising tends to mean more money. The bigger the set, cast and crew also generally translates to more work, higher stakes and higher rates.

For food stylists who belong to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 44, the hourly pay is about $45 to $65, or “as high as you can negotiate above scale pay,” said Lee. Union membership, which is difficult to obtain, comes with benefits such as health insurance and a pension.


But, of course, it isn’t always about just money. Long has three questions he asks himself: Does it sound fun? Can it be accomplished — that is, can the food physically perform in the way people are asking for? And is the amount of money proportional to the ask? If the answer to either of the first two questions is yes, he’ll often do it regardless of the answers to the other questions.

“Do I wish [the pay] were higher? Yes, but let’s do it,” he said. “Nine times out of 10, it’s paid off later down the road when those producers or directors are working on better projects. ‘Thanks for doing us a solid. Would you like to work on this?’”

How is this career different than it was 10 or 25 years ago?

As food has become a bigger part of the entertainment industry — with more cooking TV shows, celebrity chefs and food-centric movies — the job of the food stylist has emerged as a more important role.

“It’s raised the visibility of the food stylist,” said Noui. “That’s apparent through the support on set. On a set of 80 people that have a dialed-in system, I think the food stylist used to be a bit of a wrench. But now the director makes all these accommodations for you — extra space, a truck, a fridge. There’s been an attitude shift toward food stylists.”

Technical advances in equipment have changed on-set aspects of the job, especially lighting. “The heat of the lights used to ruin the food more quickly — ice cream, salads,” Lee said. But with newer LED lighting, “nowadays we don’t have to worry as much about hurting the food. That all used to sit out under very hot lights.”

Lee said that Photoshop also saves time on set. “Back in the day, [if there was] a little smear — you’d have to stop and spend several minutes to clean it spotless. Now it’s quicker — a click on the computer and it’s done.”


“The food looks more realistic and lived-in now,” Lee said. “It used to look more staged and perfect and stiff.”

Stylists don’t use as many retro tricks: No shaving cream for whipped cream, no motor oil, no painting the turkey.

“I used to be focused on learning all the tricks,” she said. “Now you have more creative freedom to think about what you want the food to represent, less about making it spotless pretty.”

And increasingly, food stylists are more considerate about waste. “Not everybody has a team willing to work in a sustainable way,” Hwang said. For example, “I might reuse the same turkey, so we don’t have to be wasteful with the three other turkeys we didn’t cook [and] we can donate them.

What advice do pros always hear that is wrong?

Many in the industry have attended culinary school, and some popular advice directs would-be food stylists to do the same. But a love of cooking and hands-on experience is what’s valued most.

“When I get emails from people really interested in dipping their toes into food styling, I throw the tent doors open,” Long said. “At the end of the day, food media is going to be better for it, the more people who have access to this work.”


What’s some good advice?

Create a website. “Social media is great,” Noui said, “but a website is a more professional touch.”

Keep building your book. You want to be able to show a potential client exactly what they’re looking for. If they say, “Have you ever done Chinese takeout?” show them 20 photos that represent that.

“Photographers and stylists will do tests together,” Hwang said. “Even after you’re established. Think about, what don’t you have in your book? Maybe it’s baking. We all have these areas.”

Make friends with the art department on set. It will help create a collaborative environment, ready you for takes and help build relationships. “When I have free moments,” Long said, “I make my way around to know who’s on the crew and see what everybody’s up to.”

Approach jobs with a say-yes attitude. In an industry driven by relationships, Long said it’s largely his “yes” mentality that has propelled his career. “If an opportunity presents itself, and there’s no set of huge red flags, then go for it. The only thing you have to gain is experience,” he said.

“The whole industry is freelance, so it comes down to if you do good work,” he added. “People know you in that capacity, and it really snowballs. Producers, whenever they do circle back to food content, they give me a call because let’s keep a good thing going.”


Be proactive. Once you find out an arena of food styling you want to explore, find local food stylists and email them for assisting jobs and follow up, just to get in their files.

Figure out each of the specific fields of the food-styling industry and what you like about it — TV, editorial. Find the name of it. Find the people who do that. And if you have zero experience, cold call.

For experience, if you can, get into a restaurant or catering company, a place where you will learn how food is sourced, prepped and how to handle it every step of the way.

Clean everything. “Sometimes we rent kitchen spaces, and people don’t clean up all the stuff they’ve rented,” Hwang said. Make sure to leave all of it clean.

And, be kind to the people that assist you and work for you, she said, “because they’re the ones who support you the most in your work.”