Ever wonder how commercials make food look so perfect? It’s all the magic of food styling! Lisa Homa, a freelance food stylist who works in New York City, shared with us the tricks of her trade and how science plays a role in her creations. Read on for an inside scoop on this food science…

What sparked your interest in food styling? 

I always loved to cook. I was one of six and was the one who would actually cook with my mom growing up. I ended up pursuing graphic art and I worked in publishing in graphic art, which led me to New York City. I was working for McGraw-Hill Companies and I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could the visual and culinary fields? And when I moved to New York, I discovered there was such a thing as food stylists for photography. I thought, boy that would hit both my areas.

What kind of education is necessary to be a food stylist? 

I think it helps to have strong visual skills. So either fine art background or graphic art background. It definitely helps to have that because it’s really a combination of those skills.  You have to absolutely have culinary skills but I feel like you really need visual skills as well. I realized if I wanted to pursue it, I’d have to go back to culinary school because, in food styling, you never know what you’re going to have to make. You have to be able to look at recipes and figure out just by looking at it what it’s going to look like. You have to figure out if, for example it’s a cheesecake, well if I cook it like the directions say, it’s going to have a crack through the middle and that’s not going to work out.

What was most valuable in gaining experience? 

You really have to assist in the field because it’s the only way of learning this trade. There’s so much to learn – I still learn; I’ve been doing for some twenty years and I still learn every single day. I assisted Delores Custer who taught one of the classes up at the Culinary Institute of America. She was very well-known and very respected. She was sort of one of the elders in the field at the time and a lot of good food stylists came out of assisting Delores. Delores has a book out that came out a couple years ago it’s called “Food Styling” and it’s kind of the definitive book out on the subject. I still every once in a while look at it if doing an advertising job since you use more of the ricks of the trade where as magazine and cookbooks tend to be more natural looking but with advertising you alter things a little bit more.

What kind of work are you doing right now?

I work freelance. Most of us are freelance, there are some companies that hire full time. I tend to like the flexibility of doing a wide variety of work and not going to the sample place every day.  With freelance though there is the ambiguity if no one calls so you have to be able to deal with that. You should also be someone who’s good at marketing and networking. It gives me freedom to be with my family and do my work as well.

What are some of the most commonly used tricks to make food look so perfect? 

If you were doing some sort of brand cheesecake and they wanted a perfect dollop of whip cream you would use something like cool whip because it could sit out there a week or so and it’s not going to change because it has so many fake products in it. Fake ice cream is also used if ice cream is not the product. If it’s the product being sold, you have to use the product. For perfect looking chestnut brown

[turkey], you can partially cook them and then paint them with browning agents, maybe a little yellow food color, and a little dish soap to cut the grease. The trend, fortunately, in magazines, editorial, and cookbooks is much more natural now. People don’t mind seeing things natural looking.

What role does science play in food styling?

There’s a lot of chemistry involved. Just thinking about how you’re going to bake, there’s a lot of science in that. If I want this thing to rise a little bit more, I might use baking soda but I might want to put an acid in there because that’s going to help cause that chemical reaction. You’re thinking a lot in terms of chemistry. There’s a couple of food science people and sometimes I’ll refer to them. Shirley Corriher has a book on food science.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

I really love assembling a plate and just seeing what I come up with. To me, it’s like working on a small sculpture. I think of it very visually; I’m thinking of color and contrast and shadows and texture.


Does food science sound like a field you’d like to work in? From designing ice cream to creating healthier food options, there are tons of awesome food-related STEM jobs out there!