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Close-Ups

Anna Lee, Food Stylist

Getting weird and staying on budget are essential ingredients for this role

November 18, 2019

Delicious vomit. Anna Lee has a recipe for it.

As a food stylist for film and TV, her domain includes pretty much anything that goes into (or out of) an actor’s mouth. And unlike commercial food stylists, who snag all the clickbait listicles with their motor-oil-as-pancake-syrup tricks, she has to keep it entirely edible.

Whenever possible, Lee also likes to make the on-screen food delicious, making her job the midpoint between artist and chef. Given her background, this makes perfect sense. She studied film at National Taiwan University of Arts and then worked as a producer on a travel show for Discovery Channel Asia. While producing, curiosity led her to seek out locals who could help track down the most unique aspects of their region’s cuisine.

The experience made Lee think seriously about blending her love of food and film into food styling. This notion grew exponentially after she was recruited to work on Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which was filming in Taiwan. When production wrapped, it left her with solid connections in Hollywood, so she decided to make the move to the United States.

In Los Angeles, Lee attended culinary school and worked in restaurants and as a private chef, all while slowly building up a food styling portfolio. Now, eight years later, she’s got an impressive resume. She’s worked on films such as Roman J. Israel and Destroyer (starring Nicole Kidman) and TV series like Insecure, Grace and Frankie, Silicon Valley, and Why Women Kill.  She also DJs for fun at local bars.

In this interview, we discuss creating cuisines that don’t yet exist, balancing microwaves on bar stools, impressing Eddie Murphy, and, of course, the secret to tasty vomit.

Kerry McLaughlin: Can you explain the difference between the kind of food styling you do and commercial food styling?

Anna Lee: If you’re doing still food packaging or food commercials, the food is the star. You have to make it maybe not edible, but really beautiful, and your client will have opinions from all over the world. Like, the New York office will have a say on how the cheese of the pizza pull should be more, less, longer, shorter . . . so it’s really food-centric.

But when I’m doing film and TV, the movie is the star of the show. For example, I’ve been doing this new CBS show called Why Women Kill. It’s a story about three women in three decades — 60s, 80s, and present day.

Kerry: Oh, right. Lucy Liu?

Anna: Yes. So, like the 60s housewife, obviously we have to do extensive research on what the food looks like in the 1960s and if she’s having dinner for two, romantic, then everything — what that looks like in the 60s is definitely not the same [as] right now. [The point is] to make the set and the character believable. So sometimes we call movie food styling “food props” because you are providing props, but specifically food.

I also did a few sci-fi movies [that featured] food that doesn’t really exist in the real world. So then you have to design your food. That’s very different from making a burger look extremely juicy. And even though they’re all [considered] food styling, I have to be involved with the story, with the art director, sometimes directors and cinematographers.

But in the commercial world, it’s more about the client and the product. I do both, but I’m definitely more of a film and TV stylist. But the commercial stylists, they have solid crazy skills! Like, if you were to talk to an experienced commercial stylist, you might get a completely different story.

Kerry: Do you use any of their tricks?

Anna: Yeah, for sure.

Kerry: Like using glue to look like milk or . . . ?

Anna: I definitely don’t use glue or anything fake because you run the risk of actors or background extras eating it. You don’t want to risk that — unless it’s like a fake ice cream shop where everything is in the background, and no one’s supposed to put it in their mouth. Then I will use fake ice cream, which is made out of like mashed potato, Crisco . . . it’s basically like play dough.

Kerry: So it won’t melt.

Anna: Yeah. But if there is any chance that people might put it in their mouth, then everything has to be real. Even vomit. So you’ll see a TV show and you see people like drinking too much, girls holding each other’s hair in a bathroom. And, obviously, they don’t really throw up for real. They have to put something in their mouth to throw up. That’s technically something they eat. So I will sometimes have to make, like, delicious vomit.

. . . if there is any chance that people might put it in their mouth, then everything has to be real. Even vomit.

 

I think I did a formula that was overnight oatmeal mixed with some cinnamon maple syrup and other things that make whatever color I think it should be looking like at the time. You get that chunky, really gross look, but with maple syrup cinnamon, it actually tastes great, and you are helping the actor not really have to eat anything vomit-like. Oh, and I also have to do, like, fake oysters because if they are scripted to eat raw oysters . . .

Kerry: Yeah, they’re delicate.

Anna: . . . and continuous eating, take after take, could be pretty gross. I tested this for years, really. I used to be so scared to get a phone call about oysters. But then I figured out this tapioca slurry, once you steam it, it’s halfway translucent. It almost looks like an oyster. Especially if you squeeze some hot sauce to sort of cover part of it. It looks just like an oyster. So that’s really great to put that on part of your skillset because no actor wants to eat raw oysters take after take.

Kerry: Ugh, could you imagine?

Anna: Or like caviar. Caviar is a very expensive thing. The little jar is 50 bucks. So if it’s scripted, I shave the outside of a blackberry, just that tiny little seed part, and then soak it with a little more black liquid, like food coloring or coffee, balsamic. Then, when you put it on a cracker, it looks like caviar, but it costs you absolutely nothing. It’s just like that — you’re learning every job. Problem solving. And eventually you will be like, “I’m the expert of raw oysters!”

Kerry: The fake-oyster lady of Hollywood!

Anna: Yeah, something like that! I’ve started hosting a tasting event I call “Con Artist,” where I serve a tasting menu inspired by all the problem-solving I’ve had to do as a food stylist. It has the fake oysters, fake chicken nuggets, vegan sunny-side up eggs. Stuff that just messes with your eyes and tastebuds. I think most people think food stylists can’t cook real food, and I wanted to challenge that.

Kerry: How much food do you typically end up making for a scene?

Anna: Usually a lot because you never know. Like, they will tell me, “Today is a 1980s’ party scene with seventy background actors.” So you already imagine, Okay, it’s got to be a bigger room, maybe with some servers with serving trays walking around. But you don’t really know. Usually if it’s scripted that someone is eating, then whatever that thing that they said they were going to eat, we have to triple, four times, five times. Some for sure is going to be eaten and then we have to reset for however many takes.

Every director is different. Some directors, they go two takes, and they’re happy. Some like to get long, multiple takes to get the best feature of this micro expression of a pickup of an actor’s face. When I get a call, I can never be like, “So what kind of director is this one?” But you still can anticipate. It could be two takes or twenty takes, so I do overprepare most of the time.

I will make sure to know what is scripted and what is not, cause if it’s not scripted, it means everything is just for the set. So then the chances of you resetting, refilling someone’s place is less because people just act with it, even if it’s like a plate of steak. They might not, like, even eat it. They just pretend. But then if the script says “So-and-so took a bite of the steak, commenting on how nice it is,” then I know for sure I’m going to bring so much steak to set.

Kerry: Do you cook it in an industrial kitchen somewhere and then bring it to set?

Anna: Nah, usually I cook it here [gestures to her apartment kitchen]. I also have a couple assistants, depending on how big the workflow is. I might do some of it here, and she does some of it over there and then we meet up and assemble it on set. My kitchen here is pretty sufficient.

Kerry: It seems like the research is probably the most fun part of your job.

Anna: Yes, for sure.

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Kerry: How did you come up with the sci-fi food that didn’t exist in the real world?

Anna: The director was really fascinated by molecular gastronomy, so he already had in mind some weird foam and spheres, like translucent bubbles. So I researched molecular gastronomy and just picked out an element of it. I also looked into astronaut food, but it turns out astronaut food does not look movie-ready at all. Still you pick up elements here and there. It’s still movie magic. It can’t be 100 percent realistic.

Kerry: There’s nothing to compare it against. We don’t know what aliens eat.

Anna: Yes, for sure. Or we don’t know what people eat in 2045. Like technology could be completely different that we no longer need to eat freeze dried food if we’re astronauts. So you can let the imagination run wild.

Kerry: Would you say that’s the most creative ask you’ve had?

Anna: I would say so.

Kerry: What’s the hardest shoot you’ve had?

Anna: A recent project I did in Romania. It’s also sci-fi, thirty astronauts stuck in a spaceship trying to find — actually, I don’t know if I can say that. I just won’t say the name of the project, because they’re still making it. OK, it was thirty actors stuck in a spaceship. First of all, thirty actors come with thirty dietary restrictions. Everybody has something they couldn’t or wouldn’t eat. Plus, thirty actors makes the workload ginormous because if each of them takes a bite, I have to reset everybody.

In movie making, I say we’re like the blue collar of Hollywood.

 

With thirty dietary restrictions, I pretty much could only do vegan because some people are vegetarian, some have lactose intolerance. So vegan, nut-free is your best option. You run no risk on allergy or meats, plus vegan is best on set since things might be sitting at room temperature. Vegetables are definitely better than having meat or chicken on set. That one was hard with the restrictions and the workload, and I was doing it by myself because the production was in Romania.

Kerry: What’s your ideal on-set situation?

Anna: If we’re shooting at an event venue, they usually have a full-on commercial kitchen, and I can use their equipment. I can lay out everything flat. Otherwise, sometimes you have to stack plates together in the corner somewhere. And then you have to put like a microwave on a top of a barstool or something. In movie-making, I say we’re like the blue collar of Hollywood.

Kerry: Food stylists?

Anna: Food stylists, props, yeah. I definitely appreciate the training. You could work anywhere basically.

Kerry: Have you been in situations where you’ve had to get creative because of budget?

Anna: Yes. For movies, we have different tiers of food, like the food that the leads are going to eat or the food that’s for the background actors. For example, in a diner, only this one booth is what actually matters. Everything else behind it is far away, out of focus, or just adding an element with the customers. So with the background, to save budget, I buy a lot of pre-made, canned stuff. Like, in a diner, I would buy frozen biscuits with like canned gravy, or the gravy could be . . .

Kerry: Like milk and soy sauce or something?

Anna: Yes, definitely. As long as it looks like it and is edible. So you don’t make things from scratch to save budget.

Credit: Ed Rudolph

Kerry: I was looking at your Instagram, and you’d made some amazing looking “muffins” out of leftover goji berries. Was that for the alien shoot?

Anna: Oh yeah, that was for the astronauts’ food. They already had a tray that had a specific size they wanted for the muffin or “loaf.” It’s where [the astronauts] got their protein; that’s the set up. So as I was mentioning, it had to be vegan, but it had to look cool. It can’t just be a buttery little teacake. In Romania, I had to see what they had there because I couldn’t really read the food packaging; it’s all in Romanian. So when I saw goji berries, I was, like, “Oh, that’s great ‘cause it’s red, and it has a weird little seed in the middle.” And if I use matcha powder, I can make kind of like a green and yellow swirl with like little specks of goji berry. So that’s something I felt like, OK, this is a very easy way to make a special-looking, out-of-this-world muffin.

Also towards the end [of a shoot,] you do try to save some budget. So that’s what I put together, and it turned out great. I’m very good at saving budget. In Hollywood, that’s what matters. Even if they do have the money, if you agree on a certain budget, and you go over, they’re not going to call you again because you’re marked as a loose cannon. There are so many things that can go over budget, you don’t want to be one of the reasons people are worried.

Kerry: Is there a typical route into food styling?

Anna: I guess nowadays because of Instagram, it’s a lot easier. Food bloggers, they pretty much are their own route into food styling. I assisted a couple food stylists before I went on my own, so that’s also a good way. I don’t know a sure route, but I went on Craigslist and looked for a photographer. I didn’t have a portfolio at the time, so I was posting an ad asking if there was photographer also in the same situation — they don’t have any food styling, but they wanted to expand their food portfolio. I collaborated with some really good food photographers at the time, and we both gained some nice photos for our websites.

. . . if you agree on a certain budget, and you go over, they’re not going to call you again because you’re marked as a loose cannon.

 

Once you have a presentable website, there is this database that’s basically the only website that lists all the food stylists in the country. It’s free. You just have to write to the admin to say, “Hey, I’m a food stylist, this is my website.”

I know food stylists often have either a culinary degree or restaurant experience. But there are also stylists that have art and sculpture backgrounds, which is a great asset to have when it comes to cake decorating or creating realistic food art. So, culinary background is not a must but definitely a big plus.

Kerry: Do you ever go out of your way to make the on-camera food extra tasty because you know some famous actor is going to be eating it?

Anna: Yeah, for sure. I did work with Eddie Murphy on a film called Mr. Church. He plays a private chef, so the food styling became very important. Like I said before, we rarely make meals from scratch because the labor cost is high, but with Eddie Murphy eating, I made sure to spend time finding really good recipes and checking if he had any dietary restrictions. I made things from scratch instead of just dumping out canned food and calling it a soup.

I did a lentil soup for one of the scenes that I really spent time making. It wasn’t just for him either; there was another actress too. When we stopped filming, they both asked for more, just for themselves. I remember the prop people and the director were very impressed because usually, Hollywood celebrities, they don’t eat more unless they have to because they have to watch out for their figure. So it’s a big compliment for me that even after we’d cut, they were still asking for more. I was very happy. It’s so nice to cook food that actually tastes good too sometimes.

Kerry McLaughlin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. In the past, she wrote and edited at various magazines and websites, including Allure, XLR8R, and Vice. In recent years, she’s worked in narrative and documentary film as an editor, script supervisor, and researcher. Besides that, she teaches a media literacy workshop to kids, volunteers with the homeless and developmentally disabled communities, hikes long distances, and climbs tall mountains.
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