On Assistants with Food Stylist Emma Wilson

TP: What do you look for when you hire food styling assistants? And how do you find them?


EMMA: That is a challenge.

TP: Good help is hard to find.

EMMA: We have a problem with it. I’ve been threatening for years to do a food styling course tailor-made for assistants, because I think there might be a market for it. Food styling is a craft; it takes years. Unless you are a very special individual with a talent, you’re not just going to be a food stylist overnight within a year of assisting someone. It’s going to take years. You’ve got to build your name with someone. You’ve got to build confidence, and that’s the biggest problem that I find out working with youngsters.

I get weekly emails asking, “Please can I come and assist you in a job?” First, I’ve learnt to scrutinize them first through their email, and there are certain things that will take them out of the running like: they don’t reply with the right tone, grammar, spelling, the way they’ve laid out the email. I know that sounds ridiculous, but those are things that matter… because it’s attention to detail.

TP: And professionalism. Take the work seriously. It’s not just a gig.

EMMA: Correct. I just think it’s unprofessional not saying, “Hello, this is so and so,” ... or “Hello, how are you?” I know it’s those little things, but those little things add up at the end of the day.

TP: Those polite details are part of business.

EMMA: Yes. Proper communication and business ethic, whether it’s food styling or not. The other thing I find with young assistants is that they’re always on their phone, so I have to tell people that their phones must stay in their bags. Another thing that doesn’t happen to me very often is when they start chirping what they think is wrong with the shot in front of clients. Absolutely unacceptable. If I’m unsure about a decision, I’ll ask, and then share your opinion. But never in front of the client!

I have a great team at the moment, and Sarah is my right hand, my senior, and she’s a chef by trade, and she’s amazing. I think experience in the workplace is so important. I’m very hesitant to take a student straight out of college, because I feel like they need to actually work in a kitchen, to have that whole “clean as you go” order and procedure, so I’m quite keen to take someone who’s got at least 2 years’ experience in a kitchen, because it’s the same principles when you’re on a set.

 I’m willing to train the right person, but they’ve got to give me their all. I do kind of lay down the law a little bit in the beginning and say what I need and how I want things done. I don’t care that someone else does things differently. This is the way I want it done on my set. And I must say that some of them don’t like it, and I never hear from them again.

TP: Then, no need to work with them again. They aren't the right fit.

I could not find a food photography course in South Africa. But what I did find on Google was this thing called “food styling.”(5).jpg

EMMA: Then I hear they’re working with another food stylist, and that’s fine too. Maybe that person works differently. Everyone’s different, so you have to find the person that gels with you.

It’s weekly that I get people saying they want to be a food stylist. Food styling has become this glamorized job, and when they actually come onto a TV shoot with me, they are horrified at how much we work our asses off.

TP: It’s hard work, physical work.

EMMA: Yes, it’s not sitting pretty. It’s the whole day: setting up a kitchen, cleaning, getting dirty and  smelly, and they’re like, “Wow, this was not what I thought it was.”  If you want a job where you can do the pretty styling that you want to do, then go and work with a magazine as an intern, this probably isn’t the right fit. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

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

Read her full interview here

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

Looking for inspiration local to Cape Town? Emma's got you covered with some of her favorite culinary retreats.

Interview by Annika Howe