friday feature: susie theodorou

Susie Theodorou is a brilliant food stylist whose work has been seen on the covers of many magazines (Martha Stewart Living, Food & Wine, Everyday Food, Real Simple, Gourmet and Waitrose Food Illustrated, and Williams-Sonoma's Taste) as well as multiple commerical projects and commercial reels. (I had the opportunity to assist her for jobs with Real Simple, Gourmet and House & Garden. She's fabulous.)

She's no new-comer to this field, food styling has been her profession for about 20 years. Susie is also the author of two cookbooks, Coffee and Bites and Can I Freeze It?

Traveling all over the world for her food styling jobs, Susie tells us her favorite places to eat and shares her story about this exciting and challenging profession.

Here is our interview, for you:

01. Will you explain how you decided to become a food stylist?
I never really plan or decide anything too much in advance – especially with work. Had I planned it, I would have become a Wimbledon tennis champion!!!

Luckily, I also loved magazines and cooking as much as sport. I did not like reading at school or doing much homework, unfortunately, I left everything to the last minute. However I did hangout in the kitchen with my maternal grandmother, which in turn made me a good cook…I passed home economics and sociology with flying colours. After searching to find which route of further education to take, I came across internships at magazines in one particular course – so I just went for that one. I had not alternatives…it was all about the glamorous life of working on a magazine. I definitely did not know anything about this niche industry at the time.

02. What has been your most challenging job (on set, working with food) so far? (please explain a little about what you do with food ---i know some readers haven't heard of the profession) Have there been any disasters?
What do I do? I am a trained home economist, which makes me a home-cook and not a chef. I cook food for photography to be used in magazines, cookery books, food shows or food commercials. Sometimes the food might be recipes that I have devised, or they belong to another author.

My style of food-styling, means that I am hired to make food look as one would cook it at home – real and natural. The challenge is to make this real food stand around a lot longer than it would necessarily stand in the home kitchen without spoiling. I don’t know how to cheat much, as when I was a junior/assistant, the fashion was for food to look slightly imperfect – phew!

The challenges through the years have been different…when I first started working on my own shoots, I had many a sleepless night, worried that I would forget things.

Changing my direction in the business, from weekly and service magazines to the glossy magazines was interesting, as there is some level of snobbery towards the service magazines. A bit of hard work and self-belief in your work really helps.

Moving to New York half way through my working life brought along hurdles that did not even cross my mind. I did not have time to be homesick – getting to grips with the different ingredients (the flour was a big challenge) and measurements; then for the food to appeal to a much, much bigger audience to that I was used to in the UK made me think differently about the recipes. Working in large corporate worlds where you cook by committee rather than intuition was very interesting!

And now… working on commercials as well– now these are a different kind of test! The pace is so much faster than I’m used to; I plate up a lot more bowls/plates than I do for photography. However, always, the group of cooks/assistant food stylists who work with me on all my jobs are extremely talented and make the new challenges so much easier to get through.

03. Who is your favorite photographer to work with?
Absolutely impossible to pick a favourite photographer, there is a whole group that I love to work with – they make my day whizz-by – it’s always a pleasure to go to work. My move to New York opened a whole new world of photographers to work with. New York seems to be the melting pot where all the big talent from all over the world converges upon, and the opportunities are beautiful. I do have to point out, that prop stylists and art directors are also a very crucial part to a brilliant day at work…it’s one big team effort.

04. What is it about food that excites you?

I think definitely the flavour of food is the most exciting, very closely followed by the look of the food. I do have to say, the flavour is crucial.

05. Where do you find inspiration?
Travel for sure is a big inspiration. Having the opportunity to see where certain dishes come from, how they are cooked in different regions all helps with the knowledge and as to why a process is that way. Food markets make me want to rush home and start cooking with what’s around. Certain people’s knowledge of food is very inspiring to me – I think it’s the trust element that is very inspirational as well.

Restaurants also are very inspiring:
I worked in LA a couple of times last year. I really enjoyed the restaurants there…the freshness to the food in the restaurants was really eye-opening.
Two favourite restaurants of last year I think are Axe in Santa Monica; and St. John Bread & Wine (Spitalfields, London) – their food has stayed in my mind.
…Okay more than two places…yes, The Lardo in this teeny little restaurant in Locarno, Switzerland; not forgetting the best ever Boullabaise, at Tete-Tout, in Jean le Pins in the south of France… My rule of thumb is if I can still remember food I ate a year ago (without writing it down)…it must have been a really good….which means Noma in Copenhagen (2 years ago was amazing – it’s still so fresh in my mind).

06. You work all over the UK and US ---where else have you traveled for a job?
Last year took me to some pretty good places…Istanbul, Sydney, Durban, Pisa, and Locarno (Switzerland). Even when I travel for pleasure, it’s nearly always about the food - Budapest; and Cannes, plus amazing restaurants in that region…not forgetting Paris of course (one of the plus sides to having a flat in London – its just a skip and hop to other European cities)

07. How did you catch your big break in food styling?
I have been lucky - being at the right place at the right time – even though it did take me a year and half to be at that right place for a the full time magazine job that I so wanted at the time! I kept writing, and bugging people, letting them know that I was there…then once I was in as a junior, you get to hear about what’s going on in the industry. Once you are in, it’s word of mouth…this is a very tight industry.
Then, as the years have moved on, photographers have given me big breaks – offering me good jobs that have come their way, as have art directors and editors…

08. Do you find inspiration from other food stylists?
Oh yes! I definitely feel that you should like the work of the stylist that you assist.
My first editor/food stylist I worked for, Angela Drake (in the UK), was amazing. I loved her temperament – she was super cool, did not allow people around her to pressure and fluster her. She always said, “a photographer needs a few polaroids to get things right, why do we have to plate up only once – wash the plate and start again!!!”
Maxine Clark (UK), I only assisted her for a short while, but she was an encouraging teacher, her pastry is perfect…and I still look out for her work – to see if my food is as good as hers.
Also in the UK are Janet Smith - I love her unconventional way of plating up; and the confidence you see from her food styling.
Alastair Hendy – beautiful work all the time – I always feel I wish I had thought of it first. Alastair is also a photographer now.

In the USA – Frances Boswell (semi-retired as she studies Chinese medicine, food and acupuncture) – she makes simple food look so, so delicious; Susan Spungen – l was aware of her styling from way back when I lived in London, and flicked through Martha Stewart Living for inspiration; and Anne Disrude – love her delicate touch on food.

Australia has some pretty amazing talent: Donna Hay’s touch is impeccable, and Sue Fairlie-Cunningham – the latest book that she has worked on for Neil Perry – Balance & Harmony: Asian Food, is absolutely beautiful.

09. What was the most exciting job you've ever been on?
I cannot pick one. Offered the opportunity to towns and cities I have never been to, and would not necessarily go to, have proven to be exciting. Alaska and it’s wilderness, has to be way up there as one of my favourites. The food was delicious – first time I had oyster soup; the scenery and quietness was beyond anything I could have imagined! Mumbai about 8 years ago – the curries were so deliciously fragrant (and hot, even the mild ones!) – and the colours of the women in saris were mesmerizing.

I think, 12 years ago, the first of my lucky jobs, as the food stylist to Ken Hom’s Wok around the Pacific Rim, for the BBC was the most exciting. I went to Sydney, LA and Vancouver in 3 weeks. I got to learn about Chinese cooking from a master, and discover the food of the cities with someone in the know. The work was good and exhausting. I slept for a whole week when I returned to London.

10. Are you currently living in the UK with travel to the US?
I’m not too sure where I live at the moment; Virgin Atlantic seems to be where I watch the most movies! I’m just coming to the end of 8 weeks in London, and I’m definitely getting itchy feet!

11. What is your favorite food?
Without a doubt my favourite food is avocado – keep it simple.
For me it’s mashed on fresh bread or toast, with good salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper. I don’t need oil or lemon juice. It’s the perfect breakfast, snack, lunch and sometimes it could be dinner if I’ve tasted too many things during the day.

12. For those interested in starting in this profession, what advice would you give to them?
Firstly you have to love cooking. I think you would have to do your research and see which food stylist or food departments in magazines you would like to work for. Then call, e-mail – keep bugging them. All the time learn about food, keep up with trends, cook well – have all your basic skills in tip-top condition. Be ready for a very unglamorous world of shopping, schlepping boxes of food, and pots and pans all over the place; an amazing amount of washing up…and your hours are not 9 to 5.

You really have to have a passion for food.

Thank you, Susie! I was certainly inspired by this interview... were you, readers? Back to the kitchen!

add to sk*rt


meeshw said...

This is the first time I am commenting...I have been following you and your sisters blog for awhile...
But I wanted to tell you that I really love these interviews...
It was really interesting to read about Susie and her profession.
Thank you!
And since I am leaving a comment...I love what you capture with your camera,your photos are wonderful...I am looking forward to that online course that has been mentioned for the future...
Thanks for blogging and sharing your talents! :)

brandi p said...

my first time to comment too. I love your blog and follow it daily! I am so glad you added the interview section... so cool. Great to see how real these women (and man) are that do such wonderful work.

truly an inspiration.

emily said...

I am loving this series. There are so many jobs out there that I've never even heard of, and they seem so interesting and fun! I loved Susie's interview, thank you!!

Amanda said...

SO cool. I'm going to go float up to the ceiling now.

Meg said...

Thank you for this interview, it was really interesting and inspiring to gain insight into a profession that I appreciate so much but know so little about. Great job!

Kate Neckel said...

wonderful your blog...just discovered it this afternoon! i'm adding you to my blog list :)

Julie said...

I love food, and I love to cook, so how could I not love this interview. I wish I had known, in college, about this profession.

the purcells said...

just catching up on all your fantastic interviews and LOVE susie's work! as a food stylist married to a photographer i have been a long time admirer of susie's work and love many of the other stylists she mentioned. great interview - thank you!!

Les said...

great article! myself and friends of mine have worked with susie and she is the coolest, sweetest and most AMAZINGNEST cook and stylist around!!!

Carol Garcia said...

These look amazing!!Thanks for sharing it here