My initial intention when starting this series was to post one interview each week for the final weeks of class. Well, class is over for the semester, and guess what didn’t happen?
Which brings me to important Grad School Lesson 1 – going to school at night and working full time is hard. No matter how much I love food studies and genuinely want to do all the readings in their entirety, I’m not invincible – far from it. Sometimes I just need to watch 7 episodes of 90 Day Fiancé. And that’s okay. Learning to appreciate learning for what it is, rather than worrying about grades and papers and projects, has been the most important lesson from my inaugural semester.
But now that the semester is over, my final interview project needs to be turned in. So I’m going to pack these pieces into one content-blasted week, and I really can’t wait to share them with you. I am so incredibly grateful for the collection of food industry rockstars that agreed to speak with me for this project. Next up, meet Melissa Schwimmer, culinary producer for BSTV Entertainment.
In addition to being one of the coolest cucumbers (look at her rocking those overalls like a champ), Melissa currently works on the set of Food Network’s The Kitchen
, an hour long show where culinary personalities cook seasonal recipes, provide meal tips, and playfully schmooze in front of a live studio audience. Another important fact about Melissa is that she has a very tiny dog named Moose, which is hilarious, because he’s actually a dog and not a moose.
Q: Hey there! You have such a cool job. How did you end up in this field?
A: So I started out as a cheesemonger. Through that job, I met a freelance food stylist and learned a lot from her. I fell into my previous job at MacGuffin Films as a food stylist, shopper, and assistant, and I worked there for a year. I was also freelance styling during that time, and I worked with Chobani, I did cookbooks, I did a whole bunch of other brands, and I loved food styling. But the freelance hours were a BETCH.
So I had drinks with a woman in the industry who was also a food stylist because I wanted to get her take on things. It was just a random meeting and then she actually happened to post about a job on Facebook, so I gave her my resume, interviewed the next day, got the job on a Monday, started on a Tuesday.
Q: What exactly is food styling?
A: It’s basically making food look pretty for consumers. I worked for all the big brands – Burger King, Taco Bell, Red Lobster – you name it, I’ve done it. So any time you see a burger on TV, it’s been styled. So I’m making the seeds look perfect on the bun, I’m melting the cheese to perfection, making the burgers look unctuous and meaty and steamy and delicious.
Q: So how do you know that you were going to be good at this job? How does one get into the world of food styling?
A: It’s just having an eye for what looks pretty and what would make other people hungry. A lot of it is just trial and error. There’s no school for it. It’s learning through others, and through experience, and gaining confidence with it. But I didn’t know I’d be good at it other than I like making food and making food look good for other people. So I tried it, and I loved it, and I was pretty good at it!
Q: Let’s say you’re a reader and you’re interested in getting into the world of food styling. Do you need to have a portfolio?
A: Most jobs require portfolios but it’s mostly just word of mouth. Everyone knows everyone in the realm and once you get in, you get more experience. So you start out as a PA (production assistant), and then you are given more responsibility and tasks. You see how the stylists work and then you’re given your own jobs.
Q: So it seems like to get into the world, you need to know someone first that’s going to give you a chance.
Q: As you said there’s no school…
A: I mean you can go to culinary school or take classes at any school for food. Somebody might say, “Oh I like that background, that work ethic.” But for the most part, it’s a lot of word of mouth and who you know.
Q: So once you’re in, what are a few of the major challenges in your industry?
A: Freelancing is really hard. Some people love freelancing – they love that they can make their own hours. I just find it stressful because you never know when you’re going to get another job. You could work for weeks straight but then there’s a dead period and you don’t know what your doing with your life. You’re home on a random Tuesday sitting in your apartment calling your friends saying, “Hey guys, you wanna go out?”And everyone’s like, “We have work” and you’re just like, “oh. right.”
But in my job currently, one of the biggest challenges is communication. There are so many people working on one thing that if one person’s off, everything turns to chaos. It’s important to talk to everybody and make sure everybody’s on the same page, especially with a large team.
Q: What is the hardest thing to food style?
A: Anything time sensitive. Like cheese – it will dry out really quickly. Eggs are really hard. And anything that needs to be hot.
Pursuit of the perfect yolk
Q: Is the ice cream in commercials really mashed potatoes?
A: No. It used to be. We use a lot of fillers in styling, but by law, you have to use a company’s product in commercials, especially for big companies.
Q: Oh! So there are laws that regulate this industry?
A: Oh yeah, now there are.
Q: I didn’t know that! So Burger King can’t be using a Shake Shack burger in their ads.
A: Exactly. We just have to make it look really pretty. We can use things to enhance it but we have to use their product. So when I did a shoot for a big ice cream company for example, I had to stand in a 20 degree room for 12 hours. We were all huddling for warmth.
Q: That sounds… rough. Do you at least get to eat the food you style?
A: When I was just styling for commercials and shoots, I ate none of it because there was a lot of bad chemical stuff in it most of the time. In my current job, I eat everything because we have chefs in the back that are preparing the food that goes on set. It’s a struggle during shoot weeks because we have all of the food from every single show, and then we also get catered lunch, and we also just have all this food around all the time and I have no self control. I’ll eat a double cheeseburger for breakfast and then have cake for lunch.
Q: Where does the food come from when it gets to set?
A: We source from every supermarket.
Q: So are there people that go out to the supermarket and get it? Is that a job on the show?
A: Yes, we have shoppers.
Q: Oh my god, I want that job.
A: Actually, it’s not great. I did it in the city, and carrying 75 pounds of groceries through the streets of Manhattan is one of the worst things that you can ever do. You’re carrying 80 oranges, 5 melons… I was rolling them down the street at one point. Shoppers are hard workers and basically their goal is to get the prettiest stuff for television. But even though it’s a super hard job, it’s definitely a foot in the door and can get you lots of other job opportunities.
Q: I’ve been thinking a lot about ugly produce…
A: In my personal life, I buy ugly things when I shop. My views on food can be pretty different from what we put on the show. Our demographic is people who are looking for easy recipes and inexpensive ingredients. I like creative cooking and sustainability, which are often at odds with the content on the show. It kills me a lot of the time which is a huge challenge but at least I can go home and eat an heirloom apple and know that I’m supporting a local farmer.
Q: So once you’ve got the food on set, what happens to it?
A: We have a prep day before where all the stylists are figuring out their recipes that we, the culinary producers, give them. The next day, we start at 7:00AM. We have carts that we set up for each of the six acts of the show. During a shoot, it’s an endless cycle of food going in, food coming out.
I am very conscious of how much we buy, so after the shoot, I take stock of what we bought and what we have left over, and try to make it better for the next shoot. We keep everything in the office that we didn’t use that isn’t perishable, and also donate everything else afterwards. We donate to a women’s shelter and I go every run.
Q: That’s amazing. Do you think all shows are doing that?
A: I think more people are doing it now than ever because there’s more consciousness of food waste. And I think a lot of production companies are starting to do more. Mostly everybody is trying to do their part and either compost or recycle. That’s a big thing too – not just the food but recycling of packaging.
Q: If given the chance, would you want to be a food stylist for Guy Fieri?
A: If that were to happen, literally my intestines would fall out of my butt with excitement.
Q: You have to promise me that if you meet Guy Fieri, you’ll keep your intestines inside your body.
A: Okay, fine. My intestines will stay put.