Learn Tricks of the Trade from a Food Stylist
In our effort at Bakepedia to bring you varied points of view to baking we decided to chat with a fairly new culinary school graduate who is focusing on food styling, branding and recipe development. Jesse Szewczyk took some time out of his busy schedule in the Chicago area to talk to us about his approach to food – and he developed and styled a lovely pear tart for us, too.
Dédé Wilson: Jesse, thank you so much for talking with me. Tell us about culinary school…where did you go and when did you graduate?
I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in January 2014.
Did you know going in that you wanted to focus on pastry and styling?
No! I had no idea where it would lead, really…but I did have my heart set on doing an externship with a large company. I interviewed with McCormick (spice company) but didn’t get in. I was heart broken, but then I fell into an externship at Bon Appetit magazine and it was a blessing in disguise…the photo studio is right there near the kitchen and I got to interact with the food editors and that’s when I realized I was interested in food styling.
So were you in the culinary program at the CIA or the pastry?
I was in the culinary program but my mother owned a small candy business when I was growing up so I learned to appreciate and dabble in pastry work when I was younger.
I am from outside Chicago so I moved back after graduation. I work at a food-marketing firm and also freelance on my own. I offer culinary sales support to the R&D chef and work as the in-house stylist…we represent different manufacturers and help them develop menus for restaurants or handle product shots…clients will need promo shots for ads, menus, that sort of thing…I also work with photographer Todd Pierson and I just did some work with blogger Jocelyn Delk Adams from Grand Baby Cakes. Her book, Grand Baby Cakes comes out in October 2015 and I was her lead stylist.
There are so many aspects to styling…what do you like? Is there a style you gravitate towards?
I love Cherry Bomb magazine…I like things a little kooky – and real. I like where life and art and fashion meet food. Sometimes it is highly stylized…
What are some challenges for you as a stylist?
Sometimes with commercial shots it can be challenging because of creative differences between you and the client. You have to align with the client’s same creative vision and sometimes you have to make adjustments. I might have an antique fork that I think looks perfect alongside a slice of cake, but if their brand is very modern and stark, it would be inconsistent with their branding. Not everyone is good at explaining their vision visually…you have to make sure you do understand one another.
What are you looking forward to doing these days?
More freelancing but I also want to collaborate with more magazines…there is a local magazine called Graze…they published a visual piece. Editorial is my thing…I have pieces appearing in issue 6 and 7…. In issue 6 I collaborated with an illustrator (Angelina Diana) who actually rendered one of my food stylings into a piece. In issue seven I am showing my food styling without collaboration. Issue 6 can be found online.
Tell me about the Pear Tart you created for us.
I was looking around the grocery store and saw the seckel pears. They are so beautiful and delicate…I knew I wanted to do something with them…the idea was dictated by what was at the market…sometimes I do so many shoots it can be hard to think beyond what you are doing at the moment…but if you go to the market you will be inspired…like seeing clementines with huge branches and leaves. I know I want to shoot them.
So take us through the process…
I want to tell a story…the tart was the main inspiration and I had this idea of creating a feel like a Renaissance painting…or something Victorian. I wanted something stylized…to have a painterly quality…
What do you do for props?
Propping is so interesting! Now I’m collecting all these props…it can be totally random…1 of so many things! I will hunt at yard sales, in the trash, antique stores or even borrow.
Do you have a favorite medium? Chocolate, bread, fruit…?
I always have fun if I am asked to showcase a sauce because it is time sensitive…you want the drip and flow and pour and getting it right is a challenge, but then when you do it just makes the shot! And ice cream of course…you have to deal with the melting…
Do you like to work with actual products or will you use non-edibles?
I try to have my food speak truthfully…but in some situations like a super hot room I might create “ice cream” with shortening and other ingredients. But we keep it “edible”.
What are some tips for people who want to make the tart?
Seckel pears are very season driven. If you cannot find them then don’t be afraid of another type of pear for poaching…even if unripe, poaching can improve the fruit tremendously.
Do you have any tips for people taking pics of their desserts at home?
If there is one thing you can takeaway is to turn off your flash. Especially in a restaurant. Zooming out can help too. If you are too close it can sometimes look scary!
Jesse, thank you for sharing your insight and recipe. Your eye has a definitive point of view and I love it.