Sarah Lancashire, starring as Julia Child in HBO Max's Julia, appears in her show-within-a-show with a chicken — purchased and prepped by the show's food stylist Christine Toobin.
An array of foods — selected by supervising culinary producer Avery Pursell — await the contestants in Fox's Next Level Chef.
For Hannibal, food stylist Janice Poon made a forearm from veal shank; in the show, the faux limb is chopped off and used for osso buco (the hand is prosthetic).
For an actor with a shellfish allergy, Wan-Jung (Anna) Lee served a vegan prawn with a garden salad. The dish appeared in an eighteenth-century dinner scene in HBO Max's Our Flag Means Death.
At showings of the 1960 feature Scent of Mystery, filmgoers were treated to Smell-O-Vision, a technique that triggered the release of thirty odors into the theater. Others tried to improve on that effort, but the process was never perfected and (despite a few stunts) did not make the transition to television. So, today the robust genre of food TV can tempt us with all kinds of delights, but it still can't let us savor their smell or taste.
Which is where food stylists come in.
"Eating is a five-sense experience," says Janice Poon, who has provided all the dishes seen in series like NBC's Hannibal, Starz's American Gods and Apple TV+'s current Foundation. "As food stylists, we're trying with just the visual element to make people feel like they want to consume our food. They should want to reach into the screen and try some because it looks that good."
Indeed, it's all about the eyes, says Mary Keledjian, supervising culinary producer for Fox's MasterChef, MasterChef Junior and Gordon Ramsay's Food Stars. "We eat with our eyes first," she explains. "When seeing something on the screen, if it doesn't look good, if it's not steaming and perfect, you think, 'I can do that at home.' There has to be a wow factor that impresses people enough to keep them watching."
Sometimes those dishes are front and center, like in a competition series or a recipe-based cooking show. Sometimes the food is the focus of a talk-show segment, in which a celebrity chef teaches the host to concoct a specialty. And sometimes it's just an element in the background as characters dine amid the dialogue of a scripted production. No matter the format, producers who need to display meals onscreen can't just order in from DoorDash. They rely on food stylists and culinary producers to "give food its own personality," as Poon puts it.
And with the food television phenom constantly expanding, standards must also keep rising, says Gordon Ramsay, the British chef, restaurateur and global television creator known for his no-holds-barred persona as well as his TV ubiquity.
"Food on TV and digital [media] has become such a widely viewed genre, so you have to stand out with impressive challenges — and, more importantly, the dishes that come from them," explains Ramsay, whose competition series (which include the MasterChef franchise as well as Fox's Next Level Chef and Hell's Kitchen) rely on carefully crafted cuisine. "If you look at Next Level Chef, the quality and standard of the dishes from our finalists could've been served by any one of my restaurants. And that comes down to the support and tools provided by food producers. From prepping ingredients to deciding what protein goes into a challenge to making sure the ingredients are all usable, they are the most important team on set."
In a scripted series, food tends to be more of a guest star than the lead performer, but that doesn't make the stylist's work any less important. That's certainly the case in Julia, the HBO Max series about Julia Child that has been renewed for a second season. "Food is part of the storytelling and hopefully part of the sensual pleasure of watching the show," says creator and executive producer Daniel Goldfarb.
A stylist's job can be as varied as the menu. "You have to be good at everything," Keledjian says, "whether it's making soufflés or plating food." As a result, she's "constantly learning new things about cooking" because everything has to go well on camera. Wan-Jung (Anna) Lee, who has styled food for series like FX's Snowfall and HBO Max's Our Flag Means Death, says she could be handed a script "set in the present day, in 1889 or in some unknown sci-fi world." Whatever the story calls for, she has to know how to create a meal appropriate to that setting.
"We're different from classically trained chefs," Lee explains. "I need to know how to make more than one cuisine, and my food has to go across timelines and cultures."
Food stylists aren't as recognizable as the celebrity chefs they often assist, but that doesn't mean the big names don't need their help. Susan Vu, who prepares food for demo segments on The Kelly Clarkson Show, regularly works with celebrity chefs like Duff Goldman and their staffs to determine the recipe to be used in the episode, along with the ingredients and the equipment. She also shops for all the items before setting foot in the show's kitchen and tests most recipes at home to make sure they work. On the day of the show, she's in the studio making not one, but several versions of the recipe as fail-safes in case anything goes wrong.
"The other day, I had a very simple segment — make one Bundt cake — but I had to make it three times," Vu recalls. "The first time, it was a little tough. The second time, I didn't feel right with it because it was too cracked and tender. I finally got it right the third time. Even something that seems easy can be hard with this job, because you want it to be perfect for Kelly."
And perfection is hard to achieve on a talk show, she explains, because you can never be certain when the dishes will have to go out onstage. Still, "you always have to be at the ready, making sure what you've made stays warm and looks nice."
Kevin Grace, creative director for The Kelly Clarkson Show, echoes that concern. "It's super important for a food stylist to be really good with time management," he says. "Not only do they have to shop, cook and prep the meal, they have to understand that their dish has to be ready at, say, 10:15, but we may have to start later or sooner."
Food stylists who work on competition shows have duties similar to Vu's. They shop for ingredients and make sure any finished dish that gets revealed on camera (the "hero dish") is made perfectly — and repeatedly — in case something goes south. In fact, competition series often have whole teams involved.
Stylist Santos Loo, who has been a part of the Food Network's Iron Chef universe since 2004, specializes in coming up with the show's "secret ingredient," the element the contestants must use as the star of their dish, revealed at the start of every episode. Loo has worked with a staff of twenty or more, some of whom regularly go to farmer's markets to stock the Iron Chef pantries while others specialize in sourcing the cooking equipment. Yet others become experts "on how to get the unexpected items, like ostrich eggs or alligator," Loo says. All that assistance frees him up to apply his artistic sensibilities to the secret ingredient.
"Let's say today is artichoke day," Loo suggests. "I would have twenty varieties of artichokes ready, and by the end of the day prior, I'd have created my artichoke sculpture. I also need to make sure they're edible and look real. You're dealing with food, which is a living thing, so I need to make sure my creations can be taken apart, put into a refrigerator and will hold up over the course of a few days."
On competition shows, food producers — depending on the needs of any episode — can make the contestants' time in the kitchen more difficult or more productive. Avery Pursell, formerly of Hell's Kitchen and MasterChef USA and now supervising culinary producer on Next Level Chef, helps come up with challenges that will likely frustrate contestants.
A challenge needs a game element to make for good TV, but the food producers must first determine if it will work, whether it's an activity like shucking oysters or cooking salmon. However, when the series involves home cooks, as opposed to professional chefs, Pursell's team gives contestants "inspiration packets." She explains: "If we know ahead of time that we'll be incorporating Mexican food in the show, we'll send a packet [to the contestants] with Mexican dishes they can make ahead of time, so their thoughts about it are already going."
Of course, competition-show stylists can't predict what may happen in their episodes as the contest unfolds. But in scripted series, where every action is predetermined, the stylist's job isn't any easier. As Lee explains, before she can even start prepping her dishes, she has to consider actors' dietary restrictions — vegan, gluten-free, food allergies, et cetera. Plus, if it's a science-fiction series like Star Trek: Discovery or Foundation, Poon has to make food items that actors can pick up with prosthetic hands or can fit into their mouths when they're wearing prosthetic masks.
Then there are the unexpected storylines that call for, say, a dish of human fingers to be eaten in Hannibal or a human toe to be consumed in Our Flag Means Death. Those fingers were actually pig tails, Poon says, and were "very edible — it's freakish how much pig skin looks like human flesh!" (For more on Poon's creations for the show, which starred Mads Mikkelsen as the criminal cannibal, check out her 2016 release, Feeding Hannibal: A Connoisseur's Cookbook.)
For the toe, which was ostensibly cut off a pirate's foot and fed back to him, Lee used carrot cake wrapped in peppermint fondant, with raspberry jelly for the blood. "I wanted it to be refreshing," she says, "so when the actor had to it eat over and over while shooting the scene, he wouldn't find it repulsive."
Not all major food challenges for scripted stylists involve make-believe meals. On the series Julia, Christine Tobin's biggest hurdle was making one of Julia Child's best-known recipes — a soufflé.
"Food is the most temperamental actor you can put in front of a camera," Tobin says, since it can congeal, spoil or dry out quickly. What's more, the final episode of Julia's debut season called for a perfect soufflé, which meant Tobin had to make a dozen of the difficult desserts — on one of the hottest days of summer in a makeshift studio kitchen.
"Because soufflés take time, instead of the [camera crew] rushing us to get to them, they knew they had to wait for us," Tobin says. "Luckily, everyone had a full understanding that one shift or wrong move or bang of the soufflé and you're done. Everyone was super supportive and celebrated with a big round of applause when we got the shot around the fourth or sixth attempt."
The best part of that soufflé day? Julia showrunner Chris Keyser recalls Tobin boxing up the extras for the crew, noting, "There's always a competition to see who gets to be on set the days Christine is working."
Clearly, show staffs love the work of food stylists. Viewers eat it up, too. Apparently, the only ones who would prefer someone else make their meals may be the stylists themselves.
"People think you're a food snob when you cook so much and make food for shows," Lee says, "but I'm happy to not have to cook for anyone away from set. So, if anyone has me over for a dinner party, I appreciate the fuss."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #8, 2022, under the title, "Kitchen Confidential."