037: Food Styling Through the Years with Delores Custer

Welcome to episode 37 of the Food Blogger Pro podcast! In this episode, Bjork is talking with renowned food stylist Delores Custer about how food styling has changed through the years,

Last week, Bjork spoke with Becky Brown, an attorney for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security by day, food blogger by night. Becky talked about the legal aspects of food blogging, including whether recipes are copyrighted. We’re also giving away a free copy of her ebook, Think Like a Lawyer, Blog Like a Pro, to anyone who leaves a comment on the post with their #1 takeaway from the podcast. To go back and listen to that episode and leave a comment, click here!

Food Styling Through the Years

Delores Custer has been in the food styling game for a long time – she even worked with Julia Child in her day! So, she’s seen a lot come and go in the world of food styling, and she’s here to tell us all about it.

In this episode, Delores talks about:

  • How she made the jump from elementary education to food styling
  • How to write a good recipe
  • How food styling has changed over the years
  • What she thinks made Julia Child really special
  • How artificial light can sometimes be better than natural light
  • Some tips for styling specific foods, like a cheeseburger
  • Her essential tools for styling
  • Her advice for getting started in the field of food styling.

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Bjork Ostrom: Welcome to episode number 38 of the Food Blogger Pro podcast. Hey everybody. This is Bjork Ostrom. You’re listening to the Food Blogger Pro podcast. Today we are chatting with Delores Custer. Delores is the author behind the book, Food Styling. She literally wrote the book Food Styling or the book on Food Styling. The book is called Food Styling The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera, a perfect fit for the Food Blogger Pro audience. We talk about everything from tips and tricks for styling food to what is was like to work with Julia Child, and the experiences that Delores had throughout her food styling career. It’s a great conversation and really interesting, and also lots of hidden jams within it … Tips and tricks for you to take away and apply to your own food styling.

One of the things I wanted to do before jumping into this was to do a little giveaway. If you have something that you took away from today’s interview you can go to the blog post for this podcast, and you can find that just by going to foodbloggerpro.com/38. That will redirect you to the show notes for this podcast. All you have to do to enter is just leave a comment … One of the things that you took away from this interview, one of the things that learned or maybe a story that you appreciated from Delores’ interview on the podcast today. After a week or two, we will go ahead and pick one of those comments, and we’ll send you a book, the food styling book that Delores put together. We’ll put a hard date on it and we’ll say two weeks. That will be the cutoff from the day that we publish this.

Go ahead and leave a comment there. Enter to win Food Styling, the book that we reference here as we talk to Delores. Without further due let’s go ahead and jump in. Delores, welcome to the podcast.

Delores Custer: Thank you. I’m delighted.

Bjork Ostrom: This will be really fun. I was spending some time flipping through your book, Food Styling … Tag line here, The Art of preparing food for the camera. As I was swiping through it, I got more and more excited that it will be such a good fit for our audience. We’re going to talk about some specifics about Food Styling, but before we do, I want to talk about something that you talked about at the very beginning of the book and that is your story. You started out in elementary education which is the same field that Lindsey, my wife started out in. You made the shift to food styling. That’s a big jump. Can you tell us a little bit about that story and how that happened?

Delores Custer: Yes. It was a major jump. I was a school teacher. I had taught in Philadelphia. I taught outside of Berkeley and Okinawa. I wanted to see the world and travel, and taught fifth and sixth grade. Then I met my husband and we ended up moving to St. Louis. I taught there also and then I started to school for pregnant teenage girls. When I was there, I became pregnant. After I became pregnant, we ended up moving to Rhode Island with my husband’s next job. I was a stay at home mom, and I loved cooking, and entertaining. We did a lot of it. It was during the time of Julia Child and when she was very much introducing her food on television. I tried everything that she reciped and just fell more and more in love with food.

I helped open a restaurant, and I did a little bit of teaching because people wanted to know how to do the food that I did. I started a class in my house on how to prepare these foods. When my husband’s job was finished in Rhode Island he said, “I’d like to now live my life as a composer, and I know that you’re interested in food. Maybe if we move to New York,” so we did.

Bjork Ostrom: That was the start.

Delores Custer: Yes. Neither of us had a career per se. One of the things I continue to teach food styling even today … I teach about five times a year in Portland, Oregon where I now live. Anyway I went back to school. I knew I needed some more training. I went back to NYU. I was getting my master’s degree in foods and nutrition. That was a wonderful help to my career. I met a food stylist there. I had never had of the career and as we talked that day I knew at the end of the day that’s exactly what I wanted to be. As a teacher I always share with my students that I started this career at the age of 37. I didn’t start out at 20 or 21.

Bjork Ostrom: I think that’s so inspiring for people to hear. I know a lot of people that listen to this are so, so passionate about a certain subject and oftentimes it’s food in some way, shape or feel form but feel like, “I can’t do this. I’m” … Whatever it is. “I’m already too far into my career or I’m 40 years old.” I think that’s inspiring to hear that you had a significant shift in your career and also a successful one. Both of those things I think are so important for people to hear.

Delores Custer: I loved … Whenever anybody says, “I’m interested in the world food styling and so forth,” I always encourage them because it is such an interesting world to get into. You have to be a good cook and a good baker.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s one of the questions that I wanted to know. I’m curious to know … You went back to school and you got your masters at NYU. How did that impact your ability to do your job in food styling. I’m so curious how those connect. It makes sense, but what are the specifics around understanding food and how that impacts how you style it?

Delores Custer: One of the classes that was incredibly helpful was food chemistry. I had to learn the science of food. I thought, “Ooh.” When I heard that I had to take that class I was like, “That doesn’t sound terrific.” But I loved it. It helped me tremendously because as food stylists, we are problem solving all the time. If I want to get a dorm on my muffins, how do I make that happen? If you studied food science, you know how to do that.

Bjork Ostrom: I’m sure people will wonder when you say that. Can you explain the best way to do that? I know that’s really specific, but I’m curious.

Delores Custer: Beating in more than it says to. It folds more air into it.

Bjork Ostrom: Therefore it dorm more when you …

Delores Custer: Also another thing that I had to know was particular brands. I have to know food products that are out there. There is one particular one that I always use to use if I didn’t have to use … It was Duncan Hines blueberry muffins. I’d take the blueberries out. If I wasn’t doing a blueberry muffin, I could drop in Cranberries or walnuts or anything I wanted to. I baked those and they always dorm beautifully, better than any other products. That’s another thing that we learned, is what are the products out there, what ones worked for us well, and that sort of thing. The food chemistry, food science … There are two books out that are written by a friend of mine, Shirley Corriher. One is called BakeWise and the other one is called CookWise. They are both books that are written for the average home consumer not for the technical scientist and that sort of things. She gives you lots of recipes with examples of how to make this browner or why the cookies turn out better if you use a certain kind of flour etcetera etcetera.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. I will sure to include in the show notes for this podcast. I know that a lot of people that listen to this there’s going to be super valuable information because they’re not necessarily somebody who would really love to dig into the technical side and at the same time really need to understand how food works. Like you said if you know maybe something isn’t quite … The example I think about all the times well if the cookies are flat what do you change in order to make them more appealing and that makes a lot of sense in terms of how your food chemistry background can kind of impact the work that you did in food styling.

Delores Custer: It was wonderful. The other class that helped me very much was called culinary communications and it’s how to write about food. Then also … And this is very, very important, how to write a good recipe not one that just tastes good, but will work for the home consumer.

Bjork Ostrom: Can you talk about that? Some of the ways that people can do that.

Delores Custer: Yes. When I teach my class in food styling I always include some information on that because I got tons of jobs because I could write recipes. A client might call me and say, “We’re coming out with a new product.” If it was this small company they didn’t have a major test kitchen and that sort of thing, they might ask me to develop 10 recipes for them. Then we would shoot maybe 5 of those for promotional pieces and that sort of thing. The fact that I could write a good recipe and one that would work and that people understood. For example one thing that people on the audience can do is they can go to several different magazines and look at how they write recipes in their magazines. Each magazine has its own style. I always tell my students if your sending recipes off that you hope might get published in a food magazine or a newspaper or something like that, look at their style and copy it.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s one of the things that we often talk about is finding work that you like and then finding ways to apply that to your work and I think that’s an example of a way that you can do that. In a word it’s inspiration. Where do you find something that you really enjoy and interested in and think is good work and then how do you replicate that in the work that you’re doing. With recipe, you’re speaking to somebody who … Transparency, I say this on the podcast a lot. I’m not very good with food like it’s the industry that we work in, my wife and I, but I am kind of on the technical end in terms of like the more the web side of things and doing stuff like podcast interviews. If you’re speaking to somebody like me and you say it’s important to write a good recipe and one that’s well written. What are the different elements of that? Is it easy to understand language? Is it personality within the recipe?

Delores Custer: Not that much personality. I think if you’re doing your blog definitely you want to have your person in there. But listing the ingredients in order of use major important.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes, and that one that I think a lot of people wouldn’t think of. You just list the ingredients as you think of them.

Delores Custer: Exactly and that is so wrong. In the early days this magazine wrote recipes in what we call the narrative style. It was just a long paragraph and you had to go in there and find the ingredients. It drove everybody crazy.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes for sure.

Delores Custer: I think about 10 years later after so much complaining they finally changed their style so that they listed the ingredients. Some people like to have hints, things that are helpful. I think that I always like to add those to the recipes also …

Bjork Ostrom: Just at the end like a note or a kind of a tip on a certain thing.

Delores Custer: Mm hmm (affirmative).

Bjork Ostrom: Okay, yep.

Delores Custer: Yep. If you don’t have this type of a pan you can use this perfectly fine or whatever. They also like to know the amount of time their recipes is going to take. One of the things I’ve loved over the years, I’ve watched changes happen and dramatic changes. When I was cooking with Julia in the ’60s …

Bjork Ostrom: I was going to ask you about that. I’m glad that you’re going to talk about it.

Delores Custer: I didn’t mind spending 2 or 3 hours making a recipe. Today, if it takes more than 15 or 20 minutes people go nuts. That’s one of the really major changes that’s happened.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure, that’s great.

Delores Custer: But I think we’re going back a little bit to appreciate all of the wonderful things that happen when we do have a little more time to cook.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes, it’s interesting. As I was looking through your book one of the things that I noticed was this section on how things have changed throughout the past 50, 60 years. In the 2000s, the year kind of 2000 and 2009 or whatever. One of the things that was mentioned was kind of this idea of like ‘the quick meal’ and that is kind of what you’re talking about was how do we make something that’s really quick that we can really serve to our family right, like maybe hamburger helper for instance. It’s interesting to hear you talk about a little bit of the shift back to slower food whether that be local or real food that maybe takes a little bit more preparation.

Delores Custer: Exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: But when it comes to food styling and food photography or like the presentation of food, do you see other types of trends that people should be aware of and what are some things that are changing that you see?

Delores Custer: I’ve seen major wonderful changes. When I started out we’d shoot only in film and the look then was perfection, so everything was very precise. It would be very hard to duplicate that as the home consumer. The cake didn’t have any crumbs falling off of it and the frosting was perfect et cetera et cetera. Today it’s I’m making the food look doable that you the person at home can do this too.

Bjork Ostrom: Interesting.

Delores Custer: That’s a major change that’s happened. Then when digital came to us of course. One thing that has just happened just this month … In fact I haven’t even gotten my magazine yet, but it’s coming today or tomorrow is Bon Appetit has shot everything in their editorial part of their magazine with an iPhone.

Bjork Ostrom: Wow, that’s so cool. Was it …

Delores Custer: Isn’t that cool?

Bjork Ostrom: Was it almost like a statement piece saying this is something that you can do.

Delores Custer: Mm hmm (affirmative). One of the things that I always suggest to my students is that … I know that they’re used to going online and looking at visuals, but also pick up a few magazines. Because they will inspire them with ideas and it causes them to think about camera angle and props and this sort of thing. Our job as a food stylist is to make the food mouthwatering and visually beautiful. Those two things.

Bjork Ostrom: One of the things that I was going to ask related to that, that I’m curious to hear what you have to say is, I know that for a lot of people that are listening to this they are looking to do two things with their food. Number one, exactly like you said to style it in a way and for a lot of people also photograph in a way where it’s appealing to the eye. But also they’ll probably eat it after. It has to be like an appealing to eat. Do you do you have any tips for people that are looking to do both at the same time? To multitask in the sense that they are cooking or preparing something that they will then eventually eat or do you feel like in order to do it well do you have to separate those two things and say, “I’m just going to dedicate my time to styling this and photographing it and then not trying to fit it all in and also try and have lunch with this?”

Delores Custer: Well for me it depends on the food and also how long it takes work to get the picture. In the studios when I had worked there, most of the time we didn’t eat the food that we shot on the set, because I’d put oil over some things and I’d sprinkled this and that on things. It wasn’t really that edible. It was cold, it did sat there for a long time. In the early days when I first started shooting with film, sometimes we didn’t do more than one or two shots a day. Then when digital came along they expected to do 4, 6, 8 shots in a day. Most of time that food is … Because we’re doing it very real. Today we’re not adding coloring or anything to the food. We can go ahead and eat it, but if I am working on a salad and I’ve fetched around with it a lot and then it’s gotten tired. I might not want to eat, but that piece of cake absolutely or that brownie there’s nothing wrong with that.

Bjork Ostrom: It depends on the food right. Yes. One of the things before we get too far away from it that I’m curious to hear about is just your experience with Julia you referenced Julia Child, what was that like to meet her and how did that impact your career and her work? I’m curious to hear a little bit about that.

Delores Custer: Well, as I said, I did everything early on before I met her. I just worshiped her skill in teaching, because she really wanted you to succeed. Today when I watch what’s on television, the food programs and that sort of thing, very few of them have the teaching. Anymore it’s just entertainment. That is one of the reasons that I love Julia. She continued to be that kind of a person all of her life. I hope to be able to be a teacher for as long as I can stand up. Because I love sharing and helping to change people’s lives and make their lives for the better.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great, and in a way you’re doing that today which we appreciate you coming on in sharing your insights and stories and tips for people that are in this crazy industry of food and food styling and food photography.

Delores Custer: When I worked with her I backed her, she was on a television show. I got the food’s ready for her and I was still learning from her. I learned number one that she totally trusted me. She figured if she hired a professional she didn’t stand over me and say, “Delores did you get this done or have you done that or whatever.” She just expected that everything would be there and it would be right. Then also when I worked with her she was 86 years old and still tromping along. That was a wonderful thing …

Bjork Ostrom: In a testament to doing work that you love right? Because …

Delores Custer: Mm hmm (affirmative) exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: She probably didn’t need to be doing it but obviously …

Delores Custer: Absolutely not.

Bjork Ostrom: But obviously you liked doing it and something that we can all aspire to is to continue to do things that we enjoy doing to work 86, 90 years old and continue to enjoy it. Let’s talk a little bit about some of the specifics of food styling. One of the workshops that I saw as I was looking through website, one of the things that you list is was this idea of food styling for food writers and food bloggers. I’m interested to hear … How do you food style different for somebody that’s a food blogger versus the general industry of food styling? What are the nuance differences when you’re in the world of online publishing or running a blog? How does that differ from the food style?

Delores Custer: Well, with food styling we have several different audiences. You always have to know who your audience is. When I would get an assignment as a food stylist it might be for a magazine, it might be for a newspaper, it might be for a cook book, it might be selling a product as an ad or as a television commercial, or I may end up working on a movie. Those are all the areas that we as food stylists work. At the time that I started out there was absolutely no blogging, that didn’t exist. I think it’s still is important for you the person arranging the food and probably taking the picture also to know who your audience is and think about is this an upscale audience or is this the average home consumer? Those are all things that we thought about.

Then another thing to think about is, how am I going to use these pictures? Am I going to put them in a series, so then I want to make them complement one another. In other words they shouldn’t look too terribly different.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure, yes. Have a similar look and feel and style.

Delores Custer: Mm hmm (affirmative)

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great.

Delores Custer: Is it going to go with a recipe or is it just a visual? All of those things affect on how I work with a food.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure, yes go ahead.

Delores Custer: Then do I want my look that I’m presenting to … You make the look through the props that you use. The plates, the surface, the fabric that you’re shooting on or the wood that you’re shooting on, the knives and the forks and that sort of thing. The glasses that you use. You can go old fashioned, you can go average home consumer, you can go upscale. That again depends on who your audience is. If you’re showing a plate that no one in your audience would ever get their hands on, probably you might want to choose another plate. In the world of food styling we have an art director, a photographer, a prop stylist, and a food stylist on set. Those people are all making decisions.

Bjork Ostrom: Interesting for a lot of the people listening, all of those are kind of rolled into one so it’s like you have to wear all of those different hats which is so crazy to think about. Both ends are crazy but to think about. When you talk about all of those different people being a part of a shoot, I would imagine that. It’s helpful in the sense that you have a lot of opinions and it’s frustrating in the sense that you have a lot of opinions.

Delores Custer: Well, that was one of the things that you had to learn how to adapt. You may visually like something better than another something. You might like this plate better than plate or you might want to see the spaghetti a little more twirled or whatever, but the art director says, “No, we want it this way.” I figured I’m getting paid, I’ll just do it the way they want to done it. It’s their job. They’re the ones that have hired me. But there are other times that I would step in and sometimes say maybe, if we added this or swirled that a little more here, we could get a little more sheen happening or whatever, and they would go, “Oh yes I hadn’t thought of that,” so you live in both worlds.

Bjork Ostrom: One of the things that I think is so valuable about that is the team element and having like you said somebody giving you feedback and saying, “Oh yes I think that is a good idea.” For the people that are listening, that are kind of in a silo where they’re doing the styling, they’re doing the shooting, they’re probably editing the picture and there are no any feedback, they’re kind of living in their own world, what do you recommend for those people for outside opinions, for feedback, for improving, what does that look like?

Delores Custer: Okay. One of the things when I teach here, each day the students get a hands on the assignment that they have to do. When I teach I do a slide show. I have the visuals, I do demonstration and we do hands on assignments. After they finish their assignment … And sometimes I have them sketch or draw. Even if they’re not good artists, they can at least get a feel for how they want that shot to be, get it in their head first. Then they do it with the styling and they shoot it. Then I say, “Now what other thing could we possibly do?” There are tons of things that we could do.

Bjork Ostrom: Do you have an example of what that would look like?

Delores Custer: Yes. I’ll give you a couple if you don’t mind.

Bjork Ostrom: Please yes.

Delores Custer: For example. One natural light, I have a great big wall of window where we put the food down and we use natural light. Now personally and I’ve gotten in big, big trouble for saying this.

Bjork Ostrom: Okay, I promise to that you won’t get in trouble I’m here.

Delores Custer: Big trouble. I taught a group of about sixty bloggers in Seattle one time. My daughter lives in Seattle and she knows all the foodies there. The next time I went up to visit her she said mom, “Everybody’s talking and they’re saying that you like studio light better than natural light.” Well, I do. What happened is this person had prepared a turkey and set it on a platter and over by the window and did it natural light. I have a reading lamp that I use in that area and it’s got a 65 watt light bulb in it. I turned it on and then we took a picture of the turkey again. It was so much richer and warm. That would be just one example for changing the lighting.

Bjork Ostrom: And you have another you said?

Delores Custer: Oh tons. It’s endless. It’s one of the things that I loved. Oftentimes at the end of the day when I’m working with a photographer, if we have a little extra time, we’ll take one of the assignments and make changes just to play. It might be changing the plate, it might be adding the garnish or taking garnishes away. It can be getting a fork into the shot and maybe even lifting the food. You don’t have to see a hand and most of the time I don’t get into those shots because my hands aren’t hand worthy.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure, hand model yes.

Delores Custer: Yes, I am not model for sure. But anyway those are just a few of the things and I really encourage them to … Once they’ve got the shot that they want and I don’t get in there and medal until they’ve really got the shot they want. Then I might suggest, “Why don’t we try this? Or what do you think if?” And off we go. Sometimes they end up with something they had never imagined. I encourage everybody to do that on their own.

Bjork Ostrom: I think that’s such great feedback one of the things that … This I’m going to totally butcher this quote and it might be totally off too, but one of the things that my dad told me when I was really young that’s always stuck with me … And I think is have an impact on how I process decisions and creativity is, he was talking about Einstein and how people said that one of the reasons why Einstein was believed to be such a genius or was such a creative person was because he was willing to stay with an idea longer than a normal person would. I think this is kind of a take on that where when you get to a point you’re like, “Okay I have this set to not step back and say now I’m done,” but then to stay with that idea a little bit and see if you can evolve it and stick with it and try a new angle or adjust how it’s styled in a way that you normally wouldn’t.

The reality is it’s kind of uncomfortable because what we do is were routine based and habit based and so we get in these routines and it’s like here’s how I style a salad when I shoot a salad and it’s the same old thing every time. What I hear you saying is to push your creative boundaries a little bit. To stay with an idea a little bit longer and to continually evolve that and to see if you can improve on it. Which isn’t easy to do.

Delores Custer: One of the things that I find a lot of times that beginning people are people whose style. They try to make everything real perfect and even a salad. They’re putting this item in and that item in and so forth. Sometimes it looks like it’s been worked. After they finish. I will walk over and I really make sure that they’re done, because I wouldn’t do this otherwise and I put my hand into the salad and toss this around and I feel and take the picture. Oftentimes it looks it looks better because it looks natural.

Bjork Ostrom: Right, it doesn’t look perfectly placed. Interesting. Kind of along the lines of getting that perfectly placed maybe …

Delores Custer: Natural look.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes, natural look. There’s obviously kind of a balance between getting the natural real food look and then getting that look with food at its best. Right? It’s like, there’s ways that you can create food and present it in a way that looks really good that doesn’t look fake. You had some examples of kind of some tips or tricks in your book that I thought were interesting. I was wondering if we could maybe run through some of those so the example that I’m thinking of is, and I think people love stuff like this because it’s things that they maybe normally wouldn’t think about. But like if you prepare bacon to put it on like a rack so it doesn’t get … Are there other tips like that that you can think of that …

Delores Custer: Oh boy!

Bjork Ostrom: Maybe we’ll have to limit it to like 5 or something like that, because I’m sure you have an entire book worth of them. You do I’ve seen it.

Delores Custer: Yes, that’s what the book is about. Well, the book I tried to make very thorough, but little things … When I do a hamburger with melted cheese, one of the things that I might do is, I get the hamburger part done, the meat part. Then I take a block of cheese or a square of the Velveeta cheese, you know that comes in a little plastic wrap. I dip the end of the cheese into some boiling water, three of the corners. It just melts and I put it over the hamburger and it looks like it’s sitting on a hot hamburger.

Bjork Ostrom: Interesting.

Delores Custer: Now, I want to recommend three magazines that students or people in the food business should look at every once in a while. Bon Appetit I mentioned and it should … This March issue should be really interesting with the iPod photograph.

Bjork Ostrom: Great.

Delores Custer: Another one that. I’d like very much is Fine Cooking and another one is the Food Network magazine. Each of them have different audiences. The Food Network is really, really a fun magazine to look at and it’s got lots of wonderful ideas. They have melted cheese happening … They did a whole series on hamburgers. One issue on tons of hamburgers. The cheese is sitting there and it’s not a perfect square kind of thing but just drips of cheese. Well, one of the things and it’s in the book, one of the things that I did was … I will buy, I think it’s Kraft macaroni and cheese, the box. There’s a packet of cheese in there. When you use that cheese it looks like it’s already melted.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure, that makes sense.

Delores Custer: You just put the cheese on the hamburger where you want to be and I think that’s what they did, but I’m not positive. Those are little kinds of things and as you said the book it’s got lots of different areas, but there’s a whole section on tips.

Bjork Ostrom: To explain the one that I was talking about, the idea is like with the bacon you would set it on like a rack and then …

Delores Custer: A cooling rack.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes and it’s so great because you have this nice wavy bacon that doesn’t get like totally shrunk and to use a food term I don’t know if that’s a new official way to describe it. One of the other things that I thought was so interesting is like if you were doing an omelet shoot and obviously this would be one where it would be … If you want to really place an emphasis on the kind of the stuff that …

Delores Custer: I know what you’re going to say there.

Bjork Ostrom: But to put it on I like a hard shell taco and then like wrap it around so it stays full and so you can see it. I think stuff like that is so fun to hear and even if people don’t end up using it I think it’s kind of fun tips and tricks and ways to think about things a little bit different.

Delores Custer: Yes putting moisture on a glass to make things look cold. You can do it naturally and in my book I have a picture of naturalized tea. Then I have a picture of ice tea made with fake ice cubes and with fake moisture on the outside of the class. Then I show how to do that. I I really prefer the non-natural one in this case.

Bjork Ostrom: What do you mean by that?

Delores Custer: The one where I do the fake moisture because …

Bjork Ostrom: And prefer it for how it looks.

Delores Custer: Yes. You can see the iced tea better and visually it just hits you right away. The other one is just, “I’ve seen that that all the time,” kind of stuff and it doesn’t get excited.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. One of the things that I’d be curious to know let’s say somebody is listening in his podcast and they really want to get to the place where they have kind of the essentials to get let’s say 90% of what they need for a food shoot, what are the things that you think people should make sure to include in their tool box, figurative tool box if they’re just getting started out with food styling or food photography? Like if they’re just getting started out let’s say they don’t have anything. What are the essentials that people need to have?

Delores Custer: I always use tweezers because oftentimes I’d be working on a set and I need to reach and take that piece of dead parsley out of the shot and put in a piece of fresh. If I did it with my hands sometimes I could ruin the thing that it was sitting on and so forth. Beautiful wonderful knives, this is one other the places where people should not short change themselves. Get good ones and keep them sharp.

Bjork Ostrom: When you say a beautiful knife you mean in terms of just in general how the knife looks, like a good looking knife and not like a cheap plastic one.

Delores Custer: No, not good looking good cutting.

Bjork Ostrom: I got it, so if you’re cutting a piece of cake …

Delores Custer: They’ll tend to be the expensive knives.

Bjork Ostrom: Do you have favorites out of curiosity?

Delores Custer: I’m trying to remember there was a series that I always used and I can’t remember the name right now. But I think if they go to a store like William Sonoma. Where they have different kinds of knives, different brands of knives. The people probably at the store also … I had my some of my knives were French knives. Then I had a steel that I always … In my book I give names and brands and that sort of thing. Also brushes that are small art brushes that have very soft bristles.

Bjork Ostrom: Okay, and what would you use those for? I’m interested by that. We did an interview with food photographer and food stylists, Pheasant & Hare is the company name, here in Minneapolis, friends of ours. She had mentioned brushes as well when she’s talking about stuff. But I’m curious, how do you use those and is there a specific type of brush that you that you would get or is it anything with kind of that soft bristle?

Delores Custer: Well, again I think if you buy from an art supply store and these are brushes that real artists work with. Then I always would pick up a brush and test on the back of my hand. The reason that I want to bristles to be soft is that if I’m say brushing a little oil on the piece. I don’t want the piece moving around. If the brush bristles are stiff they’ll move things.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great.

Delores Custer: They are the last. This is one of the things that I find my students don’t do very well. I think it comes with time. When you’re just starting out those final little steps that you can make right before you’re ready to shoot. Like brushing the edge of a hamburger with a little bit more oil. Or spritzing the salad with a little water. Or brushing some water on some of the carrots, so that they glisten instead of sit there looking dry. Those are things that I would do. I put together what I call a set tray. Again I have a picture of that in the book as well. Those are the things the tweezers, the brushes, I have a little cup of oil, a little cup of water. People think that we have all kinds of tricks up our sleeves. Most of the time not. We just have to be really good cooks, really good bakers and creative and artistic.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes, I think that’s so important for people to hear. Oftentimes you think it’s kind of something magical happening behind the scenes right that brings it to a certain point but oftentimes it’s developing those skills and abilities over a long period of time and getting a little bit better each and every day. We talk about importance of that. The hard part is this is not easy. Right? It takes time and takes energy but …

Delores Custer: Yes, each day you’ll get better, but you’re going to be working with a new food and every time you work with a new food you’re learning all over again. One of the things that I do whenever I would get a recipe for something is the first thing that I do is look for problems. I know that sounds negative.

Bjork Ostrom: But it’s good you get a proactive.

Delores Custer: It was important to me. Because I knew that if this food had a problem then I may be needed to get 3 or 4 times the recipe. I would make a stand in and figure out all the things that we wanted to do and then I’d put in a fresh one, because this is a food that die quickly.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure, do have an example of that I’m curious to hear a little bit more.

Delores Custer: Yes one of the buggers is white sauce. If we’re doing a white sauce in an a pasta or something like that it will dry and get gooey and gummy in a short amount of time, and you want that fresh and flowy look. Again I would get everything worked out with stand-ins and then I’d put it all together with fresh sauce and played it. I would play it very quickly. Speaking of, it’s very important also that people have an understanding of color and how color affects the food that we’re shooting. The color of the plate that you put things on, the surface that you shoot on. All of that makes the food look either better or worse. It can draw some of the color out of it if it’s not good. One of the things that we use do in the studio sometimes is, I would get my stand in ready and then the art director and the photographer would … The prop stylist would bring maybe 5 or 6 to 20 plates or bowls or whatever we were shooting in depending on the budget. They would pick out 2 or 3 of them that they really liked. Then I would just reach my hand into the food and plop some down on each of the plates that they had chosen and we see which plate made the food look the best.

Bjork Ostrom: I think that goes back to one of the things you were saying before is being willing to try new things. To be okay trying out different props or set up that you maybe normally wouldn’t think about using and I think that’s a big takeaway. Even for me that’s not … I’m not styling food each and every day it’s a good reminder to always be willing to change things up and try things in a new creative some things. We’re coming to the end here, but one of the things I’m curious to know and I ask this to all the different people that I talked to is, let’s say that you were to go back and you were to speak to yourself when you’re first starting out in this industry. What would the advice be that you’d give to yourself if you were to have a conversation with yourself on specific to the industry and into the work that you do?

Delores Custer: I was very lucky in that before I graduated from college. I Xturned with 3 Food stylists that had been in the business. One of them said, “Would you like to come and work with me full time when you graduate?” That experience that I had working with somebody that had been in the business was phenomenally helpful. There weren’t any books out. There weren’t teaching aids and that sort of thing that we have today. That was very, very valuable. If you can find someone to assist … With my students’ one of the things that I say sometimes is pay attention to credits and photographs. Who shot those and make contact. One of the things that I often suggest is say, “I know that you may not need assistance, but every once in a while you may get a job and they don’t have a budget for an assistant but it would be very helpful to have somebody along and I’d be willing to help you.

I know today it is so different than when I started out. Because we have many, many more people involved in the world of foods. Foods have become the new hit.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes, for sure.

Delores Custer: In my day it was Julia was there and James Beard. Those are the two hits. I would look around and see what’s out there what’s happening. I know that people and I talk to my students a lot about this, do find some good visuals. Not everything online is wonderful, but generally most of the time the stuff that is in magazines is pretty done good. Or in Cookbooks where they spend some money. Take a look at those visuals and learn from them. I learn every day, every day and that’s joyful. Isn’t that terrific that you can be in a career where you can continue to, “Oh what a wonderful,” I’m chomping at the bit to look at the new Bon Appetit.

Bjork Ostrom: Absolutely, we talk about that in in terms of the work not being a means to an end but the end itself. The idea that if you can find something in this, maybe kind of brings it full circle for us here as we’re kind of vending on the notes on where to what we began on. But if you can find something where you’re doing something that you’re truly passionate about that you enjoy learning, it’s not where it’ll bring you necessarily it’s not an end game but it’s the ability to wake up and be doing something every single day that you really enjoy and that you can continue to learn. I think that’s great. But before we do, I’m curious Delores can you talk about where people can find you. You had mentioned some of the workshops that you do and the classes you do. We have your book here that we’ll link to as well in the show notes. But where can people follow along with what you’re doing and maybe attend one of your classes if you have one coming up?

Delores Custer: Okay. I have a website. It’s at delorescuster.com and Delores is spelled D-E-L-O-R-E-S Custer, C-U-S-T-E-R dot com. It’s all lowercase. They can go there and take a look at my work and some of the things that I offer and so forth. Then my phone number is listed there. I know that you’ll have trouble believing this, but I do enjoy speaking to people on the phone rather than email. I get both the emails and phone calls from people asking me because right now I’m leading my life as I want it. I am semi-retired. I don’t food style any longer but I continue to teach. I teach 4 or 5 times a year. The classes are for one week. The classes start at 10:00 in the morning and we finish at 4:00 in the afternoon. You get in basically a semester’s worth of information in one week’s time. I do that here in Portland.

I have taught all over the world. This is one of the really lucky, lucky things. I combine that teaching that I started out with another thing that I love and what a combo. But I’ve taught in Norway, in the Philippines, three times I’ve taught in Korea, Japan, Chile, Argentina, I mean it’s just been wonderful.

Bjork Ostrom: What a gift, we’re talking a little bit before about Philippines. At the time of this recording preparing for a trip over there and what a cool thing that you can combine both of those, write your work and travel and what a gift that is and how to be able to do those classes in Portland. What we’ll do is we’ll make sure to link to that in a blog post that we do but Delores thanks so much for …

Delores Custer: Wonderful.

Bjork Ostrom: Talking today and sharing some of the tips that you’ve learned throughout your career and some of the stories as well. I know that people will find it really valuable. Thanks so much for the conversation today.

Delores Custer: You’re more than welcome it’s been my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Bjork Ostrom: Thanks, bye

Delores Custer: Bye bye.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s a wrap for episode number 38 Dolores thanks so much for coming on and sharing your stories and your insight and your wisdom. Really, really appreciate you sharing that with the Food Blogger Pro audience. One more reminder if you want to enter into the giveaway for the Delores’ book on food styling you can leave a comment at foodbloggerpro.com/38 that’ll be the show notes for this episode. We appreciate you tuning in to podcast each and every week and we’ll continue to be here next week same time, same place, until then make it a great week. Thanks guys.

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  1. I really enjoyed her section on writing clear recipes. That was one of the most important things for me to learn in food blogging.

  2. Such a great interview! Delores is a wealth of information. I’m definitely going to be checking out a lot more photographs in food magazines – not just to drool over but also examine the *how*, as Delores has suggested. Her suggestion to change things after you think you’ve already got the shot, to switch it up and experiment is wonderful, I don’t know why I’ve never done it before instead of just settling for what I think is the best shot! I’m definitely super jealous over her work with Julia Child! What an experience!

  3. This was an awesome episode – keeps getting better and better! Dolores had a lot of great actionable recommendations. I love her idea for magazine subscriptions to get ideas. Thanks for sharing this great knowledge!

  4. I loved Dolores’ tips about making food look a little bit less than perfect, for example, messing up a salad a bit with your hand after styling. I also love that she encourages us to experiment with a shot for a while after you think you’re “done.” Great interview!

  5. I listen to this podcast on my commute to work and I really enjoyed this interview!! I struggle with food styling and always seem to take the sames shots. I loved some of her suggestions for mixing it up!!

  6. I absolutely love listening to your podcast on my commute to and from work and Deloras was such a joy to listen to! I truly learned so much about food styling techniques and I’m looking forward to checking out her work! 🙂

  7. LOVED this episode! I’m always inspired when I hear the “it’s not too late” stories – especially with blogging it’s easy to feel like I didn’t start soon enough. Plus I love knowing that teaching can be such a huge part of it as a former teacher myself. So much great information in this one. Thank you!

  8. I love that she is an advocate of continuously learning the craft and essentially being open to changing with the trends and styling and how we can still get great inspiration from magazines. She’s such an inspiration!

  9. This is one of the best episodes! Such an inspiring story besides helpful tips and advices, She is awesome! Thank you guys!

    1. And I have to add that I was struggling taking pictures with an iphone and decided go for a dslr camera to do it better. Now Bon Appetit is shooting with an iphone to do it different, haha!

  10. This was definitely one of my favorite episodes! It felt like it was made specifically for me. I’ve become really interested in food styling through my blog + Julia Child is a personal heroine of mine, my kitchen is decorated with prints of her quotes! I got really excited when she talked about studying magazines like Bon Appetit and Food Network because I already do that, it’s good to have a gut instinct reaffirmed by the quintessential pro 🙂

    Fingers crossed I win a copy of her book!

  11. I loved this podcast! I really liked her real tips and resources. I especially appreciated her tip to switch it up and restyle something even if you think you’ve got your shot. I really try to get in and out of a shoot when I think I’ve got the shot but I really need to slow down. Listening to this podcast convinced me to take some more time to try new things! I’d love to win a copy of her book–I’m sure I’d learn a lot.

  12. You’re doing such a great job with your podcast. This interview was awesome. My biggest takeaway was that I don’t have to feel guilty about preferring artificial lighting for my shoots.

  13. This is such a great podcast! I always enjoy listening. Delores Custer is my food stylist idol. I met her awhile back at a IACP conference. She was so kind and full of knowledge! I am so glad that you interviewed her on your podcast!