Paris is a city that a food lover can never tire of – seriously. It’s incredibly well equipped when it comes to the small pleasures in life, sipping delectable wines, nibbling artisanal cheese, doing a little shopping, or simply strolling along the Seine, that lovely gray river that flows through the heart of Paris.
Autumn in Paris is spectacular. It’s not nearly as warm as it is in New York City, but the cooler weather brings an early fall bounty of figs, mushrooms, and bunches of perfectly firm, freshly picked grapes. If the skies are cloudy or it happens to drizzle, no matter. Just one bite of warm, buttery croissant can brighten any rainy cobblestone street. And one doesn’t have to venture far to find freshly baked bread or piping hot home-cooked food. The streets are simply lined with bakeries, cafes, bistros, wine bars, and fine restaurants. But this city has something special to offer its tourists, even if your pockets aren’t lined with euros. The shops of Paris are a free feast for the eyes. Every block is decorated with plush window dressings, gloriously festooned manikins, deep red bottles of wine that glow gem-like under the lamp light on their appointed shelves, and of course, chubby figs with dusty purple skins that are nestled together in tidy wooden crates.
“Oh, let’s get a bag of these, the season is short,” my friend Natacha said as she filled a soft, striped brown paper bag full of black figs bigger than golf balls. “I’ll pick up some cheeses, olives, and fresh baguette later so we can have a little picnic tonight after work”, Natacha said with at least three pounds of figs in her bag. That’s my girl, I thought to myself as we ducked into her little compact car whose trunk was crammed with props, groceries bags, and a heavy tool kit – everything a food stylist needs for a long day of cooking.
“What are you shooting today?” I asked as we hit a major traffic jam on the freeway. “Simple things..” she replied with a shrug, tuning in her favorite radio station, FIP. I know that however simple the recipes might be, Natacha would find a way to make the food bright, lively and delicious.
Even before Natacha became a stylist, she always had an eye for beautiful food, working in some of the finest restaurants in Manhattan and tasting some of the best dishes New York City chefs had to offer. How would I describe what a food stylist does? I thought to myself. In some limited ways, the work of a stylist can be compared to what a restaurant chef or private chef does. The menu is always set beforehand, there are plenty of groceries, you cook, and you make the food look fresh and appetizing. Sounds simple, but what does a typical day of a food stylist look like? And what really happens to the food before it goes on set?
Natacha normally starts her day at 8 am. We arrived by 9 am, each with a heavy bag in hand, as her assistant, Sophie – laced up in a freshly washed apron – propped open the studio door. Sophie arranged cans, boxes, and bottles on a cramped countertop while Natacha and I packed a tiny square fridge resting on floor, full of plastic tubs and bags containing an array of goods from fresh buffalo mozzarella, sheep’s milk ricotta, to thinly sliced prosciutto. I felt the heat from the oven that had already been turned on and the scent of coffee carried on a cloud of steam floating over the kitchen sink. Valery, the photographer, gazed at his computer loading up while he shook hands with my husband and greeted me with two kisses on the cheek. The TV-sized screen suddenly displayed photos of chocolate mousse shot on lavender linens from the week before.
Natacha had already unpacked most of her props by the time I served myself the first cup of coffee. She lifted a sturdy ceramic plate out of her bag and set it next to a row of paper-thin glassware. “So how do you know which props to choose?” I asked as she reached for a Global knife, slicing a stack of fresh mint leaves. “I usually choose plates and props that don’t match exactly, I look for contrast – it’s more about the food to me, props are secondary,” she said, pointing to a blue gray plate she chose for the fig bruschetta recipe. She retrieved a metal spatula with a diamond-shaped tip from a tool kit that would make any handy man proud. “That’s a cool spatula,” I commented wondering if it came from some exotic French cookware shop I had never heard of. “Oh.. this is actually a painter’s tool. One of the food stylists I apprenticed used to use one. It’s great for delicate work,” she pointed out with a wink and a tap of the spatula on the marble countertop.
Crisp slices of bread hopped from a stainless steel toaster, snatched up without an oven mitt as Natacha set them on the plate. She then laid out chunks of fig next to slices of oil-soaked anchovies. With a pair of tweezers, she adjusted a delicate spray of sliced chives covering the top of the bruschetta. She lifted large sheets of soft pastel paper on and off the set where Valery would soon adjust his lights to begin the shoot. Natacha steadied a cardboard backdrop that would recreate the feeling of an entire room once the food would be added to the scene. “What do you think the most important part of food stylist is?” I asked, watching her flick a bit of chive from her blouse. “In a way, food styling is like telling a story..” she said, carrying the bruschetta to the set, “I like to create a mood or an ambiance.” She held up a piece of worn fabric next to the plate she planned to use for the next recipe.
“How about another coffee?” Natacha asked as she caught me in mid-yawn. “Must be the jet-lag!” I respond as we took a seat on the steps leading up to the kitchen. The crack of the camera snapping photos reminded me of the sound of fresh eggs hitting the floor, one by one. I reached for a Donna Hay magazine and Natacha’s eye lit up. “I really love the work of Chris Court , Mikkel Vang, and Con Poulos,” she said with a sigh as we turned the pages of a spread featuring an apple orchard and another with fresh seafood. “I think there should be similarities in the vision of the food stylist and the photography to make beautiful, artistically cohesive shots,” she commented as I admired the soft lighting in a photo of a young woman in a wrinkled lace petty coat reaching for a blushing apple. Gazing at this story book picnic that was both chic and homey at the same time, I thought back to what Natacha said about creating stories with styling and photography.
“Ok, so the spinach tart is next,” Natacha announced, setting aside the magazines and adjusting her apron strings. “After we shoot this, we’ll have lunch.” I nodded eyeing the bruschetta that was pulled off the set by her assistant. Contrary to what people think, most food stylists eat or give away the food they cook when styling for editorial pieces like this one. “Waste not” is the beginning of an old adage that both Natacha and I support in the workplace as well as in our homes. The sweet center of perfectly ripe, fresh figs next to the salty bite of anchovy made this simple recipe for bruschetta taste complex and elegant to me. Fresh arugula salad, prosciutto, topped with a slice of buffalo mozzarella – tender as a soft-boiled egg made a fine and filing lunch.
“Anyone for some chocolate?” Natacha coaxed, cracking open a tin loaded with organic dark chocolate bars she had at the bottom of her bag, supplies no doubt for a story on chocolate that she just completed. My husband grinned as he bit into a chunk of chocolate riddled with puffed rice and quinoa. “Chocolate is the perfect end to any meal,” Natacha said with a laugh. I replied, “I’m sure that we have many perfect meals ahead of us.” There is no question that Paris is indeed the city for lovers, especially food lovers.