A day in the life: food stylist/professional food shopper
You might think that working as a food stylist sounds glamorous. And it is hugely enjoyable, with the massive buzz you get on set during a big commercial, or working with lovely photographers in beautiful location houses. But one of the biggest – and least glamorous - parts of the job is sourcing ingredients for each shoot, which can mean anything from my favourite one-stop-take-the-car-to-Sainsbury’s, to a mad dash all around London, going to as many shops as it takes to find unusual, out-of-season, or just plain perfect ingredients. Here’s a snapshot of my last big shopping trip….
10.45am: Arrive at Waitrose. I get confused by the lift system in Canary Wharf, and end up in the childrenswear section rather than the food hall. I try not to get overly broody, as am surrounded by tiny dresses, and fail miserably - they’re so small, and cute, and - I finally remember that I am a professional, and should really get to work. I start walking away purposefully, then realise I can’t take my trolley down the escalator. I keep my eyes studiously on the floor as I head back past the tiny baby clothes. With tiny, embroidered strawberries on them. Then I give in – how can I resist the tiny strawberries - and surreptitiously take a photograph to what’s app to my boyfriend. Fail.
10.55am: Finally, I’m in the food hall. I need four bags of perfect unwaxed lemons for Monday’s photo shoot. Over the next ten minutes, in which I fear that the security guard will arrest me for showing an unhealthy interest in citrus fruit, I pick up every single one of the fifty or so bags of lemons, and examine each one minutely. There is not one bag of perfect lemons, so I start inspecting them again, hoping for decent singles. Ten minutes later, and with a slightly crazed expression, in some sort of Groundhog Day of lemon shopping, I stare, again, at the same bag of lemons, realising that they’re all useless, and potentially deformed, and that Waitrose has, for the first time in my life, let me down. Although, they have kindly refrained from setting a security guard on me. And their lemons are fine, really, for eating, it’s just I need sixteen hyper-really perfect looking, Kate Moss grade citrus fruit, and all they have are - well, lemons that look like me, who are now really harassed, and want to go home, please. Or at least to the wine aisle.
11.20am: Smoked salmon, puy lentils, extra virgin olive oil, herbs – tick. Only the wine left. I’m under instructions to buy cheap cooking wine, which I do, but compulsively hide the label under a packet of flat-leaf parsley, as secretly fear that the other Waitrose shoppers will judge me for buying £4.99 own-brand wine. If they haven’t already judged me for manhandling all the lemons.
12.45: With the food safely stashed in the car, I’ve taken the tube to Argos on Whitechapel Road, as we need gas canisters for the shoot. Approaching the shop, I feel smug, as ordered the gas the day before to collect in store. Then I realise, on entering, that the entire store is collect in store, with about thirty people packed into a room the size of a takeaway. It takes me five minutes to work out how the queuing system works (there isn’t one), before I decide to take the plunge and dive towards the counter. Ten minutes later, I’ve jostled my way out, and proudly emerge onto the street with four canisters of camping gas in a box. Which I then realise, with a sinking heart, I have to take back on the tube. Because, of course, everyone wants to travel on the tube next to someone carrying a large box with ‘Danger, Flammable’ emblazoned on the side.
1.30pm: At Sainsbury’s in Islington, looking at the lemons. Again. Another young woman shopper comes over, and starts examining the bags, tutting and putting the less than perfect ones back on the shelf. In my paranoid state, I think I recognise the desperate look in her eyes as that of a fellow food stylist, shopping for her shoot on Monday - and I quickly grab four bags to examine all at once, in case she gets to them first. Lose. At least I’ve got the gas. And it’s quality gas. Unlike the lemons.
2pm: I should explain that I have a pathological fear of all crustaceans, starting from king prawns, all the way up through langoustines and crabs to my biggest fear of all - the live lobster. So I steel myself to go into the fishmongers, where I’ve been instructed to collect the fish for the shoot. Including lobsters. And as soon as I go in, I spot a boxful of them under the counter. Live. Their accusatory eyes swivel towards me. I look away, quickly, and explain that my senior stylist has placed an order. The fishmonger dives into the box under the counter, and starts weighing up the lobsters for me to take home. They feebly scrape their bound claws against the scale. I whisper, nervously, that I thought the lobsters had been ordered cooked, and am shocked to be met with considerable hostility from the fishmonger, who insists they’d been ordered live. I try to explain I don’t have a pot big enough, when the fishmonger moves to about an inch from my face, and shouts that the order had been for live lobsters. Live Lobsters! Live! The lobsters, perhaps sensing conflict, redouble their efforts and wriggle at me imploringly from the weighing scale. I’m about to burst into tears, when a more friendly fishmonger offers to cook them for me in store, no problem. I sniff, and pay the mean fishmonger, and am told to my dismay that they’ll take thirty minutes. My shoulders slump, and I head out to find a cafe to console myself. With my gas. At least I’ve got that. And the lemons.
2.15pm: There’s a free table in the window of a nearby deli. Win. I head inside to the counter, buy an organic sausage roll (this is Islington) and a big cup of tea - and return to the window table to find that it’s now taken. Lose. It’s so windy at my outside table that the lid of my tea blows away within seconds. Too exhausted to chase it, I complain bitterly to my boyfriend on the phone about the excessively shouty fishmonger, and then we have a row, because his first response to my story of woe is to tell me to calm down. This make me more upset. How can he be so insensitive about the imploring eyes of uncooked lobsters and aggressive Islington fishmongers? It starts to rain. I huddle under the awning, and try to finish my sausage roll, while my tea does its best to escape onto Essex Road. I dread returning to the fishmonger, and am completely bemused on my return to find the shouty man transformed into someone who smiles, calls me ‘dear’, and wishes me a good weekend. Just like that. I don’t know what to make of this, and am somewhat cheered up, until the rain decides to turn into a monsoon of epic proportions. I’m left squashed under an archway with twenty other people, twelve feet from the tube. Two minutes close proximity to that many damp people, and I’m ready to make a break for it. Gripping the gas and the lemons, I run. The lobsters jiggle furiously in their bags.
3.30pm: I may be soaked to the skin, but I am on the tube home. I’m fairly certain that people are moving away from me in the carriage, but try to reassure myself that I look more like a harassed, damp, middle-class woman carrying expensive fish, rather than someone up to something dodgy- given that I have seabass fillets as well as flammable gas on one arm, and lobsters steaming gently in their bag on the other. Half an hour later, I slump gratefully in my car, ready for the final leg home, before remembering, with rising terror, that I have a kilo of puy lentils to cook and eight bags of lemons to sift through. Glamorous indeed….