Interview: The Art of Foodstyling with Johan van der Merwe
posted on 30th Jan 2019 by Steve Grunert
Johan van der Merwe is one of our “go to” food and drink stylists here at Neworld. His beautifully loose, effortless style brings a delicious flair to the shots his work produces. He has worked with prestigious brands like Guinness, Jameson, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Heinz, KFC and Aldi to name but a few. As a Chef he holds a BA in Culinary Arts and has worked in South Africa, Canada, The UK and Ireland, notably for Micheal roux, Ballymaloe and Cafe Paradiso before becoming a renowned food stylist. Today we’ve asked Johan a few questions to show the key role he has in making delectable looking food photography and to explain the latest food styling trends to keep your next product shot looking delicious and bang up to date.
What role does a food stylist have in creating food photography or video?
Making food look its absolute best and holding it at its best for a prolonged period. Here in lies, the challenge as job conditions and expectations vary considerably. You have to know what’s going to work from different angles and movements; a still picture of a burger will be different to a video of a burger. It’s also important to always be on the lookout for new ideas and presentations for food as you can’t keep serving up the same plate for different jobs.
Has there been any styling trends over the past few years that our clients should be aware of?
Food is looking more obtainable, gone are the days of the perfect plate with no crumbs and no mess. Whoever looks a the image needs to feel as if they can achieve the same look, not everything is perfect but that cooking class is paying off! There needs to be a fine balance of beautiful presentation with a little bit of looseness.
You live in London currently, what are the photography trends there that you see may filter across to this side of the pond?
I think there is a new trend coming with much more hard lighting as if shot in direct sunlight. The use of bright colour is being used in a lot of editorial shoots and it’s only a matter of time before it crosses over into packaging and advertising.
Are there any food stylists or photographers that you look to for inspiration in your work?
I have a lot of envy for some peoples work and it drives me to be more creative and constantly keep creating new recipes and concepts. Although when it comes to inspiration for work I try to avoid it as much as I can – looking at other food stylists as I feel you end up just replicating what they did instead of creating your own style. I do love the work of Chris Court and Steve Piece. This photographer and stylist make phenomenal images that inspire me. Another stylist is David Morgan, who I met in Sydney about a year ago. His food looks relaxed and his use of props is fantastic. Because of my background as a chef, I’m also inspired by other chefs that I’ve been watching and learning from for years. Chef Kobus van der Merwe is a fellow South African and I’ve always loved his style. His use of ceramics, foraged ingredients and eye for simplicity is amazing.
There seems to be the reputation that food stylists make food look great by painting the stripes on the chargrilled burgers and making the ice cream out of mashed potato, how real is the food we shoot these days?
This is always a good conversation starter at a party! Historically, yes, there would have been a place for tricks like that, but with the change to digital photography, food styling has become more real than many people might think. I find real food always looks better, if you need a grilled burger it’s best to just grill it perfectly rather than to paint one.
You create delicious recipe ideas for some of your clients, can you give some tasty examples? Is this something you could offer our clients?
I love doing recipe development. I concept test and shoot recipes for Buzzfeed that then gets used globally. This really brings me back to my chef days, its such a natural process for me and I love being challenged to create new ideas. Over the last year, I’ve begun to do drinks styling as well so two of my favourites are drink related: Lemon sherbet for a Gin and Tonic hack, Whiskey Fudge, and the Scallop hotdogs I created for Taste of Dublin.