For the past 35 years, Delores Custer has been making people hungry—ravenously, belly-grumblingly hungry—for everything from pies and pizzas to haute cuisine. As one of the world’s best food stylists, she’s turned recipes into camera-ready masterpieces for Bon Appetit, The Food Network and even Julia Child. In the past decade Custer, an Oregon Coast native turned New Yorker who moved to PDX earlier this year, has been working as a food-styling instructor for schools across the globe, including the Culinary Institute of America. Earlier this year she released a giant book/bible called Food Styling, full of tips, tricks and bizarre stories from her three decades in the biz. This Saturday, she gives locals an inside look at making food porn in a sold out workshop at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Portland (she’s planning on holding more Portland classes in 2011), but first she explained to WW why fake ice cubes rock and how sandwich makers will throw you under the bus.
WW: OK, what exactly does a food stylist do?
Delores Custer: Our job is to make you wanna eat the food…to make somebody want to try the recipe, want to go to Burger King, want to buy the book…. [She displays a picture of the most delicious-looking bread pudding ever, which she styled.] See? It’s the ooey-gooey, the chocolate, the “oooh, I wanna dive into this!” look.
Didn’t you start out as an elementary-school teacher?
I [taught in] San Francisco, Okinawa, Philadelphia and then St. Louis, where I opened a school for pregnant teenage girls. When we moved to New York I went to NYU and got my master’s in food and nutrition. One day a production company wanted to shoot a Reynolds Aluminum Foil commercial [in NYU’s food lab] and they asked me if I would mind helping the person who was going to get the foods ready for the commercial. As she described what she did, I thought, “Whoa! This is what I want to do.” I didn’t even know that was even a job. Eventually, I started teaching…and I’ve gotten international gigs—Norway, Chile, Argentina, Japan, Korea…
How long is your usual day? To shoot a photo of, say, an apple pie?
One of our problems with getting a slice of pie is that the crust wants to crumble too much. So I would make the pie at home the day before and then bring it to the photographer’s studio. It would probably end up being a half day, and I would charge them for a full day because I spent the day before baking. I usually don’t just make one pie. I’ll make probably three of them. The first one I do is following someone’s recipe to see if there are problems I have to correct—so that first pie is usually our stand-in.
What are the toughest foods to style?
Pizzas. The cheese congeals in a very short amount of time, and it doesn’t look attractive. Then sometimes [the client] wants that pizza-pull look [mimics the cheese stretching out], and knowing how to do that, and make it beautiful and just right… Also, ice cream, because it doesn’t last very long…there are a couple of people who are very good at it. When I first started out in the business, there was one woman, she was called the Ice Cream Lady, and she did it better than anybody else. She was not the nicest lady in the world. I heard of hand models whom she would make cry because they had to hold the ice cream cone [so long]. She was a petite little thing with a cigarette dangling out of her mouth all the time. Nowadays there’s an Ice Cream Man. He’s having a lot of trouble with carpal tunnel because of all of the pulling he has had to do to get those perfect scoops.
What’s in your food-stylist tool kit?
[Australian cook and food stylist] Donna Hay says her most important tools are her hands. Mine also. But I have tweezers; a wooden skewer; good paintbrushes—the little ones that are very soft; a good, sharp knife and I love my scissors. They’ll go through chicken bones and also snip off the little tiny piece of dill that’s sticking out too far.
I thought you just used glue and soy sauce to make things look tasty. Is that out of style?
It depends on the job. We really, really cook when we’re doing editorial [like magazines]. You know, if I want to put just a little glisten on the chocolate-chip cookies, I use a heat gun for just 1/100 of a second, and it gives it this “ooooh, I just came out of the oven” look. In advertising, sometimes they want things a little more...perfect. When we’re selling an alcoholic beverage, the photographer may use fake ice. The cubes are beautiful, about $30 to $40 each, hand-designed. When the photographer shines a light through the glass, it’s just gorgeous. The same guy who makes fake ice cubes makes fake splashes [she carefully removes a white, liquid-looking acrylic blob out of a small box]—this would be a fake splash of milk you would see on the cover of a box of cereal. It’s $250.
Do you ever clash with photographers or chefs?
Well, photographers and art directors will want [the food to be] bigger, better, more wonderful, and more beautiful than it might be. That’s called “overpromising.” Customers will call and say, “When I went to the store, it never looked like that.” When I’m asked to do that, one of the things I do is at least let the client know. So I will call and say, “It has been suggested that we add a little more meat to the sandwich,” or we make this a little taller, or whatever. Then the client will say one of four things. They’ll say: “Yes, you can,” “No you can’t,” “Let me call legal,” or, the one I never want to hear: “I’m not in the room.” In other words, “You did not ask me. I did not give you permission.” They will blame me. Absolutely they will blame me.
What’s one unexpectedly fun part of your job?
One of the things I loved about doing TV commercials and movies—The Muppets Take Manhattan, Trading Places—is the actors. For Trading Places, I had to train the butler how to make crêpes suzette. Remember when Dan Aykroyd was poor and he went to the company Christmas party and stuffed his Santa Claus suit with lox? I had to go to Murray’s Sturgeon Shop [in NYC] and get four 15-inch lox cut from the salmon that matched what he stuck in his Santa outfit…that’s one of the joys of food styling is that you do things you never would do in real life.
GO: Delores Custer teaches a SOLD OUT Food Styling and Photography at the Art Institute’s International Culinary School, 1-4:30 pm Saturday, Dec. 4. $40 members, $60 non-members, $45 students. Info on future workshops at delorescuster.com.