Tina Bell Stamos: Food Stylist

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Tell me about the path that led to your career in food styling.

I used to be a caterer so I have a background in food but I actually started styling in Kansas, which is where I’m from. A friend who is a photo producer at Hallmark referred me for an assistant position. It’s very common to start as an assistant in this industry.

How did you end up in Austin?

I’ve always worked as a freelancer but when I moved here, I got three different six-month long contracts with Whole Foods. But that recently expired so I’m freelancing for various clients again.  

Tell me about some of the different projects you’ve worked on.

Last week I went to the Rio Grande Valley for a shoot with HEB where I learned how to make tamales from a family who has been making them for five generations. Once I learned how to make them, I then reproduced the food for camera in a way that’s respectful of their product. A few days later, I was on a shoot for Southern Living at the First Texas Olive Oil Company in Wimberley. This week I’m working with Popeyes, and then next week I’ll be working on a shoot for a restaurant in San Antonio.  

Wow so busy. How long have you been doing this?

About 11 years.

I should back up a bit and ask you what exactly a food stylist does.

Food styling is making food for camera and video. I’ll start from the beginning. Usually a major brand hires an agency, who then hires a photographer, who then hires me. We go through several rounds of preproduction meetings where we talk about the overall feel, what the images are being used for, whether or not they will be print or web — all of the details. If there’s an art director, they will pull swipes, which can be anything from lighting ideas to the mood of the shoot. After going through the swipes, I’ll work with an assistant to do the shopping. Usually I require a prep day to make the food.

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I had no idea that you make the food.

Oh yeah, I make all the food. That is the number one misconception that people make about stylists. The preparation of the food completely affects the appearance, and there are many things you can’t make too far in advance, you know? For example, if we’re shooting steak then I have to make that right before we shoot. There are many elements that work against food — the clock is ticking the second food comes out of the oven.

So is the background of a food stylist more culinary focused than design?

Most stylists I know have come from catering or restaurant work so yes, a culinary background is very important.

Culinary background with an eye for how food appears through a lens?

Exactly. I have a degree in Art History and my masters in Museum Studies so I understand the visual aesthetic. I didn’t think I would ever use my degree after I got into catering but it actually ended up being incredibly valuable in my work.

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Is the food you make for shoots edible?  

Sometimes. But usually it’s been handled a lot or not cooked all the way. I usually don’t cook meat all the way for shoots because it won’t look as good dried out.

What about shopping for the food? Do you always shop from the place you’re shooting for?

There are different types of photography shoots. When you are shooting for packaging, you would of course need to use the product shown in the package because of the laws in truth in advertising. And then there are recipe shoots where you have to follow the recipe to a tee — if you dice an onion instead of chop an onion, there’s a very good chance that you’ll be called out. You have to be intensely focused on all the details. And then there are editorial shoots for magazines and cookbooks, which are a lot more relaxed. For example, I recently did a shoot for Crate and Barrel where I made all this Thanksgiving food but the food was just a prop to the pots and pans.

Walk me through the day of the shoot.

Well my prep will be dictated by what we’re shooting.  If it’s a cake, I’ll bake it the day before and then frost and decorate the day of the shoot.  Usually I’m the one to develop the shot list because we have to go by the timing of the food. We normally shoot six shots per day because you average that each shot is going to take between an hour to two hours long — three shots before lunch and three after. That’s an ideal situation but it varies slightly with each client. I’ll work with an assistant throughout the shoot day. I usually handle the first shot on my own while he or she starts setting up the second shot and so on. If you’re shooting at a studio, they normally have everything you need to make it look like a kitchen counter or someone’s dining room table. I take that into consideration when I’m figuring out how to present the food. Usually I bring the food out partially plated and then go through a process of looking at it from different perspectives until we get to the end product. It normally takes between ten to twenty shots to get there. We’ll work together until we have something we want to show the client.

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Food photography has blown up on social media. Do you have any styling advice for people who want to take better photos?

It’s mostly just trial and error. It takes time to figure out an identity and voice. What happens over time is that you develop a consistent style that differentiates your work. There’s so much out there now — you need to figure out a way to separate yourself from the crowd.

What’s the best path for people looking to get into your industry? Is there any type of formal training?

There are some culinary schools that have started offering food styling in their curriculum, but I always tell people to assist because learning the culture and how a shoot is structured is very important.  If you aren’t ready to do the job when you get on a shoot, you will have your ass handed to you. The concerns you have when you start out versus the concerns after doing it for a while are completely different. No one is going to hold your hand — you have to understand the timing and pacing of a commercial shoot before you arrive on set. I’ve made that mistake before.

You took on jobs before you were ready?

Yes, I did it once before I was ready and never wanted to put myself in that spot again. I really wanted to be successful and knew my reputation was important so I never wanted to be underprepared again. I actually turned down projects in the beginning when I felt like I just wasn’t ready for them yet.  

What’s the hardest part of your job?

It’s very important when I’m working with an assistant that we are in a flow together. If I’m counting on someone to take care of a certain part of the shoot and it’s not being fulfilled then I wind up having to do two jobs and that becomes very hard. It’s difficult for me because I know that I haven’t prepared them properly if that’s the case. It takes a lot of time to understand what you need to be doing because every single day is different. And it takes experience to figure out what those things are and respond quickly. An assistant job isn’t a full-time gig so the hardest part is finding a great person to work with consistently. 

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Do you choose your assistant or does the client?

Usually I choose them. It’s tough though because most people don’t want to start out as an assistant since it’s not a very glamorous job — it’s a lot of dishes, running to the store and last minute errands. But it really does give you a feel for the different aspects of the industry.

Question from the last interviewee: At what point did you go all in and take a major leap toward achieving your goal?

After my first week of being on a shoot as an assistant, I realized that I could work with food while still being creative. I fell in love with it immediately. 

How old were you when you started?

34.

Did you grow up in a family that cooked?

Yes. I grew up in a small town in western Kansas that had one grocery store which closed at 5pm and wasn’t open on Sundays. I loved to cook — my mom would buy me cookbooks and I would work my way through them. My parents had the mindset that if you want a cookie, you need to make it. We didn’t have a lot of money so they weren’t going to spend a lot on packaged food. It was a very raw ingredients house.   

What one question do you want to ask the next interviewee on People With Cool Jobs?

If you could invite any three people to dinner (dead or alive), who would it be?

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