Tools of the Trade: Cape Town Food Stylist Emma Wilson

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TP: What would you consider three of your tools of the trade? What are your must-haves in your kit?

EMMA: You must have a selection of tweezers. I cannot live without my bag of tweezers, because traveling is quite an issue with your toolbox. Mine is close to 20 kilos, so I can’t take it all. It’s got all sorts of flammable things, so I have to condense it, but the first thing that goes in my luggage is my tweezer kit. Without that, I can’t really style. I mean, you can, but it just makes things a little difficult. So that’s number one.

Number two is my knife set, because I think you can do pretty much anything with knives. Then the third thing—this is going to sound quite funny—it’s a product you get here called food glue.

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TP: Cool!

EMMA: It dries clear, but it holds things down on food. Sometimes, we need to balance things. You know, if there are things standing up against each other, then you can’t have them fall, but you can’t use blue tack. You can’t use that, because it’s going to be seen, so you just use a little drop of food glue. That just secures it, and it’s just the most amazing thing. So, I would say those are the top three things I use. The fourth would be food colorants, if you need to make chocolate a little bit darker, or white a little bit whiter.

TP: Whoa! How do you make white whiter?!

EMMA: You get a white food coloring. If you’re making a butter cream and you use a proper butter, it’s going to come out yellow, and if we add this white coloring to it, it comes out white.

TP: Wow. Magic. I think food stylists are part-magician.

EMMA: I think we are.

TP: Mad scientists.

EMMA: Absolutely. This is interesting, because I fucked up biochemistry like you can’t believe. Just don’t ask me anything about formulas or anything. A dash of this and a dash of this and mix-mix-mix, and the texture looks like, “Hey, yo, we’ll go with it.”

Emma Wilson Give Clients Confidence - TheProducer

TP: Modern alchemy, actually.

EMMA: Yes, exactly. But it’s also about feeling, and this is why I come back to the “You must know how to work with food to be a food stylist” mentality. You don’t necessarily need to be a chef, but you must know food. You must know - without using a meat thermometer - when that steak is going to be medium rare. You must know how to cook it to get that char on the edge. So many things like that.

Using butter in the pan to give it that gloss-over—things like that. Makes a world of difference in terms of being a stylist. And again, going back to having a positive attitude. If I come across to a client as being “Oh, this is really difficult,” and I’m moaning already before the shoot even begins, then it kind of puts an anxiety out there for them. You want to give clients the confidence that the shoot is going to be amazing. Even if you are shitting in your pants, you don’t want to share that with them. As I said, you figure it out on a day-to-day basis. It’s supposed to be a team effort, so don’t be afraid to ask for help either.

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

Read her full interview here

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

Interview by Annika Howe