Friday, 21 September 2012

Fake onions & mashed potato bananas

In my work as a food stylist I have occasionally been asked to do a few peculiar things to food but a job last week was perhaps the most wacky I ever been involved in. People often ask if I use all sorts of tricks and fakery in my work and the simple answer is no, not very often. Mostly I just create very beautiful versions of real food for people who are really genuinely interested in food. Food that tastes as good as it looks and that we can, and often do, eat after we've shot it. The resulting images are used then to 'sell' a recipe or an idea in books, magazines, on TV, on websites. Over time my natural style has evolved into something relatively pared down and quite often rustic, big flavours and aesthetically pleasing colours.

So a call from a TV company took me right out of my comfort zone and catapulted me into experimental mode a la Heston. They were filming a pilot show for one of the UK terrestrial channels where a food scientist and a psychologist try to 'cure' people with hardcore food phobias by a series of tasks. And so my own personal task was set: to create several fake, but edible, examples of onions and bananas. When it comes to food, being a stuff-it-all-in-with-relish kind of girl, I don't have much in-built sympathy or natural understanding of food phobias so it was going to be a challenge on that front too.

I began with the onions. It seemed an impossible job, made harder by the fact it couldn't be substituted with another vegetable but had to be something altogether more bizarre and fantastical. The shows food scientist suggested starting with agar agar to make a stiff jelly. I used water, a little milk to cloud and make it opaque and a little chicken stock to colour it.  Poured into a shallow tin and cut out into circles with a cookie cutter, followed by a fiddly lot of trimming into rounds with a scalpel and wrapping in a sliver of onion skin and I was pretty happy with the result. Not perfect but good enough I think. And it certainly fooled the woman with the onion phobia.

Next up came the banana, to be turned into a banana sundae for a man who gagged when he had to handle a banana. No, I'm not sure I get it either.....

This time I had more guidance for the production crew. Banana-phobe's fave food was sausage and mash, so the fake sundae had to take these elements. The sausages were buried under the mash so you just see a shadow of their colour, giving a mere hint of bruise to the flesh. The rest was simple sculpting work using a toothpick and a lot of patience. More mash, tinted pink for ice cream. And gravy (of course) tinted a touch darker with colouring, for chocolate sauce. The squirty cream was indeed squirty cream, which has since gone in the fridge and is giving my kids much trashy-eating pleasure.

And I reckon it looked pretty banana like. What do you think? 

It was an interesting couple of days, if slightly surreal at times.

And now its back to the real world of real food and real recipes.  Which suits me just fine.


  1. Interesting! That banana looks like it took a lot of work, sculpting all the tiny lines and ridges... fab post!

    1. Thanks Jo. The banana was a fiddly little blighter - it was indeed an interesting day!