Food stylists make food look interesting and appetizing when it is filmed or photographed. Many people have noted that the photographs of food they take at home appear dull, listless, and unappetizing, sometimes even when they have photography skills. Food is a tricky thing to photograph well, and food stylists have a number of tricks up their sleeves to use when arranging and styling food for presentation.
Many food stylists have a background in culinary training, in addition to training in the arts. They must be familiar with food, but also with the demands of photography and film, and the ways in which food can behave when it is photographed. A dish which may look scrumptious in real life can look horrific if it isn't styled correctly, and in fact, many of the photographs of food seen in advertisements feature a surprising number of inedible ingredients.
Food stylists are skilled in the aesthetic presentation of food, creating a specific look and feel with the plating, the background setting, and other elements of the presentation. They are also skilled at extracting desired appearances from the foods they work with. They may enhance color and texture with paint, makeup, and hand tools, create the illusion of beads of dew or a crust of ice, and create the appearance of steam. Food stylists are primarily concerned with aesthetics, not edibility.
A food stylist may use inedible components like wax, wood, plastics, and so forth in the course of styling food, or edible components may be used in new ways. For example, milk can look unappetizing, so a photograph of a cookie balanced on top of a glass of milk might actually use a glass of heavy cream to create a fuller, richer appearance.
Food styling explains why food never comes out looking quite like the photo. With something like a cookbook, the food stylist may try the recipe as is to learn more about it, but he or she will usually tweak the recipe and the presentation of the food when it comes to creating a photograph of the food to use as an illustration. For example, the nicely browned roast turkey used as an illustration in a Thanksgiving cookbook might in real life be raw in the middle, with a crust created with the assistance of a hair dryer and some cosmetics tools.
Food styling for film can be more complicated, as people may need to eat the food. In this case, sometimes carefully styled food is photographed and actors are provided with a substitute to eat. This also allows the crew to address issues such as dietary restrictions; a vegetarian may not agree to eat a slice of ham on set, but will eat a vegetarian substitute which resembles ham. Food stylists and filmmakers also need to be concerned about the number of takes; for example, while people may only see an actor eat one slice of cake in the finished product, an actor might need to eat multiple slices of cake to get the scene right, in which case a rich cake would be inappropriate as the actor would quickly feel ill.