Feast Your Eyes

Some of you should stop playing with your food, put down the camera, and just eat it.

We’d never insist that of Maria Siriano.

Working for the past few years as a food stylist, she’s unable to even toss to together a simple breakfast without seeing a whimsical scene unfold in front of her.

“I have a tendency to over-style my morning yogurt,” she said. “It sometimes makes it to my Instagram account, but most of the time I can’t reasonably justify how delicately I layer strawberry slices on top.”

Yet, her plethora of organic and informal images are more than enough justification. Food needs to look as good as it tastes. Which is where Siriano comes in.

Several years ago, when she ran a home-based bakery, she needed her cookies to make mouths water before they ever took a bite. A self-taught cook and no stranger to independent self-improvement, she picked up her camera and started learning her angles. Siriano’s styling continued to develop when she started a food blog, Sift and Whisk, where her photos help tell the tales behind her recipes.

Ever since, she’s been unable to look at menus the same.

“Customers eat with their eyes first, and I hate to see good businesses fail simply because their food has an ‘image problem,’” she said. Siriano rejects a clinical approach to food styling, favoring natural, cozy images that speak to the average home cook and diner. Food is more than sustenance; it’s emotional, reminding us of the good times and comforting us in the bad. It tells a story. Stock & Barrel caught up with Maria to learn hers.

How is your food styling unique?

I facetiously call it “rustic.” I don’t use glue or anything inedible just to make food look better; food already looks amazing if you know its angles. Most dishes just need primped a little bit, put on a beautiful dish, and maybe accessorized with garnishes and a few props to make the food pop and give it context.

Is any food particularly difficult to style?

Pudding. It has no form of its own, so I have to rely heavily on whatever vessel it’s in. Pudding also needs to be piped into its container very precisely or it just looks like a mess. A mess beyond “rustic.”

You’re a blogger as well as a food stylist, so in many cases you’re styling food to represent your personal brand. How does this differ from commercial food styling?

Styling for my own brand is in some ways very freeing because if I feel like trying out something new, I can do it without fear of a client hating it! I still try to stay on-brand, but I have a little more wiggle room if I’m feeling bored. The other side of that, though, is that I really am often my toughest critic. I’ll see a photo of my styling day-in and day-out, and it will drive me nuts that I didn’t move that star anise pod just a few millimeters to the left.

Do you ever do any automatic food styling? Like you’re making breakfast for yourself and suddenly all of the blueberries in your oatmeal have a perfect distribution?

I have a tendency to over-style my morning yogurt. It sometimes makes it to my Instagram account, but most of the time I can’t reasonably justify how delicately I layer strawberry slices on top.

What’s more important: a sense of design or culinary knowledge?

I think that food stylists are just artists working with a different medium, so a sense of design is really critical. Culinary knowledge helps inform that art because you have a sense of what foods go together, what they should look like, and how long you have before an ingredient loses its luster. But you can still style a dish that you’ve never made or heard of if you have a great eye for design.

What’s one little hidden part of the process you love?

I love prop shopping, and I have a little bit of an obsession with antiques and handmade pottery. So much so that I’ve actually started learning ceramics so I can make dishes that fit my styling needs. I also sometimes scour alleyways for old wood and scrap metal that would make a cool backdrop. My entire basement is filled with stacks of random dishes and nasty old boards. I look like a hoarder.

Nowadays everyone’s obsessed with snapping photos of their food and sharing them with the masses. We’re all sort of mini food stylists. Do you see this changing the food styling industry in the future? Do you think this changes how people view professional stylists?

I think it’s great that people are thinking about their food and connecting with it on a visual level. I don’t see the social sharing of food photos as a threat to the food styling industry, per se. I think it can help someone realize that food styling is something they’re interested in or good at. But since everyone has a camera in his or her pocket, food businesses sometimes forget that the DIY approach can only get you so far.

Would you rather your viewers say, “Oh, that’s really pretty,” or “Damn, I need to get myself some of that!”

I’m all about getting people to want to eat! I actually get a little bit offended if people tell me something looks “too good to eat.” I try to tap into people’s emotions when I’m styling food, because our emotions are so closely tied to our appetites.