Cooks dream of being caterers. And caterers dream of being food stylists. It’s hard to make a living as a chef in the era of post-dot-com mortgages, and the eighty-hour weeks don’t help. But stylists seem to have it all — fluid hours, great locations, and lots of money.
Truth be told, though, most line cooks don’t have the patience or visual flair to do for a living what George Dolese, one of the Bay Area’s premier food stylists, does. Dolese, a UC Berkeley grad (economics and public policy, natch), went to cooking school in Paris in the mid-1980s and got into styling just as the public was falling in love with full-color food porn. These days he shuttles between France and Berkeley, writing (Firehouse Food) and styling (The Farallon Cookbook) for some of the top cookbook publishers.
George radiates the laconic assurance of a man who is paid to be obsessive-compulsive and has made his peace with that. At 9:00 a.m. I arrive at the studio of his longtime collaborator, photographer Paul Moore, to watch the duo shoot an ad campaign for a bargain-bottle wine label. George had hit Berkeley Bowl early, and now is methodically unpacking bags of fruit and gourds. “I’m casting strawberries,” he says, inspecting and polishing each berry before grabbing an X-Acto knife to peel the labels off apples.
While he polishes the wax on cheese wedges, the stylist lets me poke through his toolbox of tricks. He points out the bamboo skewer he uses to enhance champagne bubbles (metal doesn’t work) and the baby-snot remover for altering the shape of dewdrops of sauce. He also talks about the psychology behind his style — minimalist and succulent — which relies on real food, cooked in real time, and photographed in myopic close-ups. “I like my ice cream with a little melt to it,” he says, for example. “Anyone can get a recipe for fake ice cream off the Internet, and I can spot it a mile away.” As for his perfect “cheese pull” technique — trade jargon for a hand lifting up a slice of pizza — hey, everyone has his secrets.
George’s precision, and more importantly, his cool, become evident when the client’s marketing staff comes in to look over the shoot, a bountiful basket of fruits and gourds crowned with a couple of bottles of wine. Each digital image sets off a new argument around the monitor, followed by minute adjustments. First the pear’s stem is too long, so the stylist clips it off. Now it doesn’t look like a pear, so George has to drill a hole in the pear and stick half the stem back in, while the photographer’s assistant adjusts mirrors to direct light to each nook and cranny.
As I head for the exit, the marketing manager is exclaiming that a dried grape leaf makes the autumnal basket look too gothic. “It’s so wrinkly, so Lord of the Rings!” she says, shivering dramatically. Looking back, I see George plucking the leaves from his model, meditating on secret, patient, beautiful thoughts.