CAPE TOWN Food Stylist Emma Wilson

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TP: Hi Emma! Let’s dig in - tell me, how did you get started in food styling?

EW: I like to say that it found me, to be honest with you. I am a born entrepreneur; there’s definitely no two words about it. I was brought up in the Apartheid Era, 1994. I’d just started high school, and my parents were very worried about the future. I wanted to be an architect - but I knew I wasn’t going to get in because I didn’t do art as a subject in school… and I also didn’t do higher-level maths, which was needed to get in to study architecture. So, I knew that wasn’t the route that I was going to go. And my parents said to me, “Do something that you’ll always get a job in,” and people are always going to eat!

I was very good in the kitchen from an early age, so I studied Food and Beverage Management at the hotel school which is now known as the Cape Town Hotel School. It’s one of the most beautiful hospitality schools here as it's situated right at the coast, next to the Radisson Hotel. I did that for three years, and I really enjoyed the training subjects. So, my first job was training in an industrial catering company, teaching basic knife skills and basic cooking to people who had never worked in the kitchen before. I loved it, but the company wasn't fully integrated into the training program and I felt it was time to move on.

After that, I decided to start my first company which was a training company, basically doing exactly what I was doing at the Industrial Caterers. Government had started offering rebates to companies if they could prove that training of staff had taken place.  After a year of working on my own, my alma mater hotel school heard that I was leaving, and they offered me a junior lecturer position.  I was there for four years and absolutely loved it.  But then there were changes in the structure of the Technikon to move into a university and of course, new rules were enforced. One of which was that if you were lecturing, you needed to have a  minimum of a degree. So, I decided that I needed to study again since I only had a diploma. Cheffing is a very practical job. I never thought to get an actual degree in it, you know?

Today, it seems very different for young people, who seem to think getting a degree is an absolute necessity. It’s very funny how life changes. I wish I knew then what I know now because life has taken me on a very different journey. It’s amazing. So, from there, I did a degree in Food and Nutrition Consumer Sciences whilst I was still working as a lecturer. I went from a chef/hotel-oriented diploma to consumer science relating to food. I’m a trained nutritionist, and I learned more about consumer behavior around food. And in that, one of the courses we did was food marketing. I had to do a bridging course to get the degree because I was a lecturer—that just means that they’ll give me credits on the courses I had done—but I had to do a bridging course in chemistry. And I remember being 28 in the classroom, with all these 20-year-old youngsters who simply weren’t interested.

TP: And you’re taking it seriously compared to the other students?

EW: It was a new experience. I felt like the students in my own class! But that was how I found out about food marketing.

I could not find a food photography course in South Africa. But what I did find on Google was this thing called “food styling.”(1).jpg

TP: Isn’t it funny how life works?

EW: I think it’s meant to be like this.

I still don’t think I’ve reached the end goal, just yet, but from there, the main campus where I had done my degree offered me a post there for six months while someone was on maternity leave. So, I went there, and I started playing around with my camera because I studied photography in school and my dad is a very keen photographer. It was all film in those days, no digital work like today. And I started taking photos of my students’ work. I thought that since this was only a six-month job, maybe I should do food photography. I could not find a food photography course in South Africa. But what I did find on Google was this job called “food styling.”

TP: What year was this, may I ask?

EW: This is currently my 10th year, so this was 2008. I started in March 2008. I had found a workshop in Johannesburg and I remember emailing Vanessa, the trainer, saying, “This is my story, and I want to do food photography, but I can’t find a course in South Africa. Everything I’m going through on your list of what makes a food stylist, I’ve got. So maybe I shouldn’t be doing food photography. Can I come on your course?”

I’d never heard of food styling. I’d heard about food marketing, but I didn’t know anything more than that. She replied saying, “I’ve got just one more space in the course,” so I booked it. The course was hellishly expensive, but I got along with Vanessa so well, and we still talk to this day. She’s retired from food styling now. I was there for a week and, just like a sponge, soaked it all up. And then I knew that this was it.

She asked me to stay on in Johannesburg and work with her on a few jobs, which I did for about a month. Through her, I was introduced to the TV side of food styling, which I still love, because I love that hustle-bustle, the “go, go, go” team effort. Except for the "hurry up and wait!"

TP: It’s certainly a different type of food styling needed since there’s different camera work involved.  Where the food is being panned over—it’s not a static shot like in stills.

EW: Exactly, I still like the stills side of it, but I love the rush of the TV side too, which appeals to my personality because that is very much me.

TP: And you’re smiling with twinkly eyes as you’re saying that.

EW: Exactly. It's my happy space. So, from there, I came back to Cape Town and I Googled food stylist in Cape Town. There were 5 at that point; there are now 45. In ten years, the need for food stylists has grown. I literally begged for one of the food stylists to let me come and oversee a shoot: “don’t pay me; I just want to come and see,” and I got sucked in. I proved myself over a couple of shoots with a particular food stylist; she had a full-time assistant, but then on big jobs, she’d call me in. And it just started to pay me slowly, and she started referring me to other jobs, that’s basically how I built my career. And I went from begging to be on jobs in the first year, to then being a full-time assistant for different people.

TP: Well done! You did all of that within a year!

EW: I did all of that within a year. And then I was a full-time assistant for three years and decided between 2010/2011 to start branching out on my own, and it’s taken me this long to get to where I am today.

TP: Back to that very first course in Johannesburg—do you remember some of the new information that really impressed you about food styling?

EW: For me, it was the trickery. It was what they did to the food to make it look a certain way. Knowing about photography and lights and how that impacts food—you have to know food. You couldn’t just make food and go, “Here you go. Photograph it.” It was more about the technical side of food. Ice cream is going to melt under the lights, so what are we going to do that? How are we going to make it last? How are we going to get flavor replicated in there? How do we get the texture of the scoop? That was just the kind of technical stuff that was mind-blowing for me. It wasn’t just about food. It was about getting the food to behave in a way that is slightly unnatural for it. That intrigued me more than anything.

TP: And those are the aspects of food that a regular person never considers.

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EW: They still to this day can’t believe that I do what I do, although I must say that it is less and less that we fake with food these days besides ice cream. But we don’t play as much with benzene and oil like we used to, using car oil for maple syrup, because it’s thicker, and it looks exactly like maple syrup. We don’t do that anymore; we try where possible to use the real thing.

TP: How do you think the approach of food styling has changed over the last 10 years?

EW: It has changed dramatically, absolutely. More natural, more organic, more real. We celebrate things that are not perfect. We used to come from a very consumer-focused point of view that everything had to be perfect; perfect texture, perfect look and feel. Now foods are celebrated if they are a little bit curly or if they still have their flower attached or they’ve got a blemish or tomatoes are misshapen. It’s almost celebrated that it’s going back to our roots of what food actually is, where we’ve gone from one extreme back to the other, and that’s the way it moves. The brands want to speak to the consumers about where the food has come from and that it’s organic and authentic and all that.

TP: But I think it comes back to what’s the story? And the word “authentic” is thrown around quite a bit.

EW: It’s true.

TP: I see that trend even with humans, with talent, with models, with blemishes and Photoshop, less retouching is needed. Do you remember that Dove campaign ten years ago, “Real Women Campaign” for Dove? That was huge, and now there are other brands and magazines that no longer do retouching, fashion brands that are no longer doing retouching.

EW: Or using real women as well. Sizes that are normal!

TP: Thank you! Never trust a skinny chef, anyway—whether that applies to food styling as well…

EW: It does! I still get to do beautiful shoots with beautiful food—not always TV. I’ve done loads of cookbooks, which I love because I get consumed by the book and what it’s trying to portray. You know there’s this thing called a “runner’s high.” I’m not a runner, but I’ve heard from my friends who are runners that it’s where they get to that plateau where nothing can stop them.

TP: I consider that a “flow,” right? You’re in the flow.

EW: And I get that with creativity. I’m better at longer projects, because you kind of start off by finding your feet, finding your team, getting the momentum going, and by the second, third, fourth day, and everyone is just in the zone, and there’s just something magical that comes out of that. The results are often outstanding. I often look back at that book and go, “I don’t remember doing that,” because I was so in the zone. There are a couple of photos of me I can share with you where I’m sitting on the floor just barefoot and I’m just immersed and in my zone, talking to myself, and you can see my thoughts … I just love that - being completely immersed. Maybe it wasn’t architecture that I was so drawn to, maybe it was the creative process. Yet, I never saw myself as a creative person. I can’t draw for shit, but I can tell you what’s wrong or right with a photograph.

TP: Sure. You know it’s funny how you say you wanted to become an architect because when I consider food styling for photography, it is very architectural. There’s shape, and sculpture comes into play as well. It’s also funny how your parents felt that you should have a job that is really reliable, because most people will say architecture would be reliable, and your family pushed you toward food because everyone has to eat.

EW: Everyone has to eat, so you’ll always have a job. I played the piano and the violin as well, which they were hoping would be the second back-up plan. [laughing]

TP: And here you are, saying you are not creative? [laughing]

EW: I am creative but in a very different sense. I’m not artistic. When someone says they are artistic, I believe that means they can draw. I can’t draw for shit. I can do pottery, I can play the piano, I can play the violin and I can use color, but I’m just artistic in a different way. So, I don’t know. It’s weird how I don’t see it as artistic; I think I am more creative than artistic. But now I’m onto my next journey.

TP: And your next journey is…?

EW: Directing documentary films about food. That’s the next step.

TP: Oh, I love when photographers turn into directors, yes, especially since we need more female directors!

EW: The next step is for me to direct, I think. I’m getting goosebumps. Thank you, Universe, for confirming that. Two years ago, on a TV job with a lovely Swedish director, he asked me to do the second unit since we didn’t have enough time. He was just like, “These are all the concepts of the food. You have been doing this for long enough; you know what you are doing. There’s a cameraman, so go and do it.”

TP: And this is someone you’ve worked with for a long time who really trusted you.

EW: Well, I’ve worked with him a couple of times when he’s come to South Africa. We’ve done big campaigns together, for example, Lipton Ice Tea for America & we’ve done a lot for a Swedish and German brand. But I realized when I was doing that, that I could actually offer something different because I know how filming works. This is no discredit to directors, but I think food directors are an anomaly because you’ve got to know food to know what it can and can't do.

TP: Sure. That seems sort of obvious to me.

EW: And some people have it, some people don’t. I just think with having studied this, having worked with it pretty much all my life, doing food styling, working with directors, I kind of know what’s going to look good. I don’t want to do TV commercials just yet. I feel like that’s going to come later in my life. What I want to do right now is to tell stories about food. And nobody is telling these stories. There are stories out there that are like nice articles, but there’s deeper stuff there. It’s very superficial what’s going on in terms of food. It’s like a chef talking about the same old stuff, like Italian food. How many times would people like to see Italian food? Go deeper into it. So, I’ve written my first documentary and I’ve sold the concept to a media house.

TP: Whoa! Congratulations!

EW: It’s called “Kitchen Ink.” It’s a story about hospitality individuals in South Africa. One is a winemaker, another is a butcher, one’s a chef, another one is a forager, and all of them have culinary-related tattoos. And I’ve written stories about each one of them as to “why?” Why that tattoo? Why that food? What is the memory attached to that? Why are you doing what you are doing? Because they’re all doing something very unique that comes back to the source, and I wanted to go further into it. So, it’s the more personal side, linked into the food, but it’s not simply food-heavy content. And nobody is doing things like that.

TP: Very cool.

EW: I’ve gotten my next idea already for another documentary.

TP: This is your year; you’re on fire already. And we haven’t even talked about your new studio yet.

EW: No, we haven’t. Big Food Studios, which I co-own with Seb Voigt. We do both stills and TVC there. So, that’s just there.

TP: You have so many dynamic things going on. That's great. That’s also a pretty quick career path.

EW: Is it? I feel like it’s taking me forever. I feel like I missed opportunities. They say that comparison is the thief of joy. And it’s very true because if you look at youngsters today, they are much more ballsy, I think. They just go out there, and they create. I was never like that. I knew what I wanted to do at specific times, but not overall. I knew that on some level, I would get there, but I just didn’t know how. It hasn’t been smooth, and I kind of feel that I wasted a bit of time, but at the same time not, because I’ve learned so much about myself and about another area that might benefit me. I think it’s because I’m pushing 40 now.

I could not find a food photography course in South Africa. But what I did find on Google was this thing called “food styling.”.jpg

TP: We are in careers that do not have a linear career trajectory. If we were doctors, we would have our schooling, our residency, our work in our specialty focus. But nope, we’re not doctors. We learn just as much when we’re taking detours. It’s not just one final destination, because we’re growing as individuals, and our industry changes exponentially every few years, and if we’re not changing and adjusting our course…

EW: Then you’re going to get left behind.

TP: I get impatient with myself too, because I have big goals and big dreams, and I’m a super hard worker as well, but everything has its time, and sometimes we need to rest and take a detour to learn or connect with the individuals that help us further.

EW: This is why with the documentary, I want to tell stories of people that are slogging away… now in South Africa, I don’t know about anywhere else in the world, but in South Africa, we—when I say “we,” I mean the media because I’m part of the media— we tend to highlight only the people that are popular or perfect on the outside. What about the people who are just honest, hardworking people, who never really get the media attention that they deserve?

TP: You have nailed my entire ethos for TheProducer.com. I interview individuals who may not be celebrity hair and makeup artists, or may not be an on-camera personality, but who are hardworking and talented. Loyal, dedicated, talented in their own right and dependable

EW: True to form. Exactly. Now I want to take that concept, and put it into food and beverage and tell those people’s stories.

TP: How was the transition from food styling to directing? How have you been making your way to this new foray?

EW: I think it’s been really hard. This a very male-dominated industry, and I feel I’m at a disadvantage because I never went to film school. I’m learning that anybody can do it if they have a good story. So, I’m asking people who I know that are very high up in the industry to help me. And through their help, I’ve just done what feels right. I have literally blindly phoned people and said, “I have this pilot that I want to show you, and I want to sell it. I need the story to be told. They said “cool,” but I was lucky and I sold it to the first person.

TP: How’s that process? How did you go about that? I imagine it may work differently here in South Africa, than what I may be used to in the US.

EW: I happened to know a producer who was at a particular media house, and she set me up for a meeting. I did a small presentation on footage I had done already, and they loved it. Now we are in the process of selling it internationally.

TP: That’s incredible. You didn’t have to have an agent or anything. Wow.

EW: I don’t know if that’s right or wrong.

TP: You just do it. You don’t need to know how it is “supposed” to be done.

EW: Yep,  I just did it. I think half the battle was showing enthusiasm for the project, and I’m a strong believer that attitude is everything.

TP: I could not agree more. Don’t you just want to surround yourself with people who are bright, shining and positive?

EW: Absolutely. That is why I’ve done the studio because the energy was just right for me. I didn’t necessarily ask for the studio immediately. I decided to put this on the vision board, like “studio later,” not thinking that within a year, I would have it.

TP: And here you are.

Ew: If I showed you my vision board from last February to where I am now, you’d be shocked. I’m a very strong believer in that, the manifesting, the visualization, trusting the process, and sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing. Correction: most of the time, I don’t know what I’m doing

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TP: I don’t believe that for a second!  But there is that phrase, “Fake it until you make it”

EW: Absolutely.

TP: And that ties in with your thoughts and beliefs too. You just have to believe that what you want is out there & it is headed your way. 

Ew: So yes, that’s the journey at the moment.

TP: And while you are directing, will you still be pursuing food styling?

EW: Yes, absolutely.

TP: May I take us back to food styling and ask you a few more food styling questions?

EW: Yes, of course.

TP: I know that sometimes food stylists get hired for their aesthetic, and sometimes it’s just to dial in the specific needs of a client, but do you have a certain aesthetic that you adhere to for yourself personally if you had the option?

EW: No, not really. I enjoy all forms of food styling, although it can be extremely challenging sometimes. I enjoy that side of things, but I would say that I’m not the pretty-pretty stylist. I don’t do beautiful editorials, spreads, and beautiful magazines—that’s not me. I believe that there are two very different types of stylists in the world. There are the more advertising-heavy stylists, which I think I am, and the more magazine food stylists. I’m more understanding overall of the brand & client side.

TP: And your food marketing background helped you with that as well, I’m sure.

EW: Absolutely. And then there’s the other side of food stylists who do the pretty-pretty stuff; they only do magazine and Instagram-worthy kind of images. I can do that too, but it’s not something I would naturally gravitate towards. So, I like doing packaging; I like doing the structural stuff. That’s more my calling, I would say.

TP: Hey, that’s your food architecture!

EW: Exactly. When I do foray into the pretty-pretty side, it’s for the cookbook part of it. But in those instances, I want to be part of the whole process. I don’t want to be like, “Here’s the recipe; this is the look; now go.” I want to be part of that process, like, what’s the texture of the paper? What’s the ultimate look for the book? That kind of thing. I can’t speak for other food stylists, but I believe there’s probably a handful of us in Cape Town that do advertising-heavy food styling, and Cape Town is more creative, and Johannesburg is more brand-heavy food styling, like paint by numbers: lettuce here, tomato there, patty here. Very literal.

TP: Interesting. I wasn’t even thinking about the difference between Cape Town and Johannesburg.

EW: Because most of the head offices are in Johannesburg, and the decision makers all sit there. So, your big brands, like your McDonald’s, KFC, and all those companies sit in Joburg. But the agencies are in Joburg and Cape Town. So, if they can’t find a Joburg stylist to do it, then they come here. So, I’m doing KFC on Wednesday. It’s not even for South Africa specifically; it’s for Africa. Ghana, West Africa, we’re shooting it together.

TP: And do you work internationally much?

EW: I do actually. I just came back from Dubai two weeks ago. I was trying to pick up that market a little bit, but I let it slide because it’s very fickle- you have to be there - they literally phone you the day before.

I’ve been to Romania for a shoot for Samsung and I’ve been to Beirut, which was incredible. There’s a very big market there for food styling, but you have to be there—that’s the thing. I would love to get into the European market and the American market…

TP: But there’s a different approach to what I think food styling is in Europe, also… Because I wonder if Europe and USA are almost parallel to the Johannesburg/Cape Town difference.

EW: Yes. Europe is known for the creative and the flowing and artistic, and the U.S. is more exacting.

TP: Where can we find you - websites, social media? Anything you want to share with our readers? 

EW: My website is http://eatwithemma.com/ and my Instagram is @eatwithemma or @bigfoodstudios

TP: Thanks so much for meeting with me today. It's been such a pleasure getting to talk with you.

EW: I am so glad I got to do this today. Thank you so much.

 


Emma Wilson is a food stylist based in Cape Town, South Africa.

Check out what’s in her toolkit by reading Tools of the Trade.

Interested to learn about what Emma looks for in an assistant? Read Emma’s thoughts “On Assistants” here.

Interview by Annika Howe

Photos by Nick Aldrige