Please tell us about yourself
Imagine a plate of hot, steaming, fluffy, snow white Idlis, or stuffed to perfection, aloo paranthas dressed with a dollop of white butter. Hungry yet? What is it about “good-looking” food (Hopefully haven’t offended the average looking ones :P) that tempts us so much.
Don’t you love to add your touch of styling by sprinkling coriander leaves on food? Most of us do that if not all. But, did you know that food styling is a legitimate career option, too?
We sat down with the crackling chef, Payal Gupta who has carved a thriving career as a food stylist. Payal shares with us her journey to the top in an unconventional field. Her words,“I have to be the best and set a new benchmark everytime I take up a project.” Over to the country’s top food stylist who is also a floral designer and a qualitative researcher with a Management experience from IIMB.
Can you tell us how you ended up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
“I started off as a qualitative researcher in Mumbai in 2004. In July 2007 I quit my job and took a sabbatical for 7 months to understand what I wanted to do in life. I had realized that it had to do something with food and art. When I typed for professions incorporating food and art on Google, it threw up the word-‘Food Styling.’ That was it, I got my existing career. This meant I had to relearn a new craft and start all over again in life.
The time I was married to my first husband for 2 years, I was dependent on him financially. I convinced him about my passion and started to make cold calls to people to teach me this craft. Nobody agreed but persistence paid off and after 2 months, a chef who works as a food stylist gave me a chance to work as his assistant on shoots.
As his assistant, my work was primarily to be a shoot manager and not cook on sets. I saw the process of work and absorbed as much information as possible. I was the Karate kid back then as I build my muscle by mundane activities of sets.
Mostly I was away from home-working and studying and not getting any monetary compensation in return.
I sold my Mutual Funds, borrowed money from family and took help from friends to finish studies and graduate as a chef from Bangkok in July 2012. I came back to India in August 2012 and stayed over with friends for 2 months as I had no money to rent a house. Finally, I managed to put some funds together to move in a small house with broken furniture.
For some time I played a victim in my own mind but then I told myself one day while standing on the street and thinking what to do next-“You have lost everything in life to pursue your career…you have nothing more to lose so jump in”!
What did you study?
I studied at the prestigious culinary school Le Cordon Bleu in Bangkok and also studied at Sophia college and Dadar IHM in pastry and cuisine. I also trained under celebrity chefs like Rohit Sangwan and Eric Perez in Pastry and Chef Christian Ham in Cuisine.I have worked for Taj Lands End,Mumbai and Grand President and Dusit Thani in Bangkok.I have also worked for Chef Sanjeev Kapoor
Any challenges you faced?
In my early days in food styling, nobody was willing to teach me this craft. I called up people all over the globe and jumped in and worked in a restaurant, assisted a food stylist and went to culinary school to learn the craft over 3 years before I was on my own. Doing that required a lot of grit and determination as the pay was negligible.
Nobody was willing to give me work as a food stylist when I started on my own. I realized that I had to sharpen my skills at work and do my best in whatever work I get from clients. This made me push myself in a new direction and take more initiative and start my own company by the name www.chefpayalgupta.com.
can you tell us about a day in life of a food stylist?
As a food stylist, my job is like a cosmetic surgeon for food. This requires extreme dedication and hard work. Mostly on a given day, I work for 14-16 hours. A normal day for me has no schedule or work timings as in this field I have erratic hours of work.
My day revolves around returning client calls about project inquiry, pitching for new clients, streamlining workflow for upcoming shoots, taking up marketing initiatives for my company along with my business partner for further expansion, and writing articles for Linkedin.
What is the future for a food stylist?
Food is people’s biggest obsession globally. FMCG brands have realized that we all eat through eyes first and not the mouth. They have woken up to the need to make their food packaging appealing to grab a bigger share of the market. So, definitely food styling is here to grow higher and higher. More and more people are now getting exposed to this craft so it should not be a surprise if you find their numbers multiplying over the next decade.
The journey has not been an easy one to climb to the top and become one of the top 2 food stylists in India today. My work now is more technical, organized and fast. We keep track of food-related developments and everyday work towards making styling more attractive and faster as a process on sets through better equipment, trained manpower, and planning.
We spend a lot of time in preparation so as a result, on shoots our deliverables are amazing. Today I am not just a stylist but a food brand person too.
From handling top food clients including HLL, Nestle, Cadbury, Britannia, McDonald’s, ITC, Adani Wilmar etc. Nonpayments and ill behavior from clients are now a thing of past. My payments on sets have increased by 20 times over 7 years. There has been a significant shift and it took a lot of sweat, blood, and method.
I kept telling myself that I am a rescue player sitting on the side and waiting to get a chance to bat on the field in case a given food stylist (player) is not available (retired hurt) so when I get a chance I will grab it and do amazing work. That approach worked and today I am not a rescue player anymore. I am the GO TO PLAYER. I worked day and night for the last 10 years before I got my share of fame. Lot more to do and achieve now.
It’s important that we as women understand who we are, what inspires us. Do not believe that being a mom/wife/daughter is all that is there to your personality. BE YOU! Have the courage to work hard, be okay with opposition and rejection, and take it in your stride. Embrace your imperfection and do what you desire most, perseverance pays. Each moment restart life!