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Making Soup From Air

You may not know these artists, but you certainly know their work.

Think about the last time you saw a photograph of a juicy burger or an irresistible pasta dish. With our penchant for lifestyle magazines, foodie blogs and recipe-filled Pinterest boards, chances are you come across photos like that fairly often. But did you know there is a whole team of people tasked with make that delicious dish look, well, even more delicious?

Here in Austin there is a small, but highly successful, group of food stylists who have carved a career out of making food look photo-worthy. Equal parts science, art, and passion, food stylists are called upon for editorial, commercial and packaging shoots to gloss, shine, squeeze and primp the food that we drool over.

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Tyna Hoang

During preparations for a recent photo shoot with High Brew Coffee, food stylist Tyna Hoang found herself shoving trays of clear beads into her oven to create the perfect “ice cube.” “The whole house smelled like burning plastic,” she says, laughing. “It was disgusting. My sister came home and was just like, ‘What are you making?’” Despite the toxic odor, the result was a surprisingly realistic plastic ice cube, one that won’t melt under hot studio lights and allowed Hoang to create a picture-ready ice coffee for her client.

A relative newbie to the food styling world (Hoang started doing it professionally about a year ago), this art school grad is already making her mark. In addition to working on the High Brew project, Hoang just wrapped an editorial job with Oak Street Magazine. Says Hoang, “[The piece] is called ‘Food meets geometry.’ It is using food as a medium and turning [it] into sculpture.”

“Taking food off the table” and turning into art is Hoang’s specialty, as is evidenced by the artfully designed quiche sitting in front of her during our interview. Unlike many of us who would see a recipe for a mushroom and onion tart and think, pardon the pun, ‘easy as pie,’ Hoang’s work is deconstructed and topped with beautiful mushrooms and shaved fennel, a look that is more inspiration board than breakfast dish.

Perhaps it is her art school training or her years spent as a caterer with her company, Mission Collective, that has given Hoang such a unique perspective on styling. “My process is exploring this whole concept of taking it out of it’s element… I like using it more like a tool,” says Hoang. Though she brings an innovative sense of design to her work, Hoang still looks to Meghan Erwin and Tina Bell Stamos for inspiration.

“I met with Tina Bell Stamos a year ago and asked her how to get into this,” says Hoang. “It’s so new in Austin, and it’s hard to find work here, so I just started doing it for myself.” Using her own Instagram and work with Mission Collective as a portfolio of sorts, Hoang has begun garnering attention and recently landed a gig with Ptarmak, an Austin-based branding firm. “They work on a lot of branding for companies, so any time they do something with food I’ll come in,” Hoang explains.

Though Austin isn’t a food styling hotbed like San Francisco, New York, or even Kansas City, as our culinary scene continues to grow, so to will opportunities for creatives like Hoang. In the meantime, she says she’ll continue to hone her craft, test recipes, and work on creating photos so good, you can practically eat them.

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Meghan Erwin

Do you know what it’s like to herd live lobsters? St. Louis native Meghan Erwin certainly does. During a recent commercial shoot for a major seafood restaurant chain, Erwin found herself on the floor of a studio wrangling live lobsters to get the perfect shot. While it may not sound glamorous, it’s all in a days work for this Missouri native. “A lot of your day on jobs is sorting, picking through,” explains Erwin. “I’ll be on shoots, and I’ll be going through a hundred bags of chicken fingers to find the perfect length and size. You just find pretty pieces.”

Like most in her profession, Erwin’s journey from journalism student at the University of Kansas to a sought-after food stylist who flies around the country for projects has been interesting. “It all fell together in this weird way,” says Erwin. “I would read cookbooks like novels, and I just wanted to be in this world.”

And so, at the urging of a chef friend, Erwin left her event planning job for an internship at Boston’s America’s Test Kitchen — and ended up landing a full time job with the company. While there, Erwin began developing recipes and learning the food style trade as an apprentice. Though she didn’t know it at the time, Erwin’s talent and passion soon had her landing big name commercial clients like Joe’s Crab Shack, Whataburger, and editorial work like cookbook Jack Allen’s Kitchen.

In 2010, Erwin left the Test Kitchen and moved to Austin with her husband, Brian. At the time, there were few — if any — stylists in town, and Erwin quickly built a reputation for her talent and attention to detail. Armed with a toolbox stuffed with brushes, vegetable oil, condiments, and Q-Tips, Erwin landed a job styling the Austin American-Statesman’s Thanksgiving spread, and a gig working with hometown hero Whole Foods Market. National companies followed shortly behind, and Erwin found enough work to launch a lucrative freelance career. “It just took off and word of mouth is the best way to get hired. I’ve been lucky to have pretty loyal clients,” she says.

Though she will still jet off when a client needs her, five years after moving to Austin, Erwin says she’s seeing more and more work pop up closer to home. “I’ve noticed in the past, probably two years, I’ve done jobs that were styling and photography for a mom and pop restaurant that was just like, ‘we’ve been open 30 years and now we know we need professional photography and stylists,’” explains Erwin. “That’s sprung up in the past two years in Austin, in San Antonio, in Houston, everyone’s realizing [they] need a web presence, need an Instagram presence, need professional photos.”

And as long as those people need food stylists, Erwin says she’ll be around to offer her services. “To have a freelance career, to me, it feels like a luxury. I feel really lucky to be in Austin.”

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Tina Bell Stamos

Though they didn’t know each other at the time, both Tina Bell Stamos and Meghan Erwin’s journeys both began at the University of Kansas. Stamos, a Kansas native, grew up in the tiny town of Stockton, where the only grocery store closed every day at precisely 5 pm, leading Stamos to take matters into her own hands. “I started cooking before I could safely cook,” Stamos laughs. “[Growing up], buying a box of Life Cereal was an indulgence,” says Stamos. “My parents always said if you want something you have to make it. They were like, ‘learn to make cookies if you want cookies,’ so that’s how I learned to cook.”

Despite her lifelong love of the culinary arts, Stamos decided to focus on art history in college, and made plans to go into museum curation. While in graduate school, Stamos returned to her childhood love of cooking, and began her own catering company. “The catering business did well, and so I decided to ditch grad school and go for it,” say Stamos. “I always wanted to be with food. It’s always been my passion.”

After five years spent catering, a photo producer friend at Hallmark Magazine (it has since folded), contacted Stamos to do some work for the magazine. While there, she met a food stylist and began to apprentice under her. “That’s where I met the woman I wound up doing an apprenticeship with,” explains Stamos. “I did an apprenticeship in San Francisco for three years with a really good stylist. That’s kinda how you learn it, by assisting and doing it.”

Since that fateful meeting, Stamos has continued to build a reputation not only as a stylist, but as a chef, too. “The biggest misconception is that they’re not making the food. People always think I’m working with a chef, and then I just make it pretty.”

Stamos says that the time she’s spent in her kitchen makes her a better stylist. The precision and science behind cooking gives Stamos an even better understanding of the precision needed to execute, say, a great editorial shot or an inviting packaging design. With a reputation for great work, dozens of companies including H-E-B, Texas Monthly, and Whole Foods have tapped Stamos for her styling savvy. In fact, if you’ve ever been convinced to grab a bag of Whole Foods Pad Thai or a box of 365 Organic Macaroni & Cheese because of its picture, you have Stamos’ talent to thank.

Stamos is quick to admit that many people just don’t understand what she does for a living, a sentiment echoed by fellow stylists Erwin and Tyna Hoang. “I always call it ‘making soup out of air,’ and this is how this career has been, too,” she says. “That’s how I managed to piece it together consistently. [It’s like] a food shoot, and you’re just like, ‘let’s start here’ and you figure it out as you go along.”

Credits

Photography by Kate LeSueur

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