A feast for the eyes: Indian food stylists reveal how to get that perfect shot of rice and curry

“A tray of plain dhokla had been given to me to work with and I was supposed to be dressing it up,” said Sadr. “I had to cut it into perfect squares and everyone was watching my every move. It was quite daunting. I was so nervous, I felt like my knife would not move.” The photograph of that one piece of dhokla went on to be used in Bikanerwala’s advertisement posters all over India. An outlet of Bikanerwala in Gurgaon still uses it on the wall of their restaurant.

Since then, Sadr has styled advertising campaigns for many fast food restaurants as well hotel groups – ice-cream shoots for Nirula’s and Mother Dairy, Maggi noodles, Domino’s, Pizza Hut and, more recently, burgers for Dunkin’ Donuts. Bikanerwala is still one of Sadr’s many clients.

This art of arranging food so that it looks perfect (but never too perfect) for the camera, made its presence felt as a legitimate profession in the early 1980s, a time when food shoots were mostly done for cookbooks. It still took more than a decade for the few practicing stylists to start charging for their work.

Most Indians would know the grainy shots that accompanied recipes – a plate of dull green bharwan bhindi resting in a bowl, or of three different types of patties all looking the same. The job of a food stylist, according to Sadr, is to ensure that each dish has its own personality based on its ingredients, flavours and cultural background.

With the introduction of high quality camera phones and platforms like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, never has food been this well-documented. Hashtags like #foodporn, #chefmode and #foodgasm are out to prove that everyone is a photographer and all are food stylists, but there is a subtle art to making a plate of food look delicious and photo-ready, while showing off its key ingredients. There are few stylists in India who have dedicated a large part of their working life understanding the nuances of how to give food “the X factor”.

Sadr began her career as a trainee under Indranie Dasgupta, one of the first Indians to take food styling up professionally. “There was no concept of food styling then,” said Dasgupta. “Whatever was cooked was shot. Especially for recipe books,” she said. “I didn’t even think that I was a food stylist. It was not a label I gave myself.”

Dasgupta would accompany her husband, photographer Pradeep Dasgupta, on photo shoots for recipe books and other assignments to style the food in ways so that when he photographed the dishes, they would come out looking appetising. A shoot for the Tea Board of India was Dasgupta’s first taste of the styling world before she saw it as a career option.

“My husband was shooting the 12 pages for a tea calendar and each page had to look different, various props had to be bought for an English tea service, or a Japanese tea ceremony,” said Dasgupta. “Ambience had to be emulated for an early morning tea or a late night relaxing cup of tea. When shooting a cup of tea, capturing the right colour is of utmost important. If it is too dark or too light, it doesn’t look appetising.”

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Things changed for Dasgupta in 1991. A full time teacher then, she found herself at a workshop for photographers in Bangalore. “There were a lot of photographers who had come from other countries and there was a discussion on the need for food stylists, because people were realising that having something cooked and shooting it is as it is was not enough. It was an eye opener. My husband encouraged me to take it up as a profession, then agencies started calling me and other photographers started asking me to style their shoots, and that’s when I realised that I can start charging a price for my day’s work.”

Her first shoot as an official food stylist was for a mixer grinder company where the shots had to portray the range of functions that the appliance can accomplish and Dasgupta spent the day styling chutneys, minces, cutlets and idlis. “I had something to prove to myself and to the rest of the world and even to my husband, that I can do this professionally.”

It was a slower process then with only film cameras and limited technology and none of the instantaneous advantages of the digital. The fastest image they could manage were Polaroids. Dasgupta has memories of working with Polaroid cameras and waiting precious minutes for a photo to develop.

“By the time the Polaroid would develop, the food would be pretty much useless,” said Dasgupta. “Something would have wilted or the ice-cream would have melted. Digital makes it easier since you can immediately look through the lens, take a shot and see what needs to be changed or fixed because it is only when you look at it through the lens, you tend to see the faults in a set-up – maybe the food doesn’t look fresh enough, maybe the lettuce is wilting or the pile of rice looks flat and needs to be fluffed up.”

At a food shoot, time is of the essence, explained Sadr, who enjoys shooting burgers which can be logistical nightmares. “The lettuce and onions need to look crisp, the cheese has to be melted just the right amount. I work on each layer and then sometimes I realise that while setting up the top layers, the lettuce has wilted, so then the structure is lifted up and the lettuce is replaced or something else could go wrong.”

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Another stylist who began his career in this field around the time Dasgupta did is Michael Swamy, who describes himself as a chef first and stylist second. Swamy believes that his cooking skills and training as a chef give him an edge over others in the industry. It was during his years at Le Cordon Bleu in London, that he first developed an interest in food styling by working on weekends with senior chefs to learn the art form.

“Food styling earlier was done very amateurishly in India,” said Swamy. “A couple of us, like chef Saba Gaziyani and Indranie Dasgupta, were the only ones doing this professionally. We were working with natural stuff, we were not into playing with fake. It’s a highly skilled profession and you learn the tricks of the trade on the job, which is why many don’t even share techniques with each other.” Swamy has worked with brands like Hindustan Unilever, Kellog’s, Marriott and the Four Seasons.

He is also one of the few in the industry who style and photograph, a skill he picked up in the mid-1990s when working with restaurants on a minimal budget. The ones who dabbled in this field while it was still a fairly new concept in India had to go through the struggle of making their clients realise the importance of styling for advertising their food. “You can’t really go up to people and keep telling them, ‘oh, you have to use me’,” said Dasgupta. “They used to think it was okay to just get anyone and style the food and that there was no real need to hire a professional.”

Dasgupta did many shoots where she either charged very little or not at all. Things have changed now and there is a real demand, however small, for food stylists and people can charge up to Rs 80,000 for a day’s work. Swamy walked a similar path. “Restaurateurs would ask, why are you charging so much?” he said. “Restaurants did not or could not factor in a budget for a shoot like this, but eventually they started seeing that when I talked about lighting and photography and correct plating for a picture, I knew what I was talking about.”

Sadr, however, thinks the problem lies in that nobody particularly understands what the job of a stylist is and that’s why many different services are expected from just one person alone. “In the western world, the industry is much more organised,” said Sadr. “At a shoot, there will be a stylist, a photographer, a person who would provide the props for a shoot. Here all these are rolled into one and sometimes we are even expected to cook for the shoot. That’s not the job of the stylist.”

This is where Swamy believes chefs have an upper hand. “I believe, you have to be a chef to be a stylist,” said Swamy. “If you can also photograph, it works to your advantage since a chef can see things on a plate of food that a photographer might miss – things like what needs to be highlighted or even just basic stuff about how soon the food will die on a plate.” For Swamy, food styling is not just cooking something and putting it on a plate. There are building blocks that make up a plate of food, he believes, something that all chefs are trained in.

All stylists believe that no matter how many times a shoot has been done, there are some that still require a lot more effort and planning. There is a consensus on what that one eatable is – ice cream.

Chili ice-cream styled and photographed by Michael Swamy. Courtesy: Pravin Pol, Swamy and Prathamesh Dalvi.
Chili ice-cream styled and photographed by Michael Swamy.
Courtesy: Pravin Pol, Swamy and Prathamesh Dalvi.

Each person has a different approach to this delicate dessert that tends to melt so quickly in the Indian heat or under the harsh, warm light of the studio. While Swamy keeps at least 10-20 scoops ready and frozen rock solid to be used for a single shoot, some use liquid nitrogen to solidify a scoop.

“Any food product that behaves according to their own nature at a quick pace becomes hard to shoot,” said Sadr. “Things like ice cream, cheeses, chocolate – anything that oozes or melts or sort of disintegrates at touch – take a lot of planning and work.”

Dessert styled and shot by Michael Swamy. Courtesy: Pravin Pol, Swamy and Prathamesh Dalvi.
Dessert styled and shot by Michael Swamy. Courtesy: Pravin Pol, Swamy and Prathamesh Dalvi.

While ice cream remains the bane of a food stylist’s existence, Dasgupta also finds rice shoots tedious. “Every brand wants their rice to look perfectly long grained, so you have to take your magnifying glass through the plate and take out all the broken grains and make sure the rice is perfectly fluffed,” said Dasgupta. “You can’t do more than five to six shots in one day for rice.”

Chef and food stylist Michael Swamy during a shoot. Image courtesy: Pravin Pol and Prathamesh Dalvi.
Chef and food stylist Michael Swamy during a shoot. Image courtesy: Pravin Pol and Prathamesh Dalvi.

Dasgupta styles her food according to one principal – food shouldn’t be unapproachable in its perfection. “It’s like getting a model ready for the ramp,” she said. “You don’t want to put too much make-up and make her look unnatural and garish, but it shouldn’t be so less that it looks like a mess. Similarly, the food needs to look natural enough so that when a person looks at it, they would immediately want to eat it.”

The internet has many videos of scoops of mashed potatoes being used instead of ice cream to withstand heat for a shoot or motor oil being poured over a stack of pancakes to emulate a stream of unnaturally glossy maple syrup seductively gliding over the breakfast dish. But veterans like Swamy and Dasgupta prefer to work with real food. “The food is real, but is treated differently,” said Dasgupta. “For example. If I’m making a chicken dish, it might not be fit for eating because I will cook the curry separately, grill the chicken separately and then put it on top of the curry so that each aspect is visible in a bowl. You have to really think about the top surface of the food.”

Dasgupta’s comfort food is fish curry and rice and she believes in minimal embellishments when working with a dish that is so simple a meal. “Just a few slivers of red chillies maybe. I would create it like a Japanese painting.”

Courtesy: Indranie Dasgupta.
Courtesy: Indranie Dasgupta.

Swamy strongly believes that there are simple and natural techniques that can make a dish look appetising in a photograph. For styling a simple roast chicken, a favourite of Swamy’s but something that can look bland in a picture, many would resort to oil paint to give it colour, but the chef chooses a rub of molasses and honey on the chicken before it goes into the oven, to give it that “roasted to perfection” quality.

Many stylists have moved on to techniques like white thick paint instead of milk or fake ice cubes as substitutes for the real ones, but Swamy is a purist and has done only one fake shoot in his life. “I had to shoot a wedding cake during the monsoon and the icing wouldn’t hold up because of the moisture. So we used Colgate toothpaste instead.”

Even though food styling in India has come a long way from the grainy shots of lumpy curries, Dasgupta believes, the quality too has gone down in some ways because of the ease of blogging and Instagram. “Food styling in India has evolved, but not all pictures look great. There are some images in which it is obvious that a lot of work has gone into it, but there are times you see one and you know that it is some blogger’s image that has been used. Restaurants are doing a great job with presentation themselves, but even then, the lighting, the set-up isn’t perfect and the food doesn’t look 100%, so you can make out from the pictures if it is an amateur shot.”

Swamy believes that this also owes to the fact that a lot of people start labelling themselves as food stylists after having done a shoot or two. “You have to learn the art,” said Swamy. “Abroad, people train for 4-5 years before venturing out on their own and here everyone wants to be an overnight success.”

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