Behind the Scenes With a Food Stylist


By Shelley Hill Young

Ashley Strickland Freeman has a recipe for fake ice cream, but she’s never had to use it. A freelance food stylist, cookbook author and editor who’s worked for Southern Living and Coastal Living, Ashley says she tries to use real food as much as possible when photographing dishes for magazines or commercial uses.

But she does have a few tricks up her sleeve. And while she says some food stylists hold tight to their secrets, she’s willing to, well, dish.

Ashley was introduced to food styling when she worked in the test kitchen of Oxmoor House, the book publishing division of Southern Progress Corp., after graduating from what was then The French Culinary Institute in New York. She worked in the test kitchen for four years before moving to the editorial side and writing and editing cookbooks. After she got married, she moved to Florida and worked as a freelancer. Now, Ashley, who once apprenticed under cookbook author Nathalie Dupree, is relocating to Charleston, where she hopes to continue working as a freelance recipe developer, food stylist, author and editor.

When working on a shoot, Ashley and the prop stylist review the recipes and decide how the dish is best presented. Sliced or whole? Then, they identify the props, including surfaces, dishes, utensils, side dishes and garnishes. Usually, Ashley has developed an inspiration board based on searching Pinterest, Instagram and websites for favorite images of similar dishes.

The quintessential image of a Thanksgiving turkey on a table? Turns out that’s pretty hard to create. Turkey actually looks shriveled after hours roasting in the oven. The solution? You take the turkey out of the oven before it’s done. Then, Ashley paints the skin of the turkey with Kitchen Bouquet browning and seasoning sauce until it looks golden brown.

For Southern casseroles, Ashley’s secret is a heat gun tool she bought from Home Depot. It’s usually used to remove paint or melt plastic. But it also makes cheese on top of a casserole dish look bubbly and melty.

While slow cooker meals make dinner prep easy, meals made in the slow cooker can be challenging for a stylist. “Everything is brown. Parsley is your friend. And side dishes,” Ashley says.

And for fried chicken, you just have to embrace the grease. Ashley finds a cool utensil to photograph while pulling apart the meat.

The goal is to try to prevent reshoots. So Ashley has lots of extra herbs, cheese and salad greens on hand to add color and texture to brown foods.

Ashley has her own collection of props and admits she sometimes falls in love with a serving dish and thinks of a recipe she can make just so she can show off the dish.

Ashley’s china pattern is Mottahedeh Cornflower Blue Lace. For her Thanksgiving last year, she styled her table with white pumpkins, and since she was living near the beach in Florida, she also used sand dollars and starfish to create a coastal holiday look. Then, she added some flowers and greenery, including eucalyptus, to add to the neutral, beachy feel.

Back to the ice cream: Ashley shapes real ice cream into scoops early. Then she sprinkles finely powdered dry ice over the ice cream, which makes it rock hard. Then, she freezes the scoops all day before the shoot. Just thinking about it makes her nervous. “It gives me heart palpitations,” she says.