Have you ever cooked something that tastes so delicious, and looks great on the plate, but as soon as you take a picture for Instagram it suddenly resembles a sloppy mess? I have this problem all the time. Food photography is a real art, and that’s exactly why food stylists exist.
Liberty Greene Fennell has been working as a food stylist and writer for a number of years, and she shares her career story in this month’s #My9to5 feature. With no official culinary training, Liberty created her own path into the competitive food industry. And she’s proof that if you want something enough you can always make it happen. Read on to be inspired…
How did you get your start in the food industry?
I studied photography at Brighton University, and I absolutely loved it. But after I graduated I realised straight away that photography was always going to be more of a hobby than a career path for me. Around that time my mum asked, “What do you love doing the most? Try and make that a career.” And my answer was, “Hosting dinner parties.”
So I started a supper club with my best friend, Berty. We both felt really lost at the time, and just wanted to do something creative, so we started Your House at Mine. It was a pop-up supper club that travelled to different locations around London. The two of us would cook for around 50 guests, and we’d always have live music and a different theme for each event.
We didn’t have any training. And I still haven’t trained as a chef. Sometimes that’s a bad thing in this career, but I’ve been able to use it to my advantage.
How did you then make the move to food styling and recipe writing?
Berty and I worked on the Your House at Mine supper club for two years – whilst juggling other jobs – and one evening the chef John Gregory Smith came to a dinner we were hosting. He’s a really fantastic chef and has a number of brilliant Turkish cookbooks.
John and I became good friends, and he’s basically the reason I’m working as a food stylist today. He introduced me to so many people, including the food stylist Rosie Reynolds. And through my connections with John and Rosie I was able to get a job for the recipe box delivery service, Marley Spoon.
I moved to Berlin, and worked at Marley Spoon for year, writing and testing recipes for their meal kits. Every week was spent in the kitchen, cooking and shooting recipes. It was so much fun!
What does your typical workday look like, if such a thing exists?
Well, I’m now freelance, so it’s very up and down. For example, this week week I haven’t had a single day of work. But the last three weeks were completely booked up. So you never know what your schedule is going to look like. At the moment I’m writing for Sainsbury’s and Tesco, and I just styled a shoot for Marmite which was really funny.
I get bored easily, so I enjoy the balance of writing and styling because it means every day is different. When I’m writing and recipe testing I work from home, which means I basically spend the entire day eating by myself. And that can get boring very quickly. So I need the balance of working on photoshoots a couple of days a week as well.
If you work well with a photographer you can usually get the perfect shot pretty quickly. But sometimes you lay everything out and it just looks weird. Then it’s a case of tweaking every little detail – changing the background, the plates, the napkins… And that can take up to an hour. By that point the dish will have started to wilt a bit, because you cooked it an hour before, so then you have to freshen up the food. You can easily spend over two hours perfecting one shot.
How do you unwind after a long day at work?
I like to get home, have a bath and listen to some relaxing music. And then I end up in the kitchen cooking, yet again, because that actually relaxes me. My friends think it’s mental! But every single night I’ll spend another hour in the kitchen when I get home – even if I’ve been on a photoshoot all day. I never do the washing up though. My housemate looks after that.
What’s the biggest challenge that you face in your 9 to 5?
Being freelance is a challenge in itself. It’s boring not having any work, but it always picks up again after a quiet period. So you just have to trust that it won’t be quiet forever and stay proactive by emailing your clients to remind them that you’re there.
And it always tends to be the food stylist’s fault if something goes wrong on a shoot. It’s never going to be the photographer’s fault because they’re waiting for you. So there’s a lot of pressure on a food stylist, and that’s a daily challenge.
And, on the flip side, what are the perks of your job?
All of the free food. I’m not joking. I get to take home everything after a shoot. Sometimes it will be IKEA bags full of unopened food. So a lot of the time I don’t have to spend any money on groceries. If I’m testing a recipe for a shoot I always need extra ingredients in case something goes wrong, so my fridge is constantly stocked.
What are your tricks for staying motivated now that you’re freelance?
My friends are a constant source of inspiration. They’re all in really creative jobs, so we always bounce ideas off each other. I’m friends with a lot of photographers, so if we don’t have any work we’ll come together and shoot at my house for fun. Last week we spent an entire day cooking and shooting a roast chicken, which we then added to our portfolios.
Which other women working in the food industry inspire you on a daily basis?
Rosie Reynolds is amazing. She’s such a great food stylist, and she’s worked with so many incredible clients. Everyone in the industry knows who she is. Rosie is still really young, but she’s so successful and is always willing to help other people. Whenever I meet someone new in the industry they always say, “I got my start assisting Rosie Reynolds.” She’s always the one to give someone their first break. And I just think she’s the loveliest person ever!
And, finally, what advice would you give to your 20-year-old self, knowing what you know now?
Don’t ever give up. I used to spend hours on Instagram searching for food stylists, and I contacted every single one of them and offered to assist them for free. That experience helped me so much, because it’s all about learning. And, yes, you’re working for free, but it all adds to your CV.
Also, it’s important to remember you can change your career whenever you want. After university I was so worried about what I was going to do. All of my friends were climbing up the career ladder and I worried that I was going to be left behind. But you have to discover what you love doing. I didn’t even know what food styling was when I was at school, but it’s my dream job!
Catch up on the previous #my9to5 interviews here.