As the eggs Benedict hits her table, it’s already a drop-dead gorgeous dish that would inspire “ooohs” and “aaahs” at any weekend brunch. But Roni Fields-Moonen doesn’t dig into it. Instead, she stares at it, locking a mental image into her mind. Then, along with the chef, she tries to determine what elements are likely to suffer over the course of a 30-minute photo shoot under hot lights. The hash cylinder might break down quickly. The perfectly cooked soft-boiled eggs are a bit unstable, thanks to their runny cores. And the Hollandaise sauce will set over time.
The chef is willing to fire up order after order, replacing them every few minutes to keep them fresh. But that doesn’t work in a photo shoot, where top food photographers might spend 15 to 20 minutes just arranging a plate to get the perfect angle. That’s why today’s photographer has hired Fields-Moonen, who is Las Vegas’ top food stylist.
Over the next two hours, Fields-Moonen plays with every aspect of the dish. She orders a dozen overcooked eggs that look beautiful and are easier to manipulate. She observes how decorative pepper sauces run over time, then painstakingly adds flour a touch at a time to get a version that looks the same, but stays in place. Finally, she assembles a version of the eggs Benedict by hand that would probably offend the chef’s taste buds, but which perfectly represents his visual creation.
Not every restaurant or magazine employs a food stylist, whose job might involve anything from keeping a foamy head on a beer to creating an ice cream sundae that doesn’t melt. Many photographers learn the tricks of the trade themselves over time. But when the budget is there, most print editors and TV producers realize how invaluable food stylists are, and will often fly in their favorites from another city to get the best shots.
Fields-Moonen, who also does hair and makeup, began styling in 1999, while working as an art director for a South Florida magazine. “I started directing all the photo shoots,” she says. “And we never really had a budget for a food stylist.” While shooting the cover of the magazine’s food issue, she became increasingly dissatisfied with the way a pasta dish looked in photos. So she sat down and styled a more photogenic version. As she got more into the craft, other magazines began hiring her.
She came to Las Vegas in 2011, after meeting her now-husband, celebrity chef Rick Moonen, in Mexico. “I was doing his hair and makeup for this TV pilot,” she says. “And part of [Rick’s] job was to make all these dishes to present to a table of 10, and he was running out of time. So I told him I would help him plate his food.” The chef was a little shocked by the offer, but was impressed with the results.
She soon began styling for all of Moonen’s shoots. And since their relationship brought her to our town, Fields-Moonen has developed an enviable portfolio of top-chef stylings. So the next time a photo of a luscious-looking morsel makes your mouth water, you very well may have Fields-Moonen to thank!
Food Styling Tips for the Home Cook
While the food you cook at home doesn’t have to stand up to the harsh conditions of a photo shoot, you still want it to look good when it hits the table. Here are a few tips from Fields-Moonen on how to impress your family and friends with a knockout presentation.
➜ Choose the freshest and prettiest ingredients. They look and taste the best.
➜ Put your herbs in an ice bath before using to keep them looking super green. And don’t overcook your veggies!
➜ Use the proper tools when preparing your food: a good cutting board, quality knife, mandolin and micro plane will make all the difference in your plate.
➜ Contrast on the plate is good. A monochromatic color scheme is often unappetizing.
➜ Unless it’s Thanksgiving, three complementary items are all you need [on a plate], with the possibility of smaller garnish ingredients.
➜ Let meat rest before cutting it, unless you like all your side dishes swimming in blood.
➜ Pay attention to the actual placement on the plate, and that servings are proportionately balanced. Use care when dishing out items, and wipe off any food smears.