Can Social Media Make You A Food Stylist? Payal Gupta Weighs In

During her 2019 TEDx Talks, food stylist Payal Gupta brought up the movie Ratatouille, the beloved animated film about a rat named Remy, who wants to become a successful chef. “Like Remy, I too had my moment of inspiration. I remembered that when I was 14, I was awestruck by an image of food presented by the famous chef Jiggs Kalra,” Gupta had remarked during her talk.

“I then set out on my culinary adventure combining these two ingredients, cooking and art,” she added. Almost an era after she started as a food stylist, Gupta pinpoints another ingredient that’s crucial to the task of food styling -- science.

“A food stylist is basically a food scientist, similar to a food cosmetic surgeon whose work goes beyond food decoration. It’s giving food a facelift, like how a cosmetic surgeon is going to give you a facelift through your brow surgery and whatnot,” Gupta tells us. 

The food stylist has worked with several leading FMGC brands in India and also across Sri Lanka, Bangkok and Dubai. Gupta, who was raised in Kolkata and shifted bases to Mumbai in 2005 left behind a job with a five-figure salary to pursue a career in food styling in 2007. And Gupta says she’s still learning! We caught up with the expert to talk about her start in the industry, her advice for aspiring food stylists, her day-to-day challenges and why she thinks Instagram isn’t the place for her. 

You have been a food stylist for more than a decade now…..

In 2008 I started working as an apprentice to someone. I did that for two years. In 2010 I quit and started on my own. It was between 2013 to 2016 that I started getting the kind of recognition or the success that I wanted. It’s important to remember that people started in this industry in India in the nineties, so all the people who joined before me had more experience, more credibility and a client network.

Plus, most ads are very tricky with a lot of things at stake. There are so many people involved. Back then it wasn’t all that likely that they would take a young food stylist who had lesser experience in that category. I had to win the trust of people over some time, I was only called in when, let's say, nobody was available. So I was sitting on the fence for the longest possible time, like five, four years, approximately. But I loved the work so much.

Come 2016, people started realizing that whenever we give her a job, she puts in her best. And the risk that we thought was 100% is just perhaps 15, 20% now. And over the years, that 15- 20% has become a 0%

How different was the scenario back then? 

There were about 10 food stylists across the country, in Mumbai there were four or five. The presence of social media was not that strong, the understanding of food styling was also shallow and brands did not realise the value of food presentability.

But making food look beautiful is an art form which has been practised in India and all over the world for ages. It's nothing new. But most people now are confused between the job of a food stylist and that of a food decorator. So what is the job of a food decorator? Let's say you have a glass of buttermilk, you sprinkle some jeera powder and put a mint leaf and it starts to look good. But what is the work of a food stylist? The food stylist will ensure that the mint leaf will stay on the top. It is going to stay fresh. The jeera powder that you are putting is roasted so that it has a colour and makes sure it stays on top of the buttermilk. So a food stylist is a food scientist, a food cosmetic surgeon whose work goes beyond the food decoration.

Some things you have to make from scratch right?

Yes, for instance, when I work for an ITC or a Good Day… those beautiful ads of biscuits and cookies puffing in the oven and changing colour. What we see in those shots is made by us, the recipes are cracked by us. Those recipes are cooked in a glass oven in which there is a camera which is going to capture the movement of the cookie from the start to the end. Most brands will not give us those recipes because that is their USP. 

So we are supposed to crack the recipe, do hundreds of trials and then go on the set. So for any shoot that I do for cookies, it takes me a minimum of 8-10 days of trials making hundreds of cookies and making hundreds of notes. You know how people play Sudoku and chess for brain activation, this is my brain activation. 

How do you choose your projects?

So I usually avoid the ones where they put a very small price tag to the kind of work I'm doing. Because at the end of it, I'm running a company and I have overhead. If you're going to go and buy a Cartier, you have to pay for a Cartier, you can’t pay for a Titan right? Because there's not even one food shoot of my life, which has gone the way I’ve been told it would go. They'll say, ‘Oh, you have to just make one dish’ and you go on the set and you realize, Oh no, no. The client just changed his brief. You have to make 10. And what are you supposed to do then? You can't renegotiate. 

So whatever brand imagery I have built up, I demand a certain kind of money for my talent and for the knowledge and expertise I bring to the set. Because on the set, there is always a 50% uncertainty of what is going to happen. 

You once worked for 44 hours straight...

So I was shooting with Alia Bhatt for a toothpaste ad. On Day 1, we made one film but on Day 2 we had to film a food fair and we had to make 220 dishes over one night. So I couldn't go home. I was in the studio, changing my clothes, working with my people, because the next day, at 11 am the shot would be rolling.

So the whole night, a crew of 30 people worked endlessly to ensure that 220 dishes were made, presented, decorated, and placed. And then once the shot started, we only wrapped up by eight in the night. By the time I reached home, it was already 44 hours. So what we do on the set is a lot of problem-solving, talent display and resilience. And honestly, it’s the work of a ringmaster. 

How does one go about pursuing a career in food styling? We have courses now…

A food styling course gives you a bird's eye view. Because it's a discipline that requires tons of learning and implementation. If you're really keen to learn styling, all you have to do is work. Courses can satisfy your curiosity about what the entire field is all about. But every single ad is so different that even after 14 years, I'm still learning. And I'm asking myself, ‘Oh gosh, how come I don't know about this?’ 

Has social media made your job harder or has it made it easier?

Social media is used by different people in different ways. If you want brands to quickly skim through your work,  Instagram gives you that one space. LinkedIn, on the other hand, gives you an understanding of what this brand is all about, what they think, who they are, their philosophy, and their voice. And Facebook is a bit of both. 

But social media does help because at times I have gotten jobs through it, after people have seen something interesting on Instagram. However, 99% of my work never comes from Instagram. I feel like it’s not a place for a person like me who is quite senior in the industry now. It's for newer players who are entering the industry and who wouldn't mind working for let’s say 2000 or 5000 rupees just to create an image. 

But I will say social media has done one irresponsible thing, it has made food styling appear as if it is just about sprinkling some masala on top or putting a sprig on something, whereas food styling is a complete science. I was a science student in my class too. I did my first job as a qualitative researcher for four years. So I have a very sound knowledge of the consumer and the ways of purchasing. So I've combined everything for my work.

Tell us a little about your start-up...

It is a central government-funded startup, for producing snacks for children between the age of three to 14. It was one of the few startups that got funded in India this year. And the entire idea came to me because I have never eaten junk since the age of 15. I don't eat pizza or burgers or Cokes or ice cream. I'm very clear about my life that I want a business that is going to run on its own without me having to run and do all the leg work. And this is my little contribution to my country because as the youth of today, if we don't put forward better practices, who will?