WHEN PEOPLE LEARN about Johan van der Merwe’s trade, they often ask whether those perfectly-sculpted dishes in the ads and magazines are a little too good to be true.
“The first thing people wonder is if they’re fake … and in most cases they’re not,” he said.
Van der Merwe is one of only around half a dozen professional food stylists in Ireland whose jobs are to make people salivate over succulent meats, fresh salads or decadent desserts.
“In the past, you didn’t have Photoshop so everything had to be perfect and aspirational - food didn’t even look real back then,” he told TheJournal.ie.
“There would have been moulds made and in order to get a chicken looking plump you needed to dye it with a wood stain and stuff like that, but things have moved away from that because now we know better.
I’ve only used real food so far … except for ice cream. You really need to get the food to look like everyone can make it themselves so instead of it being aspirational it has to look achievable, especially if you’re trying to sell it to the mass public.”
The making of a food stylist
For the past three years Van der Merwe has dedicated himself to the art of preparing food for the camera after spending more than a decade working as a chef.
That career had taken him from his native South Africa to the Michelin-starred kitchen of Michel Roux’s Waterside Inn in the UK and a long stint as head chef at Cork’s Cafe Paradiso.
More recently, he worked as a demonstration chef at the Ballymaloe Cookery School before a photographer planted the idea of becoming a full-time food stylist with him.
As much as I loved cheffing and cooking, I couldn’t see myself being 50 and still in the kitchen,” he said.
Now based in Dublin, Van der Merwe’s work ranges from TV and printed ads for supermarket chains Lidl and Centra to shoots for producers like Irish food startup Improper Butter.
The perfect meal
He said much of the technique in capturing a flawless meal on camera came down to presentation - that carefully placed piece of garnish or flake of salt.
It comes down to how you put it on the plate yourself and that’s very achievable, that’s very easily copied by a home cook,” he said.
But Van der Merwe admitted there were a few tricks of the trade which meant an amateur preparing a real meal for their family wouldn’t be able to achieve the same level of visual magnificence.
One technique commonly used was to only blanch green vegetables like beans so they kept their lustre on camera, while many meats were also undercooked to keep them looking fresh and moist.
In the case of chicken, Van der Merwe said he used brining techniques – soaking the meat in salty water as preparation – so that it could be cooked all the way through but still get an “amazing” brown finish on the outside.
Cream was also used to replace milk for that gorgeous “pour shot”, while dishes were routinely “spritzed” with water or oil for a glossy sheen.
And the ice cream? That might really be butter or margarine whipped up with some icing sugar and colouring to maintain a flawless scoop under hot lights.
“Depending on the shoot and what you are selling there is an ethical connotation,” Van der Merwe said.
So if you’re selling ice cream, you need to use the real product. But if you’re selling the cone, you can use fake ice cream.”
Credit James Burn
Besides the long days, which could run to 16 hours on set as every piece of the food puzzle was meticulously tweaked, Van der Merwe said the hardest part of the job was finding unusual and out-of-season produce to match clients’ demands.
A recent search for blood oranges had him hunting across the globe, eventually yielding two for a cocktail shoot.
And like any freelancer’s lot, there was the unpredictable schedule which meant Van der Merwe often didn’t know what or how much work the coming weeks would hold for him.
This week he was shooting another TV ad, while next month he will be appearing at the Electric Picnic festival as part of the “theatre of food”.
Source: YouTube/Lidl Northern Ireland
But the reward, he said, was the ability to create something more long-lasting than just a meal.
“I live in Rathmines and I walked home yesterday and I took photos of all my photos up on the road; it was everything from billboards to bus stops to brochures to stands in shops.
When you actually walk down the road and see all your food around you it’s so much more satisfying than being a chef, where your food just disappears straight away.”
Source: YouTube/Jacob's Biscuits
Odd Job: Food Stylist
What does it pay? From €35o to €650 per day
How many are there? Only a handful in Ireland
What qualifications/experience do you need? Most food stylists have a background in cookery, while some may also have experience in photography