The messiest foods often taste the best, but a Sloppy Joe spilling over with cheese might not look so tasty on a magazine cover or a T.V. screen. That’s why some people, like John Carofoli, actually sculpt, polish, and primp food so that it looks yummy to people, even when they can’t smell it. John sat down with us to talk about the math behind being a food stylist!
BTM: So how did you get into food styling? Was it something you’ve always wanted to do?
John: I can’t say that I always had this specific career in mind, but I think most people grow up with a love for good food, and I’m no exception. I was writing at the Boston Globe, and found a photographer to provide pictures for my articles. Then I actually ended up working with that photographer as a food stylist. I worked for Dunkin Donuts for 18 years, and I also wrote a book on food styling, called Food Photography and Styling.
BTM: How do you use math to make a good-looking meal to photograph?
John: Well, there’s lots of math in planning the entire photo shoot. Once we decide on a menu of food to photograph, we have to buy the right amount of every ingredient for each recipe. So we can save a lot of time and bother by adding up the common ingredients of all the recipes and making one shopping trip. For example, if we have 3 recipes and 2 of them call for 1/4-cup of butter and the other one calls for 1/2-cup, then we know we need to buy 1 cup of butter (2 sticks). We always have extra ingredients too, because cooking doesn’t always go as planned – if we’re doing a Thanksgiving photo shoot, we’ll usually have 20 turkeys to be sure we can make 1 look perfect!
BTM: And what’s the best way to make that Thanksgiving bird look tasty on camera?
John: It depends on how we’re photographing it. Here’s a secret: if a picture shows a whole turkey, it’s probably not cooked inside, because it doesn’t need to be cooked to look appetizing! We can make the bird look crispy and brown in about fifteen minutes by using a thin layer of browning agent on the turkey’s skin and putting it in an oven four or five times, spraying a new layer of browning agent each time we take it out of the oven.
BTM: So preparing the food has all the math that you need in any kitchen, with some extra tricks. What about styling and photographing the food?
John: Food styling is a lot like painting. Just like a painter, I work with colors, patterns, and the positive and negative shapes they create. I use those geometric ideas to create a beautiful-looking plate. But before I even style the food, we have to arrange and photograph its background: all the plates, utensils and other props. Every detail matters, right down to the angle of the fork and knife. Then we look at the photos of the background and adjust the setting so that everything will fit perfectly into the space where the photo will be published, whether that’s in print or online. Finally, after that’s all set, we can bring the food in and get our photos.
BTM: You probably have to do that quickly, too?
John: Oh, certainly. We fit a lot of work into a very short time. You can make food look fantastic, but all your work can be undone pretty quickly by time or gravity or other facts of life.
BTM: So if a kid wants to grow up to be a food stylist, what math skills will they need?
John: I think timing is everything. Well, not everything, but being able to make and stick to a schedule is definitely important. Measurements, ratios, the math used in chemistry – these skills are important for cooking in general, as well as styling food. Lastly, playing around with geometry is important to develop an artistic eye, so that you can always find a new way to present an old recipe!