Last month I had the most remarkable opportunity. A friend who is a food stylist was going to be in Northern California doing a photo shoot and invited me to come along. I was going to see how the pros do it!
As a food blogger, I am the chef, prop and food stylist, photographer and author. Now I would have a chance to see how others work together to create the magic we see in the cookbooks and magazines I have collected for years.
Jenny-Faye Klooster, the talent behind jennyfaye.com, and I met in a session at last years IACP conference in San Francisco. We clicked immediately and found so much to talk about. She is delightful, incredibly talented, and unique. When she mentioned that she was going to be back in a couple of months for a photo shoot, I told her I would love to watch and learn. I love that about this industry. It is full of creative people that feed my soul!
I drove up to Stockton on a beautiful summer day and met everyone at Midtown Creperie & Café, a darling place with a New Orleans-influenced menu and ambiance. The owner, Matthew Grizzle and Chef Michael Adams immediately made me feel welcome and gave me the full run of the restaurant. There is nothing I love more than getting to go into a working kitchen and seeing where the magic happens.
Jenny grew up in Stockton and has known Matthew for years. He recently moved his restaurant into a larger building and is ready to take his business to the next level. He wanted to update his website and hired Jenny to recreate his customers’ favorite dishes. Jenny has extensive experience working as a stylist with such clients as Oster, Isaac Mizrahi, Mr. Coffee, Sunbeam, and Nambé. If you are looking for a talented food and prop stylist, Jenny is your gal!
The photographer for the shoot was Anthony Phillips of Phillips Photograph. Tony has done beautiful work for Centrale Kitchen and Bar, Linear Development and Peterbuilt Trucks. Make sure you check out his website for more examples of his exquisite photography!
Jenny and Tony spent a few minutes reviewing their goals for the shoot, agreeing on the main points and each bringing their own skills and artistry to the table. Jenny had brought a simple white tablecloth that makes everything look clean and fresh. The cloth had become crumpled during transit, but Jenny had anticipated that and brought a hand-held steamer that worked beautifully. Wrinkled linen is a curse of the home blogger and an instant sign of non-professionalism. I hate to have to pull out my iron, especially on hot summer days, but it pays in the photos. This steamer is faster and easier to use than my iron. It is on my wish list and will probably find a place in my home soon. 🙂
The restaurant has a wall of windows that gave them beautiful light to work with. I was impressed with the array of equipment that Tony brought with him. He showed up with white and black drapes, stands, booms, multiple lamps and a ton of pony spring clamps. Tony’s rule is to be over prepared just in case. You never know what may happen to throw off your expectations for lighting.
While Jenny chatted with the chef about the dishes she wanted to highlight, Tony adjusted his lighting to balance the warmth coming off the restaurant’s banquettes and set up. He decided to use the natural light from the windows as the back lighting and set up a combination of stand lights with reflectors and diffusers to create the fill light he wanted.
The tripod he used for the camera was actually designed for video equipment. It was much heavier and more substantial than the one I use, but when you have that many people crawling around the set, you certainly do not want the camera to be easily knocked over.
Jenny and Chef Michael started working on the plating and it was like watching a pas de deux. With a lot of laughter and music on the radio, they figured out their game plan, which dishes would come out in which order, with Chef explaining how he normally plates each one. I would have been tempted to be more creative, but it is important when working with a restaurant to replicate as closely as possible what the customers will receive when they order. If they see something really extravagant on the website, they will expect to see the same thing when their meal is served.
I loved watching Jenny work. She kept pulling implements out of her kit for a little touch up and I felt like I was watching Mary Poppins. Remember in the movie when she would reach into her carpetbag and pull out enormous items like a floor lamp? Jenny was creating the same sense of amazement with such subtlety. A little heat from a blowtorch here, a quick brushing with vegetable oil there and suddenly the food was glistening, perfectly colored, and incredibly tempting.
Each food stylist has their own favorite tools, and you often will find mini paint brushes, cotton swabs, paste food colors, a brulee torch, eye droppers, small spoons, tweezers, scissors, pins, squeeze bottles, spritz bottles, Kitchen Bouquet, museum wax, erasers, wedges/shims, etc. in a stylist’s kit. Some stylists place everything with tweezers, but Jenny prefers to use her fingers for most of the work. And I’m with her – my hands are my favorite kitchen “tool”. Never be afraid to touch your food, just wash your hands first!
As each plate came out of the kitchen, Jenny and Tony would discuss the angle, which side was the most perfect, how to best highlight it and then Jenny would do the final touches. Sometimes it was as simple as lightly brushing the edges of some of the food with a little oil. Make sure you use a light hand or everything will look greasy. Other times it was pouring a sauce over the top, making sure her hand was not in the shot.
A trick I learned from Chef Michael that I will be using for the rest of my blogging career involves vodka. I know, you think I drank my way through the photo shoot, but actually you can use vodka or white vinegar to wipe off the edges of the plates. It removes oily fingerprints easily, dries almost instantly, and leaves you with perfectly clean dishes to photograph.
I have used tethering in my shooting because it is much easier to see the shots you are getting when you can see them immediately on a computer screen. But at a shoot where the client is present, it is invaluable. It was remarkable to witness the plate on the tablecloth, seeing the camera set up and lighting, watching the photographer working, and then see the photos he produced. We were all gathered around the laptop, watching and commenting on what we liked or didn’t. Jenny and Tony would look at the images, she would make an adjustment, add some sauce, brush on a little oil to pick up the reflection of the light, or add a dollop of whipped cream, and Tony would take more shots. When both of them were happy, the next plate would come out and they would do it all again.
In a little over four hours they had prepped, plated, styled and photographed eleven dishes. This is a remarkable amount of work in a relatively short time frame. This team works beautifully together and that is such fun to watch.
I’ll bet what you really want to know is what happened to all the food? As each plate was finished it was placed on another table in the restaurant and was instantly descended upon by everyone in the room. And it was all very good because there was very little left at the end of the shoot!
At one point the chef came up to me and asked why I wasn’t eating anything and I quietly explained that though everything looked and smelled amazing, that I couldn’t eat the crepes because they were made with wheat. He immediately spun around and ran into the kitchen, emerging a few moments later with a jug from the refrigerator. It turns out that they have a dedicated gluten-free crepe iron and have GF batter on hand whenever anyone needs it! I got my choice of crepes and was served my very own plate to enjoy. I was in heaven! I had assumed that there was no way I was going to be able to eat anything that day, and what a wonderful surprise to discover just the opposite.
As we were wrapping up for the day I asked Jenny what her main tip for styling success was. She said, “Make sure you tell everyone to use small spoons to transfer food to the plate. It gives you a lot more control and you have fewer drips and dropped food.” Having watched her all day, I have to agree and have stopped using my normal large serving spoons when I am filling the plates for my own photo shoots.
I had a wonderful time at Midtown Creperie & Café and urge you to stop by for breakfast, lunch or dinner. They are located at 2319 Pacific Ave. in Stockton, CA. If you live in the Bay Area and travel to Tahoe, put this on your radar as a great place to stop with the family. And if you are gluten-intolerant, this is somewhere you can go and have a real treat! And when you stop in, tell everyone one Hi for me!
I hope you have enjoyed tagging along on this photo adventure of mine. Have a wonderful weekend and Happy Festive Friday everyone!
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Note: I was not compensated in any way for this article and all opinions are my own. All the photographs are mine except those provided by Phillips Photograph.
Thank you to the team at Midtown Creperie & Cafe for their hospitality. I hope to see you again soon!
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