Sometimes it pays to reinvent ourselves to realise our true potential. Because, unless we try, we never know what we missed, what we are capable of and where we could have gone following our calling.

Payal Gupta, our next pathbreaker, Chef, Food Stylist & TEDx Speaker, ensures that food products of her clients look appealing, unique and aesthetically rich in terms of presentation.

Payal talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from the Interview Portal about pulling the plug on a successful career in Qualitative Research and switching gears to Food Styling to be in a creative space and work independently.

For students, our lives are not defined by a 9-5 routine job. Its much bigger than that. Take risks, deal with challenges, carve out a niche and savour the experience.

Payal, tell us about your background?

Before I start to pen down things let me tell you that I am a Chef and Food Stylist. My work is to modify, arrange and decorate food to make it look aesthetic for the camera.

I am writing this interview to explain how I transitioned from a corporate career to being a chef and food stylist. Though most of us are aware of the profession of a chef, very few people know about food styling as a career and that is what I intend to explain in this interview.

I grew up in the city of Kolkata. Till my 12th standard I was a science student and in college I studied Economics. At the tiny age of 6, I discovered my affinity for arts and always participated very actively in art and craft workshops. I was a keen cook from the beginning and tried to spend as much time as possible in the kitchen along with my mom or sometimes alone.I remember that I loved making things look beautiful around me irrespective of what they were. So I liked decorating my clothes, my home, food etc.These activities always made me feel special.They gave me a sense of purpose.

I was also very sporty, had leadership qualities, loved reading books, painting, singing and being a part of drama/plays. So, to sum it up, I was an outgoing kid who loved being adventurous and creative.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I am a double graduate. My first graduation was in Economics from Kolkata University and second graduation was in Culinary arts/Patisserie n Cuisine from Le Cordon Bleu (Bangkok). I never did my post graduation. However I went to IIMB in 2015 to do a management course specially designed for women entrepreneurs.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

I was raised in a Marwari joint family of 21 members. My family was a family of food lovers and cooking food was like a celebration each day. I grew up observing 5 women cook in the house, and the meditative way in which they cooked food had a deep influence on me. Food was considered to be sacred in our house. My mother and grandmother were 2 women I looked up to as a kid while growing up. So it would not be wrong to say that they were my early childhood influences in cooking.

When I was 12 yrs old, I read a magazine called Graphiti where I read a recipe and saw an image of Shahi Tukda presented by Chef Jiggs Kalra. I was totally smitten when I saw that picture. It was as if the image was talking to me and I remember that the image stirred some feelings inside me. At that very moment I promised myself that in life whenever I cook and present a dish it would look as real and beautiful like what Chef Jiggs Kalra had presented. This I would say was the turning point of my life as I was for the first time introduced to the world of beauty in the realm of food.

Then, as time passed, I started to learn cooking professionally from home chefs in Kolkata. Jagriti Desai and Mrs.Alim were 2 cooks who influenced me during that time.

As I turned 16 yrs I started to teach cooking professionally to pursue my passion and to get myself some pocket money. I continued this till I completed college.

Once I finished college I moved to Mumbai, took up a job and my cooking stopped completely. I worked as a qualitative researcher for 4 yrs between 2004-2007. In spite of the fact that I was doing well, I felt a rising discontent within myself and each day I felt that I was living an unfulfilled life. I realized that by my attitude I was a person who loved taking her own decisions and wanted to be in a creative space. The mundane office work was not something I could identify with.

In the 4th yr of my job (2007) I finally quit and took a 7 month sabbatical to make sense of my life. Upon much reflection I came to a conclusion that I should indeed follow my passion for cooking and beautifying food. However I did not know if a field like food beautification existed. It was by sheer luck that one fine day while looking for vocations revolving around cooking and food decoration I stumbled upon the word called Food Styling. I read about it and realized that it was indeed a stream of work which revolved around food beautification. That was the moment when life changed for me and I started my journey into the world of Food Styling.

However since there was no school in India or overseas to teach this craft I had to figure out a unique way to learn and be a part of this craft.What I did and how I did is something you shall read in a bit

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

When I decided to be a food stylist I first equipped myself with some facts which were as follows:-

  • My income would come down to 0 or a paltry sum, so I should be prepared to live in a budgeted way till I start earning well which could take me anything between 4-5 yrs
  • I would have to do part time research work to keep myself afloat, study cooking professionally plus styling at the same time to learn and apply things in real time
  • My family might not be able to understand my decision to be a food stylist, so I should be patient with them. Alongside I should not judge myself for making this shift and be kind to myself
  • I should not get disheartened if I am unable to get breakthroughs at work initially and keep trying

Having explained the above to myself I applied to many senior food stylists in Mumbai to work under them. I did not meet with any luck for 3 months. Then one fine day a food stylist asked me to meet up. I went to his studio and had a long chat with him. He loved my enthusiasm and asked me to start learning cooking professionally in his restaurant. I started going to work in his restaurant the next day and parallelly enrolled myself in Sophia college Mumbai first for 6 months and then IHM Mumbai for 3 months to study food. This was because, due to my age at that time (27 yrs), I was not eligible for any full time courses and hence had to take up only part time courses which these institutes offered.

The food stylist under whom I was an apprentice was initially not willing to have me as an assistant. But luckily, one day his assistant did not show up and I was asked to take his place. Since I performed very well on that day, from that moment I cemented my place in his team. For 3 yrs I kept styling with him and also parallelly kept studying food at various institutes in India and overseas. I also worked as an apprentice chef at restaurants which offered me a position as a trainee. Post 3 yrs I launched myself as an independent food stylist and started doing very small assignments which eventually picked up pace and scale over the next 5 yrs and by 2016 I was well established in my craft as a food stylist. So all in all it took me 8 yrs of hard work and dedication to make my mark in this craft.

How did you get your first break?

I had always been known in the shooting circle as a focused and hardworking assistant to my boss during food shoots. When I branched out on my own as an independent food stylist someone I had worked with in the past (while I was an apprentice) approached me for a small shoot which did not require a senior stylist and that’s how I got my 1st break.

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Financial survival

My 1st challenge was financial. I used to have a big fat salary as a researcher but suddenly I was reduced to a salary of 2k per month as a trainee. It seemed impossible to survive in that salary in a city like Mumbai but luckily my savings kept me going. However I did have to make lifestyle changes and avoid spending money for a few years.I had days when I had no money for rent, electricity bill or food. During those times my friends bailed me out and kept me going. Also, I had so much belief and love for this craft that even during the toughest times I could never give up.

Challenge 2: Emotional

My parents were against my decision to embrace this new career. They could not understand why I would leave a cushy job for a profession about which I knew nothing and had no experience. This lack of understanding from my parents was very challenging for me as I frequently found myself lonely and misunderstood.

Challenge 3: Industry acceptance at work

My 3rd challenge was to be accepted by the food styling industry. The industry is a small one and very niche. Most stylists in the industry had 20+ yrs of exp when I entered…So clients trusted them and were not willing to bet on a new stylist. More often than not I would be hired and then told at the last minute that the client was not ok working with me as I was new. This meant no work for me and no way to showcase my talent. But slowly I started to get work and over a span of 5 yrs those rejections reduced considerably and I was able to make a place for myself in the industry 

Tell us what you do as Chef and Food Stylist?

I run my own company by the name “Chef Payal Gupta Foodstyling” Company in Mumbai. I have 6 employees today who work under me plus a pool of freelance chefs. My job as a food stylist is to make food look beautiful. Now almost all food brands advertise their food products in this immensely competitive market and every brand wants to make their product look different. Now there are two things I do as a foodstylist- First is that since most products are mass produced they are great in taste but not in looks. My job then as a food stylist is to make these products look pretty through food trials. This in turn helps my clients sell their given brand of food more effectively to consumers and make profit. Second is that when 2 different clients are selling the same product and I am handling the work for both, I have to ensure that the products of both these clients look different in terms of presentation. This requires me to always learn newer ways to style food and keep my craft updated.

What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?

A food stylist should know how to cook, how to decorate food, how to pick up the right crockery for food, how to manage a team and be a problem solver because on sets there are many unforeseen events that come up which need last minute handling. He/she needs to wear multiple hats and keep changing them as and when required.

Well, some skills like aesthetics are inborn, while team management and cooking can be learned through practice over time. As far as problem solving ability is concerned this may be learnt through the course of work when problem situations arrive .

What is a typical day like?

There are 3 different kinds of days I have in my working life-A typical work day, shoot prep day and a shoot day and know that they are all different things.

On a typical work day I get up, have my tea, exercise and then get to work. Work involves pitching to new clients, putting up posts on social media, thinking of dishes to shoot for my portfolio, finding references of the same and putting into action the shoot plan. Alongside, I also spend time on business expansion, strategy development etc 

A typical prep day for shoot starts with my team ensuring all the staff is in the cooking workshop at the right time. I then make a schedule and plan every dish that needs to be prepared for the shoot. This is followed by me taking a staff briefing to divide work amongst people. Once the work is distributed, my job then is just to supervise the workflow in the workshop. Parallelly I coordinate with my client and ensure that all is good. By the end of the day, post finishing cooking in the workshop, we cool down the food, store it and then sit one more time to take stock of the work situation. We plan the next day’s events and give staff time to report back to the workshop the next day. Post this we pack the crockery and vessels for the shoot in trunks to make ourselves shoot ready. Next day the stored food is packed with vessels and props and taken on sets.

A typical shoot day involves my team ensuring that all staff reports 3 hours before shoot to the workshop.We assemble and have tea. We then pack food in the shooting trunk and upload them in the big van.Then all of us leave for the shooting location. On reaching the location we set up a makeshift kitchen with fridge, gas, tables etc handed over to us by the shooting department. This is followed by us opening our trunks and arranging our food, utensils and props.We then put up the shoot schedule and food references on a board so that each member of the team is aware of which food needs to go at which time. At this point we start preparing dishes based on the order in which the shooting team would require it. Once the food is cooked, it is plated and decorated by me and then finally taken to the shooting floor. There, based on client’s feedback, the food is tweaked to make it look a certain way…this cycle goes on for about 15 hours. Once all the shots that had to be taken are shot, we wrap the shoot, hand over remaining food to the client, pack up and leave.

What is it you love about this job? 

I love the creativity attached to this work. No two assignments are the same and thus there is no monotony in the work. Plus I get to be my own boss.

How does your work benefit society? 

My work benefits the FMCG companies as it helps them sell products, but that’s the commercial aspect of my work.

At a society level when people look at the images styled by me they too aspire to make food look that way by styling it. In the process they experiment with food and enhance their creativity. This gives them confidence and empowerment. Alongside this, the decorating of food also gives their family joy as a thing of beauty is joy forever.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I did a Fortune rice and oil campaign with Akshay Kumar in Jan’20. During this campaign one of the dishes we made was biryani. Akshay Kumar had to just pretend to be eating the biryani. But when the plate of biryani with raita was placed before him, he asked me if he could eat the same. On getting a nod from me, he stalled the shoot for 30 min and ate the biryani. He even asked me for my number and told me that he wanted me to cook the biryani once again for him. This was a really gratifying moment for me as it made me realize the power of beautiful looking food which is what my craft is all about.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Incase you are planning to make a career in food styling keep the following in mind:-

  • Make sure you study food professionally. This will help you not only to cook the dish well but will also help you become an expert in modifying the dish for making it shoot friendly
  • Join a senior food stylist as an apprentice for 3 yrs to learn the craft as there is no school in the world to teach you this craft
  • It can take anything between 4-6 yrs to establish yourself as an independent food stylist. During this time be patient and keep working. Avoid living in the future as the power is always in the present
  • Have a financial backup when starting in this field because initially money might be slow to come
  • On days when you have no shoot still cook, style and take pics of food to enhance you craft
  • In case you are already in an existing profession do not quit it completely and join food styling. Make a gradual shift.This approach will ensure financial stability for you.
  • Experiment with the same food using different sets of ingredients. This will help you develop alternative food techniques of cooking food which will be handy during emergency situations when some ingredients are not available.
  • Always document your food findings.This will help you during shoots.
  • Read whatever material you can find about this craft online
  • Styling=Art+food science+management so learn all three

Future Plans?

I have already launched a DIY series called Garnish on Youtube which is targeted towards the common man. Watching the series will make people a pro at decorating food, flowers and tables. My aim is to take styling to every nook and corner of India

I am launching a 2nd series called Styling Lens on Youtube which is aimed at people who wish to be professional food stylists/photographers. This again will help them decode food styling and food photography and learn the craft.

I am launching a hospitality apparel company next year…cannot talk much about it

I already launched food styling for events such as corporate parties/weddings etc last year.

As of now this is what I would be focusing on.

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