Delores Custer is an internationally-known food stylist, who has been working for magazines and advertising agencies, public relations firms, television, feature films, and food companies since 1978. A brief look at some of her prominent clients would include Time-Life Books, Cuisine Magazine, Pillsbury, Proctor and Gamble, Paramount, Campbell’s, Wendy’s, Tupperware, Nabisco, Newman’s Own Organics, and Cuisinart.Ms. Custer teaches courses in Professional Food Styling and in Recipe Writing and Development at The New School and the Culinary Institute of America, and she has conducted food styling workshops in Japan, Chile, Argentina and Norway. As a consultant to the New York Heart Association, Ms. Custer helped develop the Hearts Kitchen Course, and she has lectured on the “new cuisine,” and taught courses in food demonstration. She develops recipes for various food companies and has contributed to several cookbooks. She appears frequently on television discussing food styling techniques or current nutritional concerns. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Education from Oregon State University and a Master’s degree from New York University in Foods and Nutrition.
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in culinary?
I always loved cooking and working with foods from a very young age. However, I had decided on a career in teaching. When my daughter was born I became a stay-at-home mom while she was little. We watched Julia’s French Chef together. I had taken lots of cooking classes for personal interest. When friends asked me to teach them how I prepared the foods I made for them, I started a cooking school in our home. I was asked to help open a restaurant, which I did and, when we moved to New York, I decided to go back to school and learn as much as I could about food. I got my masters degree at New York University in foods and nutrition at the age of 38.
Tell us how your career in the culinary field has unfolded. Where did it start? How did you first become involved in food styling?
About three months before I graduated from NYU we were told that a film crew wanted to rent the test kitchens to shoot some shots for the Lamb Council, and they needed someone the help the person who was preparing the food. I volunteered and met my first Food Stylist!
I had been unsure of what I wanted to do with my degree, but when I learned about this career (which I previously knew NOTHING about), I knew it was for me. I worked with three food stylists before I graduated, and when I did graduate, one of them asked me to come work with her full time. What a wonderful opportunity, I later discovered.
Your clients have included some of the biggest names in the food industry, such as General Mills, Proctor and Gamble, Häagen-Dazs®, Tupperware and more. How did you come to work with such high-profile companies?
Iwas very lucky to begin my career with a woman (one of the pioneers) who was well-established in the business. Zenja Cary had been a food stylist for 20 years when I met her and had a wonderful kitchen facility. She was one of the top five food stylists in the city and had kitchens that were used for shooting commercials, prepping our jobs and for testing of cookbooks. They were also used by the likes of James Beard, Peter Kump, Diane Kennedy, and many other cookbook authors and teachers for classrooms. I assisted and learned from one of the best.
What are some of your favorite food styling projects that you’ve worked on in your career? Why are they your favs?
Often, some of the more challenging assignments at the time turn out to be favorite memories. I have made and transported 100 pies to a studio for a cookbook. I have spread margarine in a tree house in the rain forests of Mexico (my refrigerator was a soda machine and ice chest). I have prepared five shots of food in a warehouse for Paul Newman, with no refrigerator, table, stove, or nearby water. I have prepared sandwiches for a television commercial in the dressing room of the Dallas Cowboys. I have made the $100,000.00 chocolate chip cookie because the crew ate the ones I had been baking all day long for the final shoot. Working on cookbooks becomes a special treat when you finally hold the book in your hands. But what I love best are repeat clients and photographers who become friends and “family”.
You also teach food styling and recipe development at several culinary schools, including the Culinary Institute of America. How did you get involved in the academic sector and why is it important to you?
I started out as an instructor and will probably finish as one. I have been lucky enough to have been asked to teach in many international locations; Norway, Chile, Japan, Mexico, Argentina, as well as in many schools in the US including New York University, The New School, and the Mississippi University for Women. I have given workshops for Food on Film and for the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). I LOVE teaching (which was my first career choice). I feel it is important to give back, and teaching allows me to do this. One of the things I feel strongly about is that ALL chefs should know the skills of recipe writing – it is not the fun part of the business but one that represents you and your restaurant, and it is a skill to be learned.
Is there more still that you want to accomplish in your career?
Yes, I want to write a book on food styling. I want to explore the regional food of the US and talk and work with food people around the US. I would like to expand my teaching repertoire and work with singles, young people and the elderly on the basics of good cooking. I want to see real cooking stay alive. I am interested in the Organization for Slow Cooking. (Editor’s note: For more information on Slow Food, see www.SlowFood.com)
What exactly do food stylists do?
A food stylist’s job is to get food ready to have its picture taken. This requires that we gather information from many sources… the photographer, producer, the client, the agency, whomever has relevant information. Then, we organize the job, deciding on amounts of food needed, equipment needed, etc. We shop for the food, which sounds deceptively simple. We get everything we need to the location of the shoot and then organize our space. We prepare the food, arrange it so that it looks attractive to the camera, and then we keep it looking wonderful until they are ready to shoot.
Can you describe a typical day at work?
One of the things I like best about the freelance world of food styling is that there are no typical days. Each day is different from the next. We shoot in every conceivable environment. We work with many different foods. One day we may prepare a picnic table full of food for a TV commercial, the next we are spreading the client’s frosting on one cupcake. Our days begin whenever they need us… TV shoots usually start at 6 or 7 a.m. and go until we are finished, which could be 9 p.m. or 2 a.m. the next morning. Print work is usually a little more “regular”… shopping and in the studio by 9 a.m. and, again, home when we are finished, usually before 9 p.m.
What are the tools of the trade that you use the most in food styling?
Each food stylist has tools that they particularly like to use. For me, No. 1 is a good set of shape knives. I have canvas bags for carrying my food and equipment to the jobs. I have a tool kit that goes with me to every job. We use regular cooking equipment (measuring cups, oven thermometers, etc.), but we also get tools from art supply stores (brushes, spatulas, fun tac, etc.) and from dental and medical supply stores. We get things from drug stores, hardware stores, and auto supply stores. I always use needle nose tweezers, long wooden picks, Q-tips, Joyce Chen scissors, sprits bottles and Bounty white paper towels. I usually use non-stick pans and stainless steel bowls for the job (they weigh less and are not breakable). I have a list of about 70 things that just go into my kit.
How much time do you spend in the studio, as opposed to the classroom and the kitchen?
About 90 percent of my work is as a food stylist and that includes time in the kitchen. I teach about five times a year at the Culinary Institute of America and also about the same amount of time in New York City. I also work on other food related projects. I develop recipes for clients, work as a consultant to food companies and do a little writing for magazines.
You’ve worked on television programs, commercials, and big-screen movies. How is food styling for film and video different from, say, magazine and book photography?
When we work in movies, we usually work closely with a prop master who works on the set with the food we give him. Foods need to look natural and be edible. When I shoot a commercial, I usually work directly with the director or the assistant director, and I work at the set. Things happen to food in film. A bite is taken out of a hamburger, so we may need 35 perfect hamburgers ready, a turkey is sliced, so we need a supply of them ready.
In print (advertising and editorial), work is quite different. We may do just one to four still shots a day in advertising, and everything needs to have a certain look. In cookbooks and magazines, our work can be more creative.
Chefs can distinguish themselves through certifications, like Master Chef. Are there any kinds of professional credentials for food stylists to pursue?
No, but it is extremely important that one assists and learns the skills before one goes solo. As a freelancer, you are as good as your last job, and food does not always behave. It is always tempting to want to get out there and get the bigger salary. But as a chef once said, “It is better to take the stairs rather than the elevator.” It can be easy to rise to the top quickly, but if you don’t have a strong foundation it is also easy to come right back down.
Are there any professional organizations specifically for food stylists?
There are two organizations. Food on Film in Minneapolis has a seminar for food stylists every other year in the spring. I also belong to the IACP, in which some members are food stylists.
What are the best ways for graduating culinary students to find a job in food styling?
The best thing that a beginner can do is to find good food stylists to assist. They will need to put together a portfolio to promote themselves (we discuss how to do this in class). But be patient. Find work that allows you to be flexible so that when assisting jobs do come along you will be able to take them. And learn from good food stylists.
I feel it is important for food stylists to have good baking skills, as well as cooking skills. If the baking skills are lacking, it might be good to take extra classes there. Take my class in food styling for a strong introduction into the career.
How much are food stylists generally paid? How about those at the top of the profession?
A top stylist in a large city will earn anywhere from $450 per day for editorial work to over $850 per day in advertising work. The pay is usually not this good in smaller cities, and often, in those smaller cities, the food stylist may be asked to get props as well.
Is it important to spend time working in the culinary field, as a chef or in another traditional capacity, to be successful as a food stylist? If so, why and how much time would you say is necessary?
I feel that any experience in the culinary field is always useful. My first assistant had worked in restaurants for seven years and before “burning out” and that work definitely helped her in this career. I have had other good assistants that were right out of culinary school. But the more you know the better you will be.
What are the most important qualities that make a successful food stylist?
I have put together a list of some of the attributes that I feel are important in the career of food styling. They are not necessarily listed in order of importance because these change from day to day:
- Good cooking and baking skills
- A team player
- Patient (more important than it seems)
- Sense of humor
- Problem solver
- Can deal with stress
- Good physical health
- A sense of when to lead and when to take direction.
You recently participated in the Food on Film Workshop. What is this, and how important is it for prospective food stylists wanting to break into the industry?
Food on Film is a workshop for food stylists at any skill level. Stylists, photographers, and food company professionals attend from all over the world. It is a fundraising workshop sponsored by the Home Economists in Business of Minneapolis. It is held every other year and is a three-day program. It is a workshop where food stylists share information and network. It is probably more useful after one has been in the business for a while. Any information is useful. I ALWAYS learn new things when I attend.
How is the job market right now for food stylists? How do you think it will be in the next five years? 10 years?
The job market for food stylists varies from location to location. It is fairly competitive in New York, but I hear from food stylists in Minneapolis that there is lots of work. Also, I think if you work for magazines the work is fairly consistent while in advertising is more affected by economic conditions. More and more, people are becoming aware of food styling as a career. Many people in the business have second part-time jobs.
Tell us about your culinary education. What did you like and dislike about it?
I loved going back to school and being surrounded by food classes. I found many classes helpful: Food Science, Organic Chemistry, Sensory Evaluation of Foods, Culinary Communications, Recipe Writing and Development were all useful. Also useful were courses in art and design. I would like to learn more about business and marketing sometime. I would have also liked to have had more hands-on time in the kitchen and more baking classes.
For those who already know that they want to break into food styling, should they go to culinary school and why?
Just being a good home cook is often not good enough. There are a lot of different types of culinary schools out there now. Try to find one that offers strong cooking and baking experiences.
Do you know of any schools that offer coursework, certificates, or a degree of some kind in food styling? If not, what’s the best educational path to pursue?
I don’t know of any school that offers coursework in just food styling. More and more, I hear of schools wanting to offer courses in food styling. The Mississippi University for Women offers my one-week program for credit, I believe. A certificate is offered at the end of each of my classes. Besides these classes, the best way to learn is to assist a good food stylist. I will say that there are some courses being taught by people who have not worked as stylists. Stay away form those.
Is there a major difference in the industry between graduating from a prestigious culinary school and graduating from a college with a culinary program?
I don’t know of any food stylist who was hired because they graduated from a particular school. We are hired because of our skills, our personalities, and how we arrange food.
What are some trends that you see in the field of food styling and/or culinary that might help prospective students?
Digital photography is changing our business a lot. “Simple” and “Easy” are the buzzwords. Natural, not pristine, food presentations are desired now even in advertising. We have been greatly influenced by some of the photography, art direction and styling of Australia. Saveur, Australian Vogue Entertaining, Martha Stewart Living and Food Illustrated have all had a strong effect on “today’s look”.
How has advancing technology and the Internet affected your profession?
Digital photography allows for easy corrections and clients can see the work without being in the studio. This has changed things a lot. Also people can find more information about the career of food styling; information that was hard to come by previously.
Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed as a food stylist?
The very first food stylist I met said that there is a “dues-paying” time. I have found this to be true. There is a lot to learn about this work, and the best way to learn is to assist someone who is good at it. I love my work. It has its pluses and minuses, like any other job. You need to live where the work is, be a freelance personality, and then have the skills. A good support system is helpful also, since the initial income won’t be gigantic.