The one thing we're all doing wrong (according to food stylists)

Jane Willson
05 November, 2014

Food styling pros Deborah Kaloper and Vicki Valsamis reveal the art to schmick dishes, and their tips for the perfect Christmas table.

Deborah Kaloper is a former pastry chef who turned to food styling and is now a gun for hire in the publishing and commercial world. Vicki Valsamis is a stylist and recipe developer who started out in set design but decided eight years ago that food was her first love – and hasn’t looked back.

What does a food stylist do? A lot of book photo shoots involve a home economist who does the cooking, but Vicki says there are some jobs where the stylist is called upon to do the lot: sourcing and selecting all of the props, cooking, food prep and plating.

The one message Vicki and Deborah both have for the home cook is that we need to stop trying so hard (a tough one if, like me, you expend a lot of energy trying hard to look like you haven’t tried much at all ….)

Vicki Valsamis (left) and Deb Kaloper (right) at work.

Q: What would you say is the number one mistake people make when presenting/serving food?

DK: I think that people try to make food look like something it’s not.

I like to keep things loose and natural when I cook at home, and I leave the sauce smears, drizzles, paintbrush strokes and zigzags from a squeezy bottle to the realms of the restaurant world.

VV: Trying too hard! Simplicity is key. There is so much beauty in simplicity. People see these pictures in the magazines and books and think, “that’s so hard”. But they need to keep coming back to fresh produce; simple and healthy.

Q: Is there an arsenal of styling essentials that you wouldn’t be without?

DK: My food styling is quite natural, but a few items do come in handy such as my favourite knife – which I always keep super sharp – olive oil and a small paint brush for glossing things up, cotton buds and baby wipes for cleaning up smudged plates, and straws for getting rid of excess liquid without having to move things off the set.

VV: I can’t live without my sharp knives – and I mean sharp like a hot knife to butter … no messing about! Blunt knives are a nightmare – they ruin food in an instant. 

I constantly rely on my offset spatula for plating. An offset spatula allows you to pick up food much easier from underneath, to place it on the plate where you want, and to slide it out from underneath. It also helps with setting things out – you can hover it over a plate.

Cotton buds, circular cotton discs, toothpicks and tweezers also make life a breeze for fidgety plating. My “pouch of brushes” is also a must-have! It is filled with a selection of different hair and size pieces that help with anything from soups, roasts to liquids!

Deb Kaloper's work on (clockwise from the top) Hungry For That, Nuovo Mondo and Dig In!

Q: What tricks have you picked up along the way that would apply to the home cook as much as a meal being prepared to be photographed for a book?

DK: Always use the best and freshest ingredients possible, it makes a difference to how it looks – and tastes.

Q: What are the hardest dishes to work with?

DK: Lasagne is my least favourite. So messy!

VV: Ice-cream – but it’s also my favourite. It’s a challenging material to work with because of the melt factor but it always keeps things interesting. 

Q: And the easiest?

DK: Large roasts, when cooked perfectly, they speak for themselves.

VV: Burgers; I love the building and layering process and have so much experience with them that I now find them a breeze to plate up. It’s like creating a bed of food for the burger to sit on. Start with lettuce underneath and create a beautiful frilly bed of green for the meat to sit on, melt the cheese over the top [of the meat] and place the tomato wherever you like. 

Q: And do you have a favourite cuisine to work with?

DK: Desserts! I used to be a pastry chef, I love working with pretty, sweet things.

VV: I enjoy working with all of them but would have to say (and being European) I love Mediterranean cuisine because it uses such fresh ingredients that I’ve grown up with and love. 

Q: Do you have a much-loved utensil at home or something that you make sure is part of every special table?

DK: My mandoline for the thinnest slices of veg and fruit possible; it’s great for salads, pickled veg, veggie noodles and for making candied citrus slices.

VV: Vases; I have a few favourites and I always make sure one makes and appearance with seasonal blooms for special tables. 

Vicki Valsamis' work on (clockwise from the top) Cantina, 7000 Islands and Huxtabook

Q: The best food books make it all look so easy (a bit of this, a bit of that … something else seemingly random over here …). That’s the art, right? Or with time and practice, we can all be pros?

VV: There is certainly an art to what we do. Most food stylists are home economists or ex-chefs with a pretty incredible skill set. I grew up in a hospitality family and was in the kitchen from a young age so creativity with food came to me naturally. Following that I assisted on shoots for many years before styling myself.

Q: Christmas is on the horizon: do you have any festive season-specific tips or tricks?

DK: I love Christmas, and I love a beautifully set table for everyone to be seated around. Using linen napkins and candles is one of the easiest ways to dress up the table. Small vases of fresh flowers, succulents or herbs is another simple way to make things festive without being too fussy.

VV: Don’t overdo it! I’m a firm believer in keeping things simple. Think about your festive table setting and do a pre-set of the table the night before. Select all the platters you’d like to present on, fit them out on your table so you know how you want everything to look, and take the time to do some prep work in the kitchen so that you’re ready to go Christmas Day and not stuck in there slaving away. I’m a sucker for all-white crockery at Christmas as it heroes all the beautiful festive food.

Quality crockery is good, but that’s not to say you can’t have Ikea plates and make them look nice. I’ve definitely gone through phases; I’ve loved the mismatched look – mixing things up is really beautiful – but I love the pared back approach, too.

Follow Vicki and Deb on Instagram for a behind-the-scenes look into the life of a food stylist. Follow us for the stunning end results!

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