What does it take to make one of the magazine's recipes come to life? Collaboration, good timing and a kit of tools, says Maggie Ruggiero, a freelance food stylist. She regularly works with a team to produce some of the photos seen in the magazine, including this week's inventive twist on classic steak frites from Sam Sifton.
"When people hear I'm a food stylist, they say, 'Oh, you make ice cream out of Crisco, and turkey out of rubber,' '' Ruggiero says. In reality, every ingredient used is real and often procured the morning of the photo shoot.
Here's how she spent a day preparing and photographing Sifton's steak mock frites.
8:15 a.m.: My assistant, Pearl Jones, meets me in the East Village and lugs grocery bags over to Avenue A to buy watercress and other ingredients I didn't find on my way home the night before.
9:04 a.m.: Kevin Haverty, the owner of Hudson & Charles, squirrels us into his butcher shop to pick up our steaks before they open for business. The steaks are boneless rib-eyes, three-quarters of an inch thick.
9:58 a.m.: Lucky for us we have a call time of 10 a.m. Maeve Sheridan, a prop stylist, organizes potential props. I pull out my food stylist's kit.
Food stylists often have a kit of weird stuff. You have your own knife, paintbrushes, your favorite salt. You always have a box of Ziploc bags. My kit includes a butane mini-torch. There's no flame, but it has a heat element. You don't always want to come at the food with a blowtorch, because sometimes that would be overkill. I think I bought it at a hardware store and now I can't live without it.
10:21 a.m.: We put the potatoes on to boil and let the steaks come to room temperature. Pearl starts making the fancy butter. The studio smells like thyme.
10:45 a.m.: The potatoes are drained and ready for smashing.
11:10 a.m.: Then we put the steaks on, and the studio starts to smell like steak.
11:41 a.m.: I talk with Jason Sfetko, a designer at the magazine, about plating the steak. It's collaborative — we talk about lighting, turning the plate this way or that and placement. Where should the meat be on the plate? What part of the plate would I attack first?
We work fast. Food is a little needy. Few foods will wait for you. You put basil down and minutes later it loses its luster. People want that runny-cheesy-gooey moment, but that moment is fleeting.
12:38 p.m.: We photograph the plate until we think we've got the shot. Now, the moment we've been waiting for. Lunch is served family-style.
1:18 p.m.: We clear the plates and start cleaning up the kitchen.
1:56 p.m.: It's the shortest shooting day on record, but that's how easy this recipe is. People want a recipe that can be made time and time again, something bulletproof. And as a food stylist, you hope that you've made a recipe look as appetizing as it is.
See the final photo of Sam Sifton's mock steak frites and the recipe here.
INTERVIEW HAS BEEN CONDENSED AND EDITED.