When people think of stylists, it's usually a fashion or hair stylist. Many haven't heard of food stylists. But if you've looked through a cookbook, a newspaper food section or at a restaurant advertisement on TV, you have seen evidence of their work.
To food stylist Lisa Cherkasky, every detail makes a big difference. Her job is to make food look tasty and tantalizing for a photo shoot. At the moment, she is looking for just the right position for the garnish on a salmon bagel. After numerous tweaks, the bagel is ready for what she hopes is the final shot.
“It helps to have a good eye, being able to look at an image and see if it needs a different color, needs to be balanced another way," she says. "Also you need to understand food. You understand how it works chemically, how it works gastronomically. It is sort of like making a painting, I think, or a sculpture, so it has to be appealing aesthetically.”
Today, Cherkasky is styling bread from the Gold Crust Baking Company. She gathers the ingredients, cooks the dishes and garnishes them so they're camera-ready. She often uses tricks or employs gadgets intended for other things.
“It might be a paint stripper because it produces heat but it does not blow like a hairdryer so you can warm something," she says. "It might be a grill starter that is used to make grill marks. I use Armor All (car product) that I spray on to keep things moist.”
Cherkasky began to explore food in her family's kitchen when she was in high school. She went on to study at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and worked as a chef for more than 10 years.
“Then I was looking to make a change to get out of restaurant work and I started working for Time-Life books in Alexandria (Virginia)," she says. "I started there doing recipe development and styling was part of the job.”
She's been a food stylist ever since and now partners with food photographer Renee Comet.
“We are all working as a team. If I don’t have a stylist I can’t concentrate on what I need to do," says Comet. "It is what makes a great photograph. Lisa and I probably have done maybe 30 cookbooks together over the years.”
Cherkasky has clients at magazines, cook books, newspapers, bakeries and food companies. Nausika Lyubinsky, a co-owner of the Gold Crust Baking Company, is watching the step-by-step process of today's shoot. Her company is planning a website to showcase its products.
"They see things that we are not used to seeing and it is wonderful," says Lyubinsky. "What we wanted to do is make sure these photos are attractive, that the chefs say 'I want that on my menu, mmm' or 'That looks good, I can make a sandwich out of it.' So, it is very important.”
Cherkasky says in the beginning there was a lot of trial and error. “You could not really read anything. Now you can read. There are tons to read about food styling, but 25 years ago, right, you teach yourself. You can now take classes, and you can take it online. ”
Cherkasky believes it helps to love food. She loves to look at it, eat it and even read about it. She says food pulls people together and it's essential.