By Riki Shore
Valerie Aikman-Smith travels the world styling food, working with some of the best photographers in the world. A native of Scotland, she now resides in LA, where she works as a food stylist for films, TV and print. Her list of clients is long, including films such as Titanic and Oceans 11, TV stars like Giada De Laurentiis, and print outlets such as Bon Appetit, Sunset and Vanity Fair. Her photos are nothing less than breath-taking. I had the pleasure recently of catching up with her in between trips to find out more about how she does what she does.
TS: It’s easy to imagine that your work as a Food Stylist has you jet-setting to exotic locations, working with celebrities, and photographing exquisite food and tableware. What is a day in the life of a food stylist really like?
VAS: It depends on the project and what type of work I’m going to be doing, whether advertising, live action, editorial or a cookbook. So if I’m doing a cookbook, I’m given all the recipes and the shooting schedule. I prepare a shopping list and any specifics that need to be pre-ordered, such as out-of-season foods. Then I shop and prep anything that can be made ahead. Then I hit the studio with a trusted assistant and work with the team on the shots for that day. Then I hit the store again at night to buy perishable goods for the next day. This is a long-winded way of saying, I start the day in the grocery store and I end it there, no matter what time of night.
TS: What have some of your most enjoyable assignments been?
VAS: Anything to do with travel and great photographers. My favorite destination always is Paris, but I loved shooting on Crete. We stayed at a fabulous hotel, a Relais Chateau, but I loved it not for the food but because I could dive off the stone quay every day into the clear blue Aegean waters and swim for hours.
TS: What are the trickiest foods to photograph and why?
VAS: Souffles and ice cream, because they don’t last for long. Speed is of the essence and shooting with a fast photographer is key.
TS: Part of your job is making food look as appetizing as possible. What tips can you recommend for a home cook who wants to accentuate how his or her food looks on the table?
VAS: I like to keep it simple. It’s nice to bring the outdoors indoors with either wild flowers or some olive branches as table decorations. I like to keep my plates white and neutral and I have a mixture of old silver flatware that I use all the time. It doesn’t matter if things don’t match as long as they come together.
TS: Do you have any go-to stores or designers for tableware, glassware and linens?
VAS: All my things are from flea markets and thrift stores, or they’re beloved objects I’ve picked up on my travels. I like both the Long Beach Flea Market and the Melrose Trading Post. They always have cool things. I’m also super lucky I have a sister who is an antique dealer, so she is always giving me beautiful things.
TS: What are your favorite foods to cook?
VAS: I like to cook anything beautiful and organic from the farmers market that catches my eye. Last night I grilled Santa Barbara Spot Prawns that were tossed in garlic and California organic olive oil…a heavenly feast!
TS: All of your work is visually stunning. What can you tell us about the photographs here?
VAS: At the top is one of my all-time favorites, a shot of Branzini from my own cook book Salt: Cooking with the World’s Favorite Seasoning, shot by the uber-talented photographer Jonathan Gregson in London. The one below is a Roasted Beet Salad from the book Good Food to Share: Recipes for Entertaining with Family & Friends. I shot it for Williams Sonoma last summer.