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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Profile: Maureen Allaben, food stylist

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As a professional food stylist who’s worked for feature films and for Coca-Cola, Arby’s, Krystal’s and Publix, Atlanta’s Maureen Allaben is a makeup artist for all things edible. Her dishes certainly look delicious, but be careful — they’re not always what they seem.

Explain the term food stylist.

I'm the person that makes food ready to be photographed for either print, television or a film.

How did you begin your career?

Once I graduated from college, I began working as a photo assistant. Pretty soon after that, the photographers I was working for started asking me to help the food stylist on set. One day the food stylist didn’t show up, and I got the opportunity to do it myself.

What is your process for food styling?

Let’s say for example that I've been hired by a pie company to style pies. The night before the shoot, I would make a dozen mashed potato pies. The day of the shoot, I would bring the mashed potato pies to the set and remove the potato and insert whatever type of filling the company was promoting. I’ve done similar things for Thanksgiving shoots that require a turkey. I can take a frozen turkey and make it look cooked in an hour. Of course, it's completely inedible, but the point is to make it look good for the photograph.

What is the most challenging food for you to work with?

Real ice cream is very difficult. If I do shoot for a company like Coca-Cola and I use ice cream in the shot, then it doesn’t have to be real ice cream. If I do a shoot for a company like Breyers, they want me to use their actual product. It’s difficult because the ice cream has to be extremely frozen in order to maintain its look. At the end of the day of those shoots, my arm is practically numb.

How do you determine whether food is properly styled?

Typically, I’m given some direction on how the food should look from the client. In some cases they will give me a picture and I just pretty much copy the picture. Other clients will say that they want to romanticize their product and are seeking my expertise. That's when I have a little bit more room creatively. In the end, the client is always the final word. I have styled things in the past that I thought were absolutely beautiful and the client asked me to start over, so it really just depends on their vision.

What has been your favorite project?

My favorite was a campaign I did with Publix where they were promoting kids being healthier and more active. For the shoot I had to make a soccer ball out of a cantaloupe; it was a chance for me to be completely creative.

What films have you worked on?

Recently I worked on the film The Blindside starring Sandra Bullock. There’s a scene in the movie where there is a Thanksgiving dinner, and I had to style that. It’s always more challenging when you have to style food that people are going to eat, because not only do I have to make the food look pretty but it needs to be edible and taste good too.

(Photo by Alan Friedman)

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