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The Hollywood Food Stylist Behind the Scenes of Popular Films and TV

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A woman with her hair tied up in a bun, preps pizza dough in her hands in a commercial kitchen.
Hollywood food stylist, Melissa McSorley, preps pizza dough in her work kitchen on the set of the Hulu television series 'Good Trouble.' (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Making engaging movies or TV shows is all about creating a convincing fantasy. Take the show Mad Men for example: The mid-century furniture, soundtrack and clothes all work together to create a mood.

Perhaps less obvious, but no less important, is the food seen on screen — tomato aspic, salmon mousse or cocktail party weenies in grape jelly that take us right back to the 1960s.

Behind every dish on screen, there’s a person or a team of people researching it, cooking it and keeping it fresh on set take after take. It may seem simple, but food styling requires a unique combination of organizational skills, culinary expertise and creativity.

While much of the media attention is focused on the Hollywood writers and actors strike, thousands of other movie industry workers are impacted by the work stoppage. People like food stylist Melissa McSorley, whose work is often invisible.

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Behind the scenes with Hollywood’s food stylist

On an early morning in March, well before the strikes began, McSorley pulled into the parking lot of a distinctly unglamorous part of Santa Clarita — an industrial-park-turned-soundstage.

She unloaded her SUV, packed as tightly as a perfectly played Tetris game, pulling out electric burners and what looked like a contractor’s tool bag. Instead of hammers and drills, it held hundreds of kitchen utensils, from tongs and torches to measuring cups and cutting boards.

McSorley moves around a lot, working on different sets most days, so she carries all her tools with her. On this particular set, she was assigned a designated space for her work kitchen — a treat — because the show, Hulu’s Good Trouble, features a character who is opening a restaurant. Food is central to the show’s plot.

Before they started filming, the space was an empty shell with ceiling insulation exposed, McSorley said. But crews built a half-dozen huge plywood boxes that each hold a completely realistic room, like an office or a den.

“So many people touched all of this before you could even think about putting food into this set,” McSorley said, with awe. 

She made sure everything on the commercial kitchen set was perfect before filming began the next day when actors were expected to flip burgers and stir polenta. The set was incredibly realistic, from rubber mats covering the floor to food containers labeled with blue painter’s tape. Except, it wasn’t a real kitchen.

“One thing about a set, it doesn’t have practical lighting,” McSorley said. “Any light switches you see don’t really work.”

She had to use the flashlight on her phone to complete her inspection.

An unlikely career

Food styling is not the job McSorley thought she’d have.

She grew up in Burbank, home to many studios, but her family wasn’t involved in entertainment at all.

“My mom had office jobs,” McSorley said. “In fact, when I was little, she was a telephone operator. I don’t even think that exists anymore.”

Her stepfather owned a printing company in North Hollywood. But the entertainment industry was all around. As a girl, she remembers driving past fans lining up to watch The Tonight Show being taped.

“There was [an actors’] strike that happened when I was in high school, and it affected a lot of the families that I grew up with,” she said.

That’s when she told her family that she would never work in entertainment.

“I never wanted to work in an industry where people were so expendable,” she said. “Nobody cared how many lives these strikes could disrupt. And so, I was never, ever, ever going to be in this industry.”

Melissa was a kid with a creative streak, growing up in a structured home.

“When I was in high school, I actually wanted to go to school for photography, and my parents said that I could do that as a hobby any time I wanted,” she said.

They expected her to pursue a degree that would lead to a stable career.

“Culinary arts falls under the term ‘arts,’ and it would not have been acceptable to my parents,” she said.

So she studied biology and psychology. She learned the basics of cooking as a kid by whipping up casseroles for her hungry siblings when her mom was working.

After college, she started taking cooking courses in her spare time. She cycled through several different careers, working at an electrical engineering company, drawing blood and producing commercials at an advertising agency.

But she yearned for more creative work. While working at the ad agency, she encountered her first “food stylist.”

“I decided I was just going to do it part-time for a little while before I decided what I really wanted to do,” McSorley said. “It turned out that I loved it. And here I am, almost 20 years later.”

Not home cooking

In her work kitchen on the set of Good Trouble, McSorley demonstrated how cooking for the screen is a lot different than cooking at home. For example, in one scene an actor makes a pizza. To pull that off, she needed to prep at least 18 pizzas so the crew could shoot the actor in all stages of pizza-making.

“So you’ll see her grab a dough ball, that’s been proofed and looks amazing,” McSorley said.

McSorley will then swap out that dough for another that’s been perfectly shaped.

“Then, you might see her start to sauce it. Then, you might see it finished, but uncooked,” she said. “At the very, very end of the scene, she’ll pull out that perfect pizza.”

And to make sure that shot is just right, McSorley will have three or four perfect pizzas prepped — just in case.

Her job depends on making sure that food looks as delicious as possible, and that it looks identical, take after take.

A bizarre set of skills

What’s clear is that a Hollywood food stylist needs an eclectic array of skills that go way beyond cooking.

First, they have to be organized. Even the simplest scene has many moving parts. One pivotal scene in the 2015 film Love the Coopers, for example, took place around a Christmas dinner table.

A woman with light-brown hair and black glasses holds a clipboard in one hand, a pen in the other, as she stands in front of a large refrigerator filled with food.
Food stylist Melissa McSorley checks the set refrigerator for ingredients needed for the next day’s shooting on the set of the Hulu series ‘Good Trouble.’ (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

McSorley said the scene took nine days to shoot and in that time they went through more than 50 turkeys. There were full, perfect turkeys, turkeys staged just for carving, turkeys that fell on the floor, turkeys that the dog came too close to, and even turkeys in the oven. McSorley had to find them, buy them, store them and cook them.

“There were a lot of turkeys,” she said, shaking her head.

Second, a food stylist needs to be a nutritionist — and a problem-solver. In that same scene in Love the Coopers, stars like Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Marisa Tomei and Alan Arkin all sat together.

“When you went around the table, there was a vegetarian who loves cheese; a vegan that also doesn’t do sugar or sugar substitutes; [and] other people who ate no carbs,” McSorley said. “You have to make sure that you’ve made something that everybody can eat.”

Third, food stylists are often technical advisors, making sure kitchens on set seem real to viewers. They’ll organize a fictional restaurant’s fridge according to safety regulations, with raw meat on the bottom level, not sitting on top of produce, for instance.

Amplifying scenes with food

“The highlights of my career are the times when I’ve been able to do something that is, like, so amplified,” McSorley said.

Like the time she dug into research for a period-perfect meal in Mad Men or Perry Mason or making food for imaginary worlds.

On the vampire drama True Blood, McSorley’s first task was to concoct a substance worthy of the show’s title — a drink that actors could gulp down, that also looked and functioned like blood, not juice.

“It had to leave a trail when it went down the glass,” she said, “And so, that was a lot of fun, using a little bit of wheatgrass to give it the opaqueness that it needed, and then to add a little bit of methyl cellulose to get the viscosity that it needed.”

She added pomegranate-cherry juice to get the right color and to lend it a decent taste.

“It was like a little chemistry experiment in the kitchen,” she said. 

McSorley also created the food seen in science-fiction shows like Star Trek: Picard or The Book of Boba Fett. And that’s not as simple as it might seem.

“The food couldn’t look like anything that we’ve seen here,” McSorley said. “Was it a planet that actually had an environment: air, water to it? Was it a dry planet that maybe everything would have been from root vegetables? And then, you just figure out what exists in the edible world that you can make look like that.”

For one scene in Boba Fett, McSorley helped fill a 30-foot-long table for a feast. One element was a roasted nuna, a swamp turkey from the planet Naboo.

“And it was really awesome because I was able to work with the prop master to come up with a nuna skeleton and skin that I could work with,” she said. “Then, I filled it with turkey meat so that it looked like the meat was just coming off in layers. And you really get the idea that these came from another planet.”

In the hands of a stylist like McSorley, food becomes a character on screen. It can help set the mood with party food, home cooking or upscale bites.

It can mirror the personality of a character — like a meticulous assassin who also bakes with precision. One glance at a plate and the viewer should get a sense of the person in the scene with it.

It takes a lot of labor to make the shimmering fantasy that Hollywood sells to the world. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes industry people like Melissa whose work is largely invisible — and they’re all feeling the impact of recent labor disputes.

“I guess I wish people knew that the job existed, that the food didn’t just miraculously appear on the plate,” she said.

Lisa Morehouse’s series California Foodways is supported by California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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