Good lookin’ dishes. Food styling.


Ever look at a dish you put so much time and care into, and wonder why it doesn’t look as pretty as it does in the cook book?  I do.  And I cared enough to inquire with some food photography experts about how they make some good lookin’ food.  We eat with our eyes first, after all.  “Say cheese, cheese.”

forage with strangers diners

I first came to know Kalman & Pabst Photo Group during an incredible event, Forage with Strangers.  They’re a nationally recognized commercial photography and video studio in Cleveland, Ohio.  And they’ve got a good thing going.  They hosted the July event where I got to see the incredible environment where they work their magic.

Intrigued by what they do, and how I could better my food photography chops, I requested a tour.  While there I also got a behind the scenes look at a photo shoot for one of their big clients, Vitamix.

The product environment is placed in perfect natural light.  It’s certainly not by accident that the studio is located, and situated, the way that it is.  Such care put into every. single. detail.  My tour guide, Michelle Loufman, says they average about 5 set ups per day, some take as long as a half a day to prep.  Most, she says, end up in packaging or on company’s website for recipes, like in this case.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this was real food, the result of the client’s real recipes.  They weren’t working with anything fake made to look like appealing.  (with the exception of ice cubes, which they have in in various shapes and sizes, and when they were shooting blended drinks, who can blame them?)

KP fake ice cubes

Fake ice cubes allow for food stylists and photographers to work longer with a product.

They were shooting for the company’s online recipe collection, in this case, a Warm Apple Ginger Smoothie.  For me it was pretty cool to see the finished product once it went live on their website.  See it, and get the recipe here.

warm apple ginger smoothie

More interesting than the photographers themselves, to me, was the food stylist.  I actually sat next to Betty Karslake during the Forage with Strangers dinner, and got the opportunity to chat her up about her background.  I mean seriously…how DOES one become a genuine and skilled food stylist?  She has a fine arts background as a sculptor.  A ha!  That’s how.

I watched in awe of her poise and patience as she painstakingly used tweezers to place each individual thyme leaf on a sweet potato.  Just one of the countless tried and tested tools she totes around in her giant bumper sticker-covered tiered tackle box on wheels.  Knife sets and paint brushes are other go-to tools, she tells me.

On the other side of the same room in the 18,000 sq. ft. studio, a set designer drew another “stage” with chalk, based on a sketch.  This one was for Root Candles, out of Medina, Ohio.

As I was lead to the back of the house, I was impressed by their full scale and fully operational kitchen, and their workshop where they are able to build various sets to accommodate the needs and visions of the clients, like Red Lobster and Big Boy.

But what really blew me away, and what they consider to be a real competitive edge  is their significant inventory of props.  Shelves, racks, stacks and piles of mugs, plates, glasses, serving pieces.  They consider it a significant competitive advantage over more dominate studios in bigger cities, where thy can’t afford the storage space.

Table tops, crystal, silver, cutting boards, utensils, tea sets, and seemingly enough linen to cover the state of Ohio.  Any style, era, vision, trend, holiday or theme could be styled from top to bottom with the warehouse full of supplies that even Martha Stewart’s producers would envy.  The collection was a vision of founder Jan Kalman, and is a result of more than 30 years of thrifting and clever consignment purchases.  Now, I want to call up the friends I made there the next time I have a dinner party…

And speaking of dinner parties…I will certainly apply some of the tricks I saw during my visit to KP, the next time I plate an important dish, or serve up something special.  It made me appreciate what I’m looking at every time I read a recipe, knowing the hours (no exaggeration) it took to make it look so delicious.

If you’re interested in the Vitamix cookbook being produced during my tour, click here.



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