Food stylist Denise Vivaldo admits her profession is both "meticulous work, and ridiculous work. A wrinkle in a hamburger bun is a disaster, a cut in a chicken breast is the Grand Canyon on camera," she says. "People think it is a glamorous job, but you can spend a morning chasing a pea around a bowl of soup with a pair of tweezers. Flexibility and a sense of humour are essential in this business."
A highly trained chef by trade, Vivaldo was previously a Hollywood caterer, cooking for stars including Cher and Bette Midler before turning to food styling in 1988. These days, she and her team of four stylists are in high demand from advertisers and television clients including The Ellen DeGeneres Show and the Food Network. She has written a book, The Food Stylist's Handbook, and was recently in Australia teaching others the tricks of her trade.
Vivaldo's weekend class at Sydney Cooking School was filled with food bloggers, magazine food editors and fellow stylists such as Sydney-based Ben Masters, also a chef by trade, who began his styling career working alongside Donna Hay. He now styles food for cookbooks and advertising clients including Sara Lee and MasterFoods.
"What Denise is teaching us is stuff you usually learn on the job through trial and error," he says. "To have this much knowledge compounded into a weekend is priceless."
A bag of tricks to get you out of trouble is key. Vivaldo explains that her ''kit'', is comprised almost totally of chemist-shop buys, beauty and catering supplies and bits and pieces from the hardware store. Tampons, soaked in water and microwaved, are used to create steam in a bowl of soup or porridge, eyebrow pencil is applied to a steak to increase its charred appearance, shaving cream is mixed with liquid soap to create beer foam and motor oil is added to sour cream to ensure a perfectly plump dollop.
As Masters observes: "A big part of what we do is making the shot happen seamlessly under pressure. You may only use a quirky trick once in your career, but on that one day, it may save you and help you to pull the rabbit out of the hat."
Sydney-based stylist Megan Morton was surprised to hear these tricks. "When we work with food on editorial shoots the environment tends to be much more natural. It is predominantly about shape, form and colour," she says. Morton works on the principles of composition when devising a shot - line, shape, form, texture, pattern and colour. "You can go back as far as Caravaggio and look at his compositions, the elements are the same," she says.
She says she is driven by the notion that a shot is, "really deliciously digestible. The image needs to make the reader want to run out and buy those ingredients, cook the food and invite their friends over," she says. "Unlike advertising, with editorial we don't get two goes at it, we shoot 10 to 12 dishes in a single day," Morton says.
Food stylist David Morgan has just come off a shoot for The Monday Morning Cooking Club's second book. "We shot eight to 10 dishes each day," he says. "We pull them straight out of the oven and put them on the set, they are not played with," he says. "My style is 'loose' and somewhat 'un-styled'." Occasionally Morgan intervenes or finesses. "I did sew up a hole in the skin of a turkey yesterday before the girls cooked it," he says. "Once the bird was out of the oven it was covered in a maple syrup glaze that was part of the recipe, further hiding the flaw."
At the course we also prepare a bird for photography. Vivaldo takes us through the finer points of, "poofing and painting a chicken". Starting with a raw chicken we stuff the cavity with copious amounts of paper towel. "Scrunch and stuff, get as much as you can get in there," Vivaldo instructs. The aim is to ''poof'' the chicken's breasts as much as possible. "Ensure your legs are closed, tie 'em together," she says. Spray with canola oil, then it is into the oven for just 10 minutes. "You want an undercooked bird," she says. "Think of George Hamilton, he is not the look you want. We want underdone skin."
After 10 minutes the chicken comes out of the oven nicely ''poofed'' and barely coloured. We spray the skin with a mixture of Kitchen Bouquet, an American seasoning and browning sauce, applying it with a paintbrush to ensure an even tan. Next we sprinkle it with paprika, shaking it through a tea strainer to create texture on the skin. Another spritz of Kitchen Bouquet, more paprika. Now for the blow torch. The paint and paprika form a crust under the flame. The chook, still raw inside, looks like Margaret Fulton just pulled it out of the oven.
Sprigs of rosemary are worked into the paper-towel-filled cavity and the bird is settled on a platter. The chicken is naturally lopsided, a couple of cotton balls under the wing balances it. Food photographer Dario Milano is on hand to shoot it, in perfect light.
Stylist's tool kit
Vaseline: Used to fill holes in fried eggs, salmon and chicken.
Polident (denture adhesive): Used to adhere food to the plate.
Dressmaking and wig pins: Help to balance runaway ingredients.
Scotchgard: Sprayed on pancakes to ensure that syrup doesn't soak into them.
Cotton balls: Help to lift food, creating balance on the plate.
Nail polish: Painted on pale prawns, it increases their lustre.
Florists' water crystals: Used to keep salad leaves from wilting before shooting.
Vivaldo's 10 tips for better food photographs
1. Undercook your food. As food cooks, it loses moisture and shrinks as it cools.
2. If you can afford it, buy two of what you're shooting.
3. Make sure your prep is meticulous. Get rid of anything wilted, old or unsightly. Cut, chop and slice precisely.
4. When designing a plate, consider colour (contrasting or complementary), texture and balance.
5. Create elevation and movement. Prop pieces up from the back to create definition.
6. Plan for the use of garnishes. Have appropriate herbs, lemon or limes, or extra ingredients to use if needed.
7. Know that cool food photographs better than hot food.
8. Use any available light.
9. Study food photographs you like. What do they have in common?
10. Remember less is more; the camera's eye is different to your eye.
■ Denise Vivaldo will return to Australia for more workshops next year: culinaryentrepreneurship.com
■ Megan Morton teaches the Science of Styling: theschool.com.au
■ RMIT has short courses in Styling for Photography: shortcourses.rmit.edu.au