Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Food and Drink

Food stylists have their challenges – especially when it’s for TV



In the world of TV commercials, it’s known as a “bite and smile”, but I think they should rename it a “bite and spit”.

It’s when the actor bites into a big, juicy something, in this case let’s say a hamburger, and smiles a big, wide, juicy smile while munching away in front of the camera. Once the shot is in the can, so to speak, so is the mouthful of burger, since the burger has been partially assembled for the camera using substances that, while edible, are best left un-swallowed.

This procedure, as you can imagine, can be a bit dodgy with child actors who love the taste of fast food and can’t resist chowing down a bite of each burger, even if the lettuce has been stuck to the bun with gelatin. And lord knows they might go through 20 or 30 burgers to get the right shot.

All of these behind-the scenes marvels were revealed recently by Nathan Fong during a public lecture hosted by Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design on Granville Island.

Nathan is an award-winning Vancouver-based chef and food stylist. Besides writing about food and styling food for cameras and audiences both still and moving, he has cooked up a number of conceptual projects, including one for the CBC Radio show, Ideas. For that he replicated the meal — or at least part of it — that Kubilai Khan served to a young Marco Polo and 40,000 other guests in 1275.

Whether it’s for radio or TV or Whistler’s own Cornucopia, Nathan leads an interesting life making food look or taste as good as it can get.

Given the old adage, we eat with our eyes, it’s no wonder a good food stylist can command $25,000 and up to make a hamburger look appetizing, tantalizing, even sexy — in short, like a star — for a one-minute TV commercial.

To be clear, it’s not just a single stylist at work earning that kind of dough. Don’t laugh, but it usually takes an entire team doting on that hamburger.

First of all, they might go through 200-300 buns to find the perfect specimens, and even those are a composite. Someone will go through the entire rack fresh from the bakery, matching tops to bottoms, avoiding misshapen ones, thin ones, ones that are too brown, ones that aren’t brown enough, the ones with the single dark sesame seed.

I should point out that in the case of commercials, either TV or print, truth in advertising rules. That means what you see is what you get.

It all harkens back to a bad move Campbell’s soup made in the States. For a print ad featuring one of their soups, a few marbles were placed in the bottom of the soup bowl to make the veggies float to the surface so they would be visible for the camera.

Somebody must have said, hey, my Campbell’s soup doesn’t look like that when I make it, and bingo, Campbell’s was in the soup.

Since then professional food stylists and their clients have been very careful, indeed. With only a few small structural and cosmetic exceptions, the food portrayed must be made exactly as it would be created in the restaurant or fast-food outlet it comes from. Besides, customers expect the food they’re served to be what they see in the poster or commercial.

So if you’re doing a commercial for, say, A&W Teen Burgers, someone has to stand there and carefully weigh the pickles, and the Teen sauce, and the all-beef patty to make sure each is the same-sized portion as you’d get in the restaurant.

In terms of visuals, key elements are subjected to a huge amount of attention, almost like each has its own personal assistant and make-up artist.

Take the patty, for instance. Once the correct weight has been determined, patties are carefully shaped and cooked — and it is patties, plural, for even if there is only one hamburger in a shot, it may take dozens to complete the commercial, as actors bite away and succumb to all the foibles of acting, or the burger simply wilts after an hour or two of shooting under hot lights, or wasps take over the subject, if you’re shooting outdoors.

In the search for perfection, a food stylist will drag out a ruler from his extensive “tool kit” to make sure the patties are the right diameter for maximum visibility in a side shot. Then out comes the blowtorch to make the edges a nice, appetizing brown tone.

According to Nathan, some stylists will make up patties up to a week in advance to save time on the set, a good idea when there might be a crew of up to 30 standing around if there’s a delay. These pre-mades have to be submerged in oil to prevent them from turning dark from oxidation.

On the other hand, if the patty hasn’t browned enough on the grill, a little soy sauce can be spritzed on — a cosmetic touch deemed acceptable even if they don’t do that at A&W.

Once the perfect bun is selected, it is perfectly engineered. An electric knife is used to trim away any ragged edges. A hollow might be cut out of the top half — known as the crown — to better accommodate the lettuce, washed and arranged just so, then spritzed with water to portray freshness.

The tomato slice is carefully cut from the “equator” of the tomato so the sides of the slice are perfectly perpendicular. The cheese slice? Use a blow dryer or heat gun to melt it.

If the “build”, as it’s called, becomes precarious, just use a thick gelatin mixture to hold it all together until it gets into the actor’s mouth.

The joy of still shoots with no “bite and smiles” is that you can coat the bun with paraffin to keep the juices from soaking into it, or place a bun-coloured piece of round cardboard under the patty for support.

If the shoot is for editorial purposes, such as a food spread in a glossy magazine, then things get a little easier. Real food is still used, but you can pull tricks like using a mixture of shortening, icing sugar and corn syrup to make fake vanilla ice cream that will stand up under hot lights all day.

It’s a rarified world, this food styling, but one that doesn’t seem to harm the appetite. After years of doing it, Nathan says he still loves his work, and his food, cooking up a storm at home, although it’s more likely a veggie stir-fry after a long day building burgers.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who is going to pay more attention to her “build”.