When we think about food, often we focus on whether the portion is enough to make us full, the taste and health benefits. But then again, when you grab a copy of your fave food magazine like Yummy, the food looks incredibly wonderful and delish and you get to see a different side to it.
Food stylists are responsible for making you feel like you want to rip off pages and eat the food or download some of those Instagrammable food photos and serve that instead. We spoke to Sharon Gatonye who has perfected the art of making anything, even that bland ice cream you enjoy every weekend, look like it dropped from the heavens.
Sharon Gatonye talks to us about what drew her to food, her experience working in South Africa, why she’s not a fan of stew and the future of food styling.
How did you get into the food sector; was it serendipitous or deliberate?
Food became more of a sanctuary. I like cooking with my mum then I became more fascinated when I’d go to the farm with her and we’d prepare what had been harvested. The fact I was raised in Kenya, which is a largely agricultural society, opened my eyes to how much you can do with just what you have and how to portray it in different ways. Food thus became the one thing I was easily drawn to. I’d save up to buy old food magazines you know back then it was publications like Jamie Oliver’s magazine and experiment on the recipes.
You’ve visited several local farms in the past year. What was the thought behind that?
A few of my friends and I have visited several farms around Limuru and it was all about finding the link between what we eat and where we source it from. I’m a trained chef and one of the key things I remember being taught was ‘as a chef, you need to respect your ingredients’. This is in the sense that you will be taking your clients on a culinary journey and you need to understand the process from the beginning. I joined an initiative called RootsToFood and it opened my eyes to more aspects of food. I also like knowing where my food comes from because it gives me a better sense of how to present it. And more on that, I’m also trying to see how to best avoid wastage even when I’m presenting my work.
Which meals are easiest to style and which ones take up more of your time?
Anything colourful is easy to work with. So items like fruits and vegetables have their own vibrant colours that make the work easy. Then you have items like stews which can be a bit hard to style. There’s only so much you can add or reduce to change the colour of stew and I find that as one of my most challenging meals.
What are some tricks of the trade to food styling?
Sometimes you’re on set for a while and you’re shooting different components that must all come together. You might have, say liquids with varying textures and some of them can’t hold for the duration of the shoot and thus we have to be creative. You might find us substituting milkshake or ice cream with really thick yoghurt since it holds and has stabilizers so it’s less likely to run down your hands. Sometimes we also use white margarine in place of ice cream as it has the same texture. For layering, if we want to show, say abundance in a pot of stew, we place say mashed potatoes underneath to hold.
Does it require a lot of pre-planning before shooting?
Yes, planning is key. It helps to be prepared all the time because a client might have given you a brief which will end up changing on the day of the shoot due to lighting and other circumstances. Therefore you need to be versatile and accommodate that. The idea is to think from the perspective of ‘this is what the client wants and these are the props they’ve given me but what else can you bring to make the set or shoot work even better’.
You’ve worked for Food & Home Entertaining SA Magazine. How did that come about and what has the experience been so far?
It’s been a wonderful experience and I like how they showcase the variety of food in South Africa. They are the ones who approached me and it’s been great working with them. Through them, I also got a few contacts in South Africa where I regularly have yearly projects.
As a recipe developer, does it take a lot of time coming up with recipes?
It does take time but I thank God since I have a background in culinary arts and food media which kinda makes it easier to know the composition of the food, texture and flavours.
How has social media impacted your work?
It’s been a positive influence especially in getting clients and building my portfolio. I used to work in print and TV a lot where it was easy to get referrals and now with social media, it gives people easy access to you and they get to see some of your work. For clients it’s not just necessarily about seeing you on billboards but how often you also pop up online. Say they see something from your page about Easter and they get ideas and want to work with you.
What has been the highlight of your career?
There’s a campaign I did for a client in South Africa a while ago and I was able to re-create that for a local client. It was about showcasing what their country has to offer in terms of food and I managed to create the same concept here. That has been my biggest highlight. It’s also encouraging seeing my work on billboards, supermarkets and such.
What do you think is the future of food styling as we move into the new decade?
It’s more of creating relatable content. Kenyan food media also needs to find a way to understand local food. If we can figure out a way to make more use of what we have locally, it’ll put us on the map. We’re slowly getting there considering the amazing talent we have now. We just need to find a creative way to showcase what we have to offer. If you compare South Africa and Kenya you realize they’ve been at it for almost thirty years and they’ve explored as much as they can. Kenya is still young in the food media sector and which means there’s more we can offer.
Follow her page on Instagram (SGatonye) and learn a thing or two about food styling or book her for your next food styling shoot.