(Published in the April 2010 issue)
To the food artist, a bowl of olives or a split lobster tail provides the same aesthetic fodder as what a watercolorist might derive from a clique of nude sunbathers lounging on the banks of a deep blue lake. But as many top-notch photographers, painters and stylists of food will attest, their subjects aren’t always as well-behaved.
Capturing edible matter in its most luscious form requires sly manipulations to create images that provoke the senses. Thus we are warned that those glistening jewel-like scallops or golden-crusted tarte tatins jumping off magazine pages are oftentimes not fit for public consumption.
Cindy Epstein has worked with food in various capacities for more than 30 years, starting with a catering company and gourmet takeout shop that she operated in Philadelphia before moving to San Diego. As a food stylist, she averages a couple jobs a week at the behest of restaurants, casinos and advertising agencies.
“Tweezers are a food stylist’s best friend,” Epstein says, after having poked, prodded and polished the majority of complex dishes pictured in the recently released cookbook, Flying Pans, written by chefs Bernard Guillas and Ron Oliver of La Jolla’s Marine Room.
In preparing a plate of sesame-encrusted Kurobuta pork tenderloin (pictured) for the photographer, Epstein used undercooked meat in order for the camera to pick up its succulent fleshy color. The meat slices were propped up from behind with cotton balls, while the surrounding mirin sauce was applied with an eye dropper to highlight the meat’s soft curves. The pork was also rubbed with oil to make it glisten and to ensure the sesame seeds would stick; fallen seeds were reattached with tweezers. In similar scenarios, Epstein has used Vaseline as an adhesive.
“We have to create a perception that allows viewers to say, ‘Oh my God, I wish I had a bite of that!’”
For blood-orange glazed turkey, she glued down the wings and sprayed the bird with Kitchen Bouquet, a caramelizing agent that imparts the skin with a uniform golden tone. “It was only a quarter cooked, just until the fat started to melt.”
When working with Manhattan Deli in Temecula for a photo shoot, Epstein water-spritzed a “mile-high” piling of different meats comprising a specialty sandwich, resulting in a moist, succulent sheen. Natural, morning light proved better than artificial for capturing the sandwich’s decadent details, although for an image of fruit and cheese (above left)on her web site, the food was artificially lit to create a moody, Old World style. “It’s a promotional piece for my business, and I got a lot of clients from it.”
Jon Tiffin, Food Photographer
Since Jon Tiffin took up the craft of food photography six years ago, he has trained his lens on everything from haute cuisine to ribs and fried chicken. His primary goal when shooting for restaurants and magazines is to perfect lighting and camera settings so that “there is little post-production to be performed.”
A rule of thumb, he notes, is to illuminate food from the back, which allows depth and textures in dishes to spring forth, such as in fish and bivalves over pasta, or chocolate-covered cheesecake garnished with fruit and flowers. But when steam is in the scheme, dark backgrounds are essential, as is dry ice for keeping the vapors alive.
Tiffin adds that the gorgeous dishes chefs prepare for his spotlighting aren’t always camera-ready. Flat bacon strips are injected with air from a syringe to restore their bubbles; leafy lettuces are broken down to make them look sumptuously bite-sized, and as for ice cream, “you’re often looking at mashed potatoes.”
Featured in galleries across the country, including Exclusive Collections locations in San Diego, “the painter of chefs” is renowned for capturing food in preparation and on the plate. His works range from $1,000 to $10,000.
Using a semi-impressionistic style, the artist admits that his biggest challenge in making food appear appetizing is choosing the right paint colors. “The slightest difference in colorization can make it look viscous or slimy, giving the wrong impression of what the chef actually cooked.”
While chefs in action have become the focal points of his paintings, the dishes they construct often enter the scene as well. French cuisine, Mr. M. says, “is pretty complicated to paint because of the intricate structures in things like foie gras, duck and truffles.” When painting a chef preparing chocolate cake, “It was a bit tricky getting across the soft, spongy lightness of the cake and preventing it from looking solid and heavy. Patience solved that problem.”
From his “still life period,” Christopher M.'s repertoire also includes paintings of commercial condiments such as Heinz Ketchup and French’s mustard. “I wanted to show some of the household items that I’ve lived with since I was a child.”
In light of how well Andy Warhol’s “food art” appreciated in value when he painted Campbell’s Soup cans, Mr. M. may be on to something.