If there is anyone who has run the food styling gauntlet, it might just be my friend and Amagansett neighbor Susan Spungen. I first met Susan through the incredibly interlocking food community-family that is Instagram. Suddenly Susan was in my home last holiday season, homemade fruitcake in hand, and we got to chatting, you guessed it, FOOD! We came to realize that my son and her nephew go to school together in Manhattan. As their friendship blossomed over last year, (they are now best friends), so did mine and Susan’s. We have now shared many a family dinner and beach BBQ. Susan’s generosity and crazy food skills are vast–she even cooked a meal in her home for my entire crew as I was shooting my cookbook.
Of course, she has certainly had some rigorous training in the cooking and styling departments. Susan got her start in the food world in the high-pressure realm of restaurants and catering before transitioning into media to become the founding food editor at Martha Stewart Living. Instantly, Susan was a food stylist, and among her other responsibilities was assisting Martha herself. After 12 years at the powerhouse publication working alongside a talented creative team, (including the queen of entertaining, in the flesh!), Susan went on to food-style on the big screen for “Eat Pray Love” and “Julie & Julia”. And while the movie gigs sound glamorous, they were also incredibly demanding. As T Magazine and The New York Times recount, Susan has performed such culinary feats of endurance as creating 50 cakes for just one scene and trekking over cobblestone to deliver food to sets in 100-degree weather. If all that weren’t enough, she has also published three cookbooks, “Recipes: a Collection for the Modern Cook“, “What’s a Hostess to Do?“, and “Strawberries“.
Get a taste of Susan’s stunning food right here as she shares the recipe for her butternut squash tart with pomegranate-cranberry glaze. Beyond the recipe, Susan generously divulges some hard-earned food styling tips and tricks and shares her thoughts on the newest wave of food stylists, the all-in-one stylist-photographer-social-media-mavens.
NAME: Susan Spungen
PROFESSION: Food stylist, recipe creator, cookbook author
FOOD PHILOSOPHY? I’ve always applied the same innate creativity that I have as a visual artist to the creation of food. I might be inspired by a single ingredient, a concept, a particular flavor, or a vision of the finished product. I love using hyper-seasonal ingredients and often let them dictate my menu.
ESSENTIAL TOOLS IN YOUR FOOD STYLING KIT? Tweezers, of course. Evian spray, offset spatula, turkey baster, eyedropper, Eye-Tees (pointy cotton wabs), lots of spoons, and lately, my Searzall.
BIGGEST DIFFERENCES IN FOOD STYLING FOR PRINT VS. FILM? With print it’s all about the tiniest details, like the hair on a raspberry. Not so for film. It’s more about making a bold statement, and quickly. Since the image is moving, you have only a second to make an impression, so color and form become really important.
HOW DO YOU APPROACH COOKING AND STYLING AT HOME VS. AT WORK? Not all that differently, actually! I use my home cooking as an opportunity to explore new ideas for recipes, and I always try to make my food beautiful, so essentially, I am always practicing and honing my craft. Of course, there are things one has to do on set that you would never do at home, which is to basically dissect things, and sometimes avoid salt or acid in a recipe.
GO-TO TRICKS TO KEEP FOOD LOOKING FRESH? Well, aside from trying to shoot fast, lots of brushing things with oil, or misting with the aforementioned Evian spray.
FOODS MOST DIFFICULT TO STYLE? I think melted cheese is the hardest, because it’s hard to control, and looks good for a really short amount of time.
THREE INGREDIENTS YOU COULDN’T LIVE WITHOUT? Eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs.
DESCRIBE A DAY ON SET FOR AN EDITORIAL SHOOT AND ONE ON A FILM SHOOT. It’s funny because people tend to think that working in the movies is a glamorous job, but it’s anything but! For print, we work in a nice, sunny studio with a kitchen, and generally work from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. We know exactly what’s on the agenda, and the stylist gets to set the pace. In film, we are working with a much larger group of people, and are just a cog in a bigger machine. We are often working in a dark soundstage with a less than ideal kitchen setup, and days are 12 hours or longer.
THOUGHTS ON BLOGGERS AND SOCIAL MEDIA MAVENS BEING PHOTOGRAPHERS, FOOD AND PROP STYLISTS? Well, it is a different sort of situation when you have total control over your own shoot than what some of us have been doing professionally for many years, but I like to think that we who have been doing this for a long time have been a source of inspiration for some of those who have started more recently and have become one-man bands. It’s a sign of the times and our changing media landscape. I say more power to them!
GO-TO RECIPE WHEN ENTERTAINING AT HOME? Oh my, I don’t have just one! I am always trying out new things on my guests, but you can’t go wrong with a classic like bouef bourguignon, or some kind of baked pasta.
DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOU ARE WORKING ON A MAGAZINE COVER? Yes, usually. Most magazines set aside days for this, but once in a while a shot is so good it ends up on the cover even if it wasn’t planned that way.
ENDURING ENTERTAINING TIP FROM YOUR MARTHA STEWART LIVING DAYS? Try to make things showstopping, even if they are showstoppingly simple! This is what people remember. Martha was really good at this in her catering days. A good example from her original entertaining book is an enormous basket (yes, baskets were big then,) of strawberries. Just the sheer amount of them made it special.
ADVICE FOR SOMEONE WANTING TO BREAK INTO THE BUSINESS? Find people you admire, and then reach out offering to assist for free. Then show up and work like you’re being paid.