When looking at food and beverages featured on TV commercials and print ads, consumers usually find them irresistible. Unfortunately, reality can sometimes be a bit disappointing.
The tempting products seen in ads are the special creations of food stylists. Chiu Chun-kong, who has more than 20 years’ experience “styling” food, says it is his job to make ordinary food look extra-ordinary.
“To do that, I often have to think out of the box. For example, I did a series of ice-cream commercials for a fast-food chain, but the ‘ice-cream’ in the commercial is not ice-cream. I used another ingredient that looked like ice-cream. For a beef commercial, I will not cook the beef thoroughly so that the distribution of fat on the meat can be clearly seen, which makes it look more appealing,” Chiu says, adding that he works closely with the production team to create food commercials.
He thinks food stylist must be able to think on their feet because demands from directors are unpredictable. “During the shooting, [directors] might come up with new ideas and you have to try to give them what they want. It takes years of cooking experience, in-depth knowledge of various ingredients and strong artistic sense to style food,” he says.
Chiu was a hotel chef before working on food styling. He was also involved in shaping and sculpting ice, vegetables and fruits, and chocolate for table presentations.
“There is no standard pathway to learn to be a food stylist. If you are a chef and is interested in styling your dishes, food styling might be a career for you,” he says.
Chiu says the early ’90s were the golden age of food styling, but after 2000, most of local advertising production has been moved to mainland China.
Chiu says there are fewer than five food stylists in Hong Kong as the sector has shrunk throughout the years, but it is gaining popularity on the mainland and in Taiwan. Following the trend, Chiu now splits his time between Hong Kong and Shanghai to work on food styling.
Food stylists work on a freelance basis and are paid by the hour. Most of the clients are fast-food chains and big food manufacturers. “Most of the time, I work in a studio with a production crew. Working hours can be very unstable and tough. There was one occasion that I slept only a couple of hours in three days while working on a television commercial. You cannot take a break unless the task is completed,” he says.