Smoke and mirrors – a food styling masterclass with Denise Vivaldo

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As a food blogger, trying to make food look good is what you do. Setting a scene. Changing angles. Rearranging or moving a plate to get the best light. Making sure your husband/girlfriend’s mobile phone/keys/hand are not in the shot. Using a shed-load of Instagram filters to make things appear even more amazing.  Then you meet a food stylist. And that takes things to a WHOLE.OTHER.LEVEL.

I was invited by Kirsty Bryson, a Melbourne/Sydney food stylist,  to participate in a food styling masterclass being run by the GODMOTHER of Food Styling, US-based Denise Vivaldo, author of  ‘The Food Stylist’s Handbook’ which is literally the bible for any budding stylist wanting to know everything from how to keep food looking appealing after hours under hot lights, to how to shoot cereal in a bowl without it going soggy (PVC glue apparently)

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I arrived in Sydney with only a brief outline of the course, and what ensued was 2 full days of laughter, enjoyment and enlightenment, with a room full of gifted, enthusiastic participants,  all as eager to learn as I was, and from all different backgrounds, including fashion and TV set stylists, bloggers, chefs, photographers, a cafe owner, and other food stylists wanting to add even more to their bag of tricks.

Denise Vivaldo is HILARIOUS. She has been in the food business in one way or another for about 30 years, is based in LA, and is full of energy, enthusiasm and juicy celebrity anecdotes from a career that has seen her cater for more than 10,000 parties and cook meals for everyone from George W Bush and Prince Charles to Bette Midler and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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Originally trained as a chef, Denise Vivaldo opened a catering company in the 80’s and quickly built a reputation which gained her repeat business from high-profile clients all over Los Angeles. She started working with Aaron Spelling after catering for a Hollywood studio executive’s party where Spelling was a guest.  He loved what she had done with the food styling of the event and immediately asked her to work with him on Dynasty, and then his other TV shows including Melrose Place.

Since then Denise has styled countless TV sets all over America and beyond, appeared on numerous cooking shows, written half a dozen books, contributed articles to the Huffington Post, as well as assisting celebrities in developing recipes and styling their cookbooks.

For our masterclass she shared her insights from 30 years in the business, and revealed secrets that had me laughing in shock, as I realised I had taken for granted so many things in print and on TV. For example, an egg yolk in a picture of bacon and eggs is likely to be raw, with the white cooked separately, and hole cut out for the raw yolk to be dropped in. Who knew? Ha. That was only the start.

Icecream? No. It’s Crisco (Frymaster here) whipped up with icing sugar and then roughed up with a wooden skewer to look like a scoop. No melting under the camera, no drips, no mess and you can make it in as many colours as you like with food dye. Handy for that movie scene which has to be re-shot 15 times.

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Think that chicken is roasted? Think again. Try a raw chicken sprayed with browning essence, a shake of paprika and liberal application of a blow torch to tighten the skin.

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This appetising and carefully-crafted sandwich is filled at the front with real food and stuffed at the back with cotton wool balls to create height and depth for the photo, and toothpicks hold it all together.

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This is a bowl of canned minestrone soup, demonstrating the importance of props – with the right combination of napery, breadstick and crockery,and some beautiful natural light, it doesn’t look terrible.

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We also conducted an exercise in reassembling the contents of a box of Lean Cuisine to make it actually look like it does on the packaging. Anyone who at one time has eaten one of these sad looking meals would know it doesn’t usually. We actually rinsed off some of the sauce after separating all the individual components and reassembled it with some tweezers (a stylist’s best friend apparently, the tweezers).

IMG_0961There’s a lot to be said for the selection of the right colour of crockery when plating up a dish for maximum impact – you can see how the simple garnish of lime peel is set off beautifully by a green plate. This is a just frozen supermarket brand cheesecake and I used a scone cutter to make into an individual circular serve instead of the usual wedge.
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To see exactly what went down, check out this fantastic video by Dave Katague here .

Thanks to Kirsty and Denise for having me along, it was definitely a highlight of 2014, and I’ve certainly started looking at food advertisements in a whole new way now!
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2 thoughts on “Smoke and mirrors – a food styling masterclass with Denise Vivaldo

  1. Sounds like an amazing experience. I once did a food styling course way back when I was getting into baking in a big way. I remember painting chicken with glycerol to make it look shiny and perfectly roasted. There are some good tips here that I might incorporate into my food photography. The sandwich one is fabulous

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