|Appetising: A photograph of small steamed rice cakes created by Bui Ly Tien Nguyen's crew. — VNS Photos Doan Bao Chau
by Yen Trinh-Doan Bao Chau
In the past five years, food styling has become popular among the youth in Viet Nam's major cities.
They are transforming average dishes into mouth-watering, eye-catching delicacies with their skills.
At a two-and-a-half - hour session at his studio, Bui Ly Tien Nguyen, a 24-year-old food stylist in HCM City, took some 300 photos of a single slice of beefsteak on a white background.
His crew also spent one hour taking photos of a bowl of salad. It took Nguyen two days to prepare for the shoot, which was for a restaurant owner.
Nguyen painstakingly searched for premium-quality Australian beef at convenience stores and supermarkets and bought five kilograms to find the perfect palm-size slice of beefsteak.
The young man also bought some 10 kilograms of lettuce and other greens for just one bowl of salad.
Nguyen keeps a long list of stores and supermarkets that offer quality meat and vegetables and fruits.
He has gone to the market as early as 1am to get the best food possible, such as free range chicken.
Nguyen revealed that there is more to food styling than simply arranging it. One must 'capture' the food at its best.
For example, Nguyen had to pick the freshest, most appetizing slice from five kilograms of beef.
Contrary to popular belief, food styling usually features raw food. Nguyen carefully prepared the beef for the photo shoot, applying machine oil to it to make it appear cooked, accentuating the veins of the beef with paint, and giving the slice a fuller look with pads.
Nguyen revealed that most of the food he photographs is raw and it takes between two and three hours on average to prepare for the shoot.
More than two years ago, Nguyen dropped out of the HCM City University of Technology to try his hand at food styling.
After struggling for a few months, he established himself in the country's fledgling food-styling scene.
Most of his clients are restaurant owners or CEOs of big brands that sell fast food, cakes or instant noodles. He also has some foreign customers.
He styles food for food magazines, cookbooks and advertisement agencies too.
With each contract worth at least US$500, he earns a few thousand dollars each month, but also spends VND2 million to VND5 million ($95-230) a month on "idea reinvestment."
|Labor-intensive: Nguyen's crew often spends hours taking photos of dishes in the most eye-catching way.
Some food stylists are professional chefs.
Quang Duy, Hoang Nam and Thanh Hoang, who have some 10 years of experience working as kitchen assistants and chefs, became food stylists in October last year.
They have signed several large contracts, including one with local pottery producer Minh Long for whom they photographed 10 unique Vietnamese delicacies.
"The dish of mixed banh trang (rice paper mixed with shrimp, quail eggs and green mango strings) looks as if the rice paper sheets are flying. To create this effect, we placed them on a sloping panel of glass, and used tricks to make the rice paper and other ingredients look glossier and more tempting," Duy explained.
Food stylists can choose to adopt two different approaches: "lifestyle", which involves styling the food to appeal to the audience's appetite, or "art" which involves styling the food for aesthetic purposes.
Nam said that a profound knowledge of food along with passion, creativity, patience and an eagerness for growth are required for becoming a successful food stylist.
Apart from working on clients' orders, some food stylists also spend their time creating their own work.
Nguyen Dang Phuong, 31, who trained as a chef in Thailand, boasts a large portfolio of his own creativity while working as a food stylist for eight years.
His success lies mostly in his attention to detail. Even his work for clients is strongly suggestive of his signature style.
Local food stylists predict a greater growth in the profession in Ha Noi and HCM City in the coming years. However, food stylists face many challenges.
One is the hot climate, which causes food to spoil quickly. Because of this, food stylists sometimes fake their products, such as substituting mashed potatoes for ice cream and using plastic fruit.
A number of food stylists have also launched their own studios and food laboratories.
In December last year, Phuong opened his 300-square-metre Bite studio in District 8 and spent VND800 million ($37,650) on kitchenware, a warehouse and specialised cooking utensils.
His Green Olive Company, founded in 2007, also does food styling, earning at least four contracts each month.
Duy, Nam and Hoang also opened Infinity Laboratory, where they try out their innovative ideas.
"We don't need to look far for ideas. Rustic Vietnamese delicacies, such as banh beo (small steamed rice cake), com chay (rice crust) and banh chung (square glutinous cake), provide boundless inspiration to us," Duy said. — VNS