Pretty as a Pizza: Beautiful Food is More Than an Instagram Filter
May 29, 2020 02:59PM
By Andrea Kszystyniak
Heart-shaped citrus spreads and leafy green salads with fresh arugula, pickled onions, and curly carrots bursting to a bowl’s brim may seem easy to brighten for a film close-up. But behind the most artfully constructed salad is a bit of movie magic.
Sarah Jane Hunt, an Omaha-based food stylist, is behind some of the most artistic looking plates in the Midwest. Her work graces restaurant pages, including Scooter’s Coffee, as well as catalogs and international food campaigns.
“I have used cold mashed potatoes to build a salad before,” she said. “It’s like a flower arrangement.”
Hunt pushes the leaves into the mashed potatoes much like a florist uses foam when making an arrangement. The potatoes stay hidden, a silent supporting actor. It makes the salad look fresher longer, keeping happy-looking leaves from wilting under hot camera lights.
When planning her displays, Hunt often begins with a sketch. Her studio art degree from Missouri’s Columbia College plays a role, helping to construct beautiful colorful pages in her sketchbook. It’s here that she plots out how to best showcase each item of food: the creaminess of a swirl of peanut butter or the stretchy, milky goodness of melted cheese. Before Hunt has a shoot, she will get a list of products that her client would like featured for a recipe. From there, she makes grocery lists based on what she thinks will pair well together.
There are tricks of the trade that help. When Hunt wants to display the perfect sunny side up egg, say on the top of a breakfast sandwich, her methods are different than those used for cooking a home meal. To prepare, she’ll put the egg in a super hot pan, finessing the edges with toothpicks to get the perfect curl. She then covers it with a dome. When the timing is just right, the yolk still visible and not coated with white, the egg is pulled off the pan and immersed in oil where it is perfectly preserved, frozen in time, until it’s needed.
Growing up, food was a family language for Hunt. Her dad worked in the flight kitchen for United Airlines, coordinating with chefs to develop menus for flights, theming dishes around traveler’s destinations. Supper clubs were also a huge part of the family routine; neighbors would come over several times a year and share new flavors from around the globe.
Her background in music helps, too. Hunt had initially attended Drury College in Springfield, Missouri, on a music performance scholarship. She compares her process of food construction to that of Russian abstract artist, Wassily Kandinsky. When Kandinsky painted, he listened to music, and that music colored the movements of his brushstrokes. It’s the same with Hunt’s food styling, she said.
“I try to create a path for your eye to follow and the movement is musical.”
Gavin Peters is a Wichita-based photographer who has worked with Hunt for 15 years. They met working on a Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers campaign. Hunt’s artistic eye adds flair to shoots, he said.
“Kind of the difference between a Honda Accord versus a beautiful Ferrari,” he added.
Hunt’s background in the arts makes her a bit of an anomaly in the food styling scene; most people have chef’s backgrounds, she said. Her job as a food stylist wasn’t necessarily planned, it was more of a coalescence of a lifetime of skills and experiences.
After leaving college, Hunt moved back to Omaha to live with her older sister and was looking for work. Director Alexander Payne had just come to town to shoot the movie Election. Hunt landed an interview and received a position in the film’s craft services department, where she was responsible for helping to feed and care for a crew of more than 100 people each day. She described it as “backbreaking work.”
On set, Hunt was able to see a food stylist at work, including their creation of the “Pick Flick” cupcakes given out by Reese Witherspoon’s character Tracy Flick, a student body president hopeful. The combination of art and food without the obligation to be on stage excited Hunt.
After the movie wrapped and Hunt had a chance to rest, she began assisting food stylists. She amassed experience at Inflight Productions and Conagra but eventually struck out on a solo career.
Twenty-three years later, she’s still going and is in high demand for campaigns, big and small. Be it jam, chocolate, turkey, or grapefruit, Hunt’s focus is making the beauty of food the star of the show.
“I can be behind the scenes and still be a part of something exciting,” she said.
This article first appeared in the June 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine.