Tricks of the Trade

A Day in the Life of a Food Stylist

When people meet Basil Friedman, a food stylist, one of the first things they say is, “Oh, what a fun job! I’d love to do that,” says Friedman. “They think you throw some food together and put it on a plate, and it’s nothing like that.” Not that he’s complaining. Friedman has been a food stylist for almost 20 years, a profession he sort of fell into. And he loves it. He’s styled food for many top consumer magazines, cookbooks and food packaging. But when you have a whole host of people depending on you to cook the food and make it look perfect, you do feel a lot of pressure, says Friedman.
The other question people always ask: “Do you shellac the food? Or use motor oil to baste a turkey?”
“I have never shellacked anything,” says Friedman. The only trick he’s used is something called Kitchen Bouquet, basically a brown substance that’s perfectly edible and perfectly safe; he’s used it as coloring. “I’ve never used motor oil,” says Friedman. “You can. There are food stylists who will use it for pancake syrup because it moves really slowly.” But with today’s digital technology, where photographers take a series of shots and combine them to make one beautiful image, you don’t need such tricks, he says.
Friedman, who was born and raised in South Africa, was interested in food at an early age. Not only was his father in the meat business, but also his older sister would manipulate him into cooking by asking, “What are you going to cook us for breakfast?” As the oldest son, Friedman was in charge of the barbecue. But attending the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco gave Friedman an education in cooking. Before school, Friedman says he didn’t know rosemary from thyme. f Afterwards, “I knew what things were,” he says. “But you don’t learn anything [about food styling] in school, like speed. You learn that speed by doing it.”
After stints cooking on a cruise ship, working as a chef and then as a food service manager, Friedman quit. He hated being a chef; he never got to see his wife, nor could he express himself as he liked in food service. It was while figuring out what to do next that Friedman was serendipitously invited to a photo shoot—a three-week commercial for a steakhouse. “It was one of these big, big, enormous TV shoots, with tons of people involved,” says Friedman, “and I was fascinated with it. You had to get the perfect steak, so you would cut — I’m not exaggerating — like 800 pounds of beef just to get one perfect steak. And that took two days.” At first, Friedman was just standing around watching, but then the photographer said, “You’re a foodie. Do you want to put on an apron and help?” The food stylist was delighted: She was short staffed; he was hired.
But what follows is a tale of persistence. Though the food stylist was happy with his work, she told Friedman, “You can’t just suddenly become a food stylist. You have to know the tricks. You can become an assistant.” This was in the early 90s — before Internet, e-mail and cell phones — so Friedman wrote at least 10 letters a week to food stylists “begging” for work. Eventually, when they couldn’t find another assistant, the food stylists started calling him. For several years, Friedman worked as an assistant (doing most of the shopping, prepping and cleaning the kitchen) until he became a full-fledged stylist himself.
Eighteen years later, Friedman is still happily food styling and happily busy. Aside from digital technology, which has made getting the perfect food shot easier, Friedman says that food can now look a bit more “messy.” “I would say 10 years ago you could never show a piece of cake that’s bitten into,” says Friedman. “Now you can show crumbs and partially eaten stuff. To me, that’s more fun than showing a whole cake that looks beautiful.”
And does he eat the fruits of his labors? Sometimes, though Friedman admits to often being sick of the food after styling it for a shot. But he’s learned not to throw anything out, as photographers often complain if he does. “Sometimes, if I make something just before lunch and it’s fine, I’ll put it on the table and people will eat it — especially with pastry,” says Friedman. And though his food doesn’t have boot polish on it, some of it — like turkeys, which are photographed better slightly raw on the inside but look beautifully cooked on the outside — are just plain unsafe to eat.
To see Basil Friedman’s work, visit

Inquiring Minds

Where do you shop?
That’s a no-brainer. Berkeley Bowl. It’s fabulous. They’ve got everything. I do a lot of work in L.A. and I often just shop here and put it on a plane and take it with me. The Bowl is king.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever styled?

A naked woman. It wasn’t really a food shoot; it was about the food stuff in makeup [for a woman’s magazine]. My job was to keep the vegetables fresh, and I remember putting basil over one of [the model’s] nipples. I had to attach it, and she was great. She knew it was work; and I knew it was work. And you basically can’t see anything because everything that would make it a porn photograph was covered. I also put lettuce in her crotch, and I remember having to keep it wet. I kept spritzing it for like 3 hours. When it was published, there was an outcry from the [magazine’s] readership. They said, “How can you do this? How can you put a naked lady and discuss makeup?”

Do you have a favorite kitchen gadget?

I think the best gadget is your hands. I don’t have a whole bunch of gadgets, but I do use my medical tweezers a lot.

What are your favorite East Bay restaurants?

Flora (1900 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-286-0100) is really lovely. You step through the door, and it’s like you’re in New York City. There’s also a great Cambodian place, Phnom Penh House (251 Eighth St., Oakland, 510-893-3825), I’ve been going to for 25 years. The menu hasn’t changed; nothing has changed. It’s fantastic and I’ve never not had a good meal there. And it’s very reasonable. I don’t think there’s anything there that’s more than six bucks. For tacos, Taqueria San Jose (3433 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-533-5748) has the best soft tacos I’ve ever tasted. The food is wonderful. The other place I love is Lois the Pie Queen (851 60th St., Oakland, 510-658-5616). I love it. I love it. I love it. And I always try to have a piece of pecan pie there because the way they make it there is God’s food. I never bring it back because you’re always disappointed when you bring it back. You’ve got to eat it there. And I usually have grits, and biscuits, and eggs.

Do you ever get comments on your name, seeing as you’re a food stylist named Basil?

Yes. All the time. They think it’s my Hollywood name, especially in L.A. It’s not. My parents named me that way before I got here.

Do people fear inviting you to dinner?

They do. And I always say, “Please don’t. I’m just a regular guy. I like basic food. Give me a sandwich, and I’m happy.”

Do you do all the cooking at home?

Yes. My wife, Marilyn, doesn’t cook at all. I’m better at it than she is. And she comes home late. By the time I hear her car door, the food’s ready.

This article appears in the March-April 2011 issue of Alameda Magazine
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