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Image by Carrie Purcell Image by Carrie Purcell Image by Carrie Purcell Image by Carrie Purcell Image by Carrie Purcell Image by Carrie Purcell Image by Carrie Purcell Image by Carrie Purcell Image by Carrie Purcell Image by Carrie Purcell  

Carrie Purcell

Hi Carrie. Where are you based and how did you end up there?

I’m based in New York – my husband and I moved here from Santa Barbara, California two years ago in August.

Was there an “aha!” moment when you realized that you wanted to be a food stylist?

When I found out what a food stylist was, I knew that it was exactly what I’d been wanting to do – a perfect combination of the culinary and editorial/art worlds that I’d been involved in at that point in my life.

What drew you towards food?

I grew up in a house that revolved around food – grandmas and a mom who were great cooks and bakers, holiday tables overflowing with food, and I was always wiling to eat anything from a very early age. My mother still has a menu I created for a project in elementary school for my café that served breakfast and lunch.

How does one go about learning the art of food styling?

Assisting! Culinary school and/or working in a professional kitchen are important too (I did both before styling), but you really learn the little tricks of the trade, how to interact with a client, set etiquette, what you need in your kit, etc. from assisting and being on the job.

What’s it like trying to break into the food styling industry? How do you advertise yourself?

There are more and more food stylists out there, but there’s also so much more work as food continues to grow in popularity. It’s all about making connections within the industry, having a great online portfolio as well as a printed one, and self-promotion through blogs, mailers, etc. A lot of that self-promotion and connecting for me is taken care of by the agency I’m represented with, Big Leo Productions.

Do you actually cook and prepare most of the food yourself, or is that done by someone else before you style it? What’s the process like?

It’s usually done by me. My assistant and I are shopping for the best ingredients, chopping, cooking or baking each element and then plating and tweaking each recipe or shot. On rare occasion I’m just touching up something that a chef has prepared or a processed food that I need to add to or freshen up.

Are there any special tools you routinely use to style food?

My hands! My hands are always in whatever I’m cooking and styling – you have so much more control with them. My kit is also filled with fun stuff like tweezers, brushes, spray bottles and a kitchen torch.

Is it common for someone to eat the food you’ve styled after the shoot is finished? Or is it only pretty to look at and not to eat?

It definitely depends on the job and the food. If it’s something that ends up sitting out on set for several hours and isn’t safe to eat, we unfortunately have to throw it away. But the majority of the time we eat everything or send it home in baggies and Tupperware for the crew to enjoy for dinner! So I make sure to actually season everything so it tastes great.

Is there much travel involved in your job?

There is some travel but not a lot. There are really only a few cities in the country where most of the food styling work happens to be.

Can you talk about your experience working with Big Leo? How common is it for food stylists to work through an agency? Do you prefer it?

I prefer having an agent because it’s not really my personality to sell myself and do the hustle that the industry requires. Since I didn’t assist in NYC, I also didn’t move here with as many connections as someone like Big Leo, who’s been in the business for years. But there are lots of great stylists who don’t have representation as well – it’s really whatever works for you personally.

Your husband, Andrew Purcell, is a food photographer. How did the two of you meet and come to work together?

We met right at the beginning of our education – I was in culinary school and he was starting photo school, so it worked out really well as we were learning and developing our styles that we always had someone to test with.

How often do you get to work on shoots with Andrew?

Fairly often but we also enjoy working with other photographers and stylists cause it allows us to see how other people work, and each team works together in such a unique way. But we are also very lucky that we enjoy working together and get that chance regularly.

A lot of photographers are blogging nowadays. Do you recommend it? What kind of reactions have you and Andrew gotten from your blog?

The blog began as a creative outlet for us – we really love what we do and are constantly cooking, eating, entertaining, and creating so the blog allowed us to share what inspires us, as opposed to what we have to style or shoot for clients. Now it has also become a great way to post new work. I don’t know that much work has ever come directly out of the blog, but more and more clients nowadays enjoy seeing a stylist or photographer’s personality conveyed by their blogs.

What are some of your favorite foods to style?

I’ve always loved desserts and baking! In culinary school I wanted to be a pastry chef, so I think that attention to detail really carries over to food styling. Pasta and noodles are also a lot of fun to style.

What foods are the hardest to make visually appetizing?

Foods that lack color or fresh ingredients are more difficult than recipes written with the visual element in mind – imagine trying to make something pretty when it’s composed of mostly brown! That being said, there aren’t a lot of things I absolutely hate styling because I always enjoy a challenge as well.

Can you talk about the relationship between the food stylist and the photographer during a shoot?

The photographer, food stylist, and prop stylist all work together as a team on a successful shoot. We communicate about what angles the food will look best, presentation, a full bowl versus a single serving, colors to bring in the shot, etc. Then we all do our thing, and then reconvene around the set to work on the particular shot. It depends on the team and nature of the shoot, but usually I’ll let the photographer play with the food if he or she wants to, and they usually don’t mind if I look through the camera to make any styling adjustments.

Do you have a favorite publication you look at for inspiration?

I definitely miss looking at Gourmet! I look at other stylist’s and photographer’s online portfolios, as well as publications like Donna Hay and Martha Stewart. There are also lots of beautiful food and photography blogs out there that are great inspiration!

About the photographer

Carrie Purcell

Carrie is a freelance food stylist and recipe writer based in New York. After assisting, working for magazines, and cooking in professional kitchens in southern California, she's now been styling for about five years. Carrie relocated to Manhattan with her photographer husband 2 years ago, and has worked for clients such as Everyday with Rachel Ray, Food Network Magazine, General Mills, Fine Cooking, Cooking Light, and In Style. She also stays busy blogging on Pictures & Pancakes ( and developing recipes for other publications. She loves the ocean, stinky cheese, wearing flip flops, ice cold sauv blanc, dogs (even though she doesn't have one yet), throwing dinner parties, fireflies, and watching baseball.

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