Cooking the Thanksgiving Turkey
in the Parking Lot
Emilie Fosnocht is a food and prop stylist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In this Q&A, Emilie shares how she discovered the art of food styling, hot tips and tricks of the trade, and an insider's lowdown about a career that many people may not even know exists.
How did you discover styling?
My background is in fine arts. I was going to school in London and working in a gallery there. When I graduated, I had to come back to the states and grapple with paying off student loans and find a better paying job than working in an art gallery. Because I was good at Photoshop, I got a job at Anthropologie doing textile design, and I hated it. A friend of mine worked in the photo studio there on the homewares team, and she told me I should come check it out because they needed people.
I remember asking her what styling was, “Like what do you do all day?” She told me, “I just touch things all day.” And because she knew I was a sculptor and understood composition, she thought I’d be good at it. They started me out on super basic stuff, and I remember thinking this is ridiculous that I’m being paid for this. Everyone told me I was good at it, and it was way more relaxed than the apparel team, so I started styling for their tabletop sets.
How did food come into the picture?
If Anthropologie needed a cake, I’d make it. I’ve always loved food. I also worked in restaurants a lot throughout school. I love baking specifically, and spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my father and grandmother when I was growing up.
So when I found out about it as a career path, I cold emailed a food stylist in Philadelphia and asked to assist her. She ended up slowly bringing me in to help, and through that, I learned so much that I was able to start building my own portfolio from the shoots.
Who typically food styles professionally? Are there any pre-reqs needed?
It does seem like most stylists don’t have a straightforward path to food styling. A lot of people come from a prop styling background or from a chef and restaurant background. Oftentimes people won’t have gone to culinary school, but similar to myself they’ll have a background in food. It’s not something you can do without basic food knowledge. I’m always learning, too.
Can you walk us through the typical preparation before a shoot?
It’s all over the place, and definitely depends on the shoot. In the beginning stages, I’m constantly trying to pull as much information out of a client as I can, because rarely do you get a client who knows all of the information you need. Sometimes you’re working on a shoot without a full kitchen, and you have to know what’s allowed in that particular location.
I recently did a shoot where I had to style a full Thanksgiving dinner, but I wasn’t allowed to cook at the shoot. The client also wanted it to be contemporary, with less traditional Thanksgiving dishes. To prepare, I pulled recipes and images for style references. Next there’s list-making and shopping. For this particular shoot, I worked with my assistant to figure out how to do all of the cooking and prep ahead of time, and we tested out different methods of cooking the turkey without an oven.
How do you make a turkey without an oven?!
I used the Food Styling book to troubleshoot the turkey, which I treat like the food styling Bible. I also googled. We ended up buying an electric convection oven and a turkey roaster, which just looks like a turkey shaped crockpot. We got the approval that if need-be, we could use them in the parking lot. We did plenty of prep and tests beforehand, and even prepped the veggies a day before by dipping them in a preservative to prevent browning. Making a schedule for the day-of is also super important, because a photo set can be rapid fire and everyone wants something right away. It’s always a rush.
Where do you find inspiration for shoots? Do you ever have room for your own creative spin?
It depends on the client. An ideal client comes to you because they like your personal style, and they let you do whatever you want. A friend of mine who’s a photographer once told me, “The ideal scenario is you get to do whatever you want and money falls from the sky.” Chuckles. But I actually agree with him. More and more, I try to only put things on my website and social media that represent my personal style, because that’s what people are going to come to you for.
I also do a lot of commercial work, because that typically pays better. Some commercial brands have standards and it’s important to stick to the brand’s style standards.
As a freelance food stylist, do you ever have to look for work?
Knock on wood! I don’t want to jinx it. Chuckles. Because I’m in Philly, no, there aren’t a ton of stylists here. I have to turn down work. But there’s always a hope for bigger or more interesting shoots, so in trying to expand my personal work and shoot my own ideas, I do tests with a photographer friend in the hopes that a client will see it and hire me to do the same for them.
What’s the biggest challenge in the food styling industry?
The biggest hurdle to food styling is that there is a set etiquette you need to learn, but it’s only learned by being on a set. Any set experience you can get is super valuable. Additionally, working with a photographer is a great learning experience, because it’s such a collaborative process, and you learn how to work very intimately with them. You learn how to not be in the photographer’s way spatially, and you learn how to time your work around when they’re ready to shoot.
What are the most important tips you can share for someone trying to break into the industry?
I didn’t know when I got into food styling, but assistants can’t touch anything in the frame of what’s being photographed. It feels very particular, but many people wouldn’t bring an assistant back after that. Touching the things in the frame of the photo is the styling. So you have to let the stylist do it. These are things I had to learn through observation, and I wish someone had told me.
Assisting food stylists is huge, because they can teach you techniques. Beyond the styling, by being on set and observing how the stylist interacts with the client, the photographer, and the art director, you learn a lot. Everyone has a different opinion, but having your point of view come across in the final product is important. It’s also important to figure out what styles you like and are drawn to as a stylist.
Beyond the photoshoots, you can practice by cooking for other people and getting their feedback. If I have free time, I’ll do a test shoot with a photographer for something that I want to do. Those are some of my favorite food photos because it’s what I want to do.
When you’re cooking for loved ones, do you style it to the same level as you would on a shoot?
Oh hell no! Chuckles. But I care about presentation always. It’s always getting garnished.
What’s your favorite food to style?
I love ice cream. My favorite thing to style is real ice cream, so put the word out there! Chuckles. The first time I styled ice cream, it was the closest I’ve ever come to crying on set because it’s so difficult. Since then, I’ve worked very hard to figure out the tips and tricks of how to style it.
Do you see anything different for yourself in the future that’s not food styling?
It’s definitely something that I think about….You don’t see a ton of older stylists, because it’s a very physical job. I genuinely do not sit down, eat lunch, or even go to the bathroom on some shoots. I’m not doing that when I’m old. But I love the work, and don’t have any immediate plans to stop doing it.