Food Friday #10

Debbie Wahl

1. Reading your biography it looks like you had a passion and vision for a food career at a early age, was food a big part of your family growing up?

My mom was an excellent cook!  What amazed me was that although she worked full-time, we always sat down together for a full home cooked dinner that included vegetables, salad and a main course. I was her little “sous chef” and always had my assigned chores to help get dinner started.  When I was about 12, I read a book about someone working in the test kitchens at General Mills and I realized then that was something I would love. I attended Ohio University and got a B.S. degree in Commercial Food with an emphasis in food for business. I also received  a minor in Communications which required coursework in art, advertising and marketing—I draw upon what I learned from those courses in almost every job. 

2. Where are you originally from? Where do you currently reside?

I’m originally from Ohio but reside in Maryland. I was recruited by Marriott Corporation to come to the DC area and never left. I mainly work in Pennsylvania, D.C., and Florida. But I love to travel for work—I think I am headed to Texas for a job next week!

3. How did your other services you provide come into play when being a food stylist?

Having a Bachelor of Science in Foods required me to take chemistry and a lot of food science courses.  This proved to be tremendously helpful in knowing how foods are going to react.  Working in restaurants and test kitchens at both Marriott and Stouffers gave me valuable experience in the food service area—knowing how to scale up or down recipes, knowing restaurant equipment, etc.   I mainly do food styling now, but occasionally I am asked to provide recipe development and media support for chefs—it is always fun to do that—I appreciate their skill and they appreciate the fact that I can make their food look good for the camera.

4. Has being a member of different organizations helped your career in making new friends or job opportunities or both?

With over 25 years in the business, I have made a lot of contacts—many of whom have become good friends. Being exposed to actual production—through visits to various production plants has given me great background knowledge. In food styling, it’s knowing where to find that absolute best items for the shots –great produce suppliers, farms,  bakeries,  butchers and fish suppliers,etc.

I’ve used NRA (National Restaurant Association , Linkedin, and IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) for contacts. Early on, a group called Home Economists in Business (HEIB)was terrific in linking food stylists and other women in the Food Business. I met fellow food stylist, Lisa Golden Schroeder, at the HEIB Minneapolis Food on Film seminars. She and other contacts I made there have been most valuable.  In fact Lisa and I now co-teach an online food styling class through  It’s fun to compare notes with peers and see what they are going through. I’ve gotten job opportunities through Google. Now 85% of work is word of mouth and with my established relationships. Clients such as McCormick, Campbell's, Perdue, and Friendly’s are some that I have had for many years.

5. Did you start out on t.v. and film styling or was it photography?

I first went to T.V. commercials for Stouffers as their company representative—it was there I saw wonderful well-known food stylists in action. My very first food styling job on my own came when I was actually still working for Stouffers—had to style a hot fudge brownie sundae with real ice cream.  I still cringe when I think about it!  Along with print and film styling, I styled for a couple of feature films ---I loved the grand scale of all the movie production, including the massive amount of food needed.

6. Who was your first break through client?

Marriott (which owned Roy Rogers, and Big Boys) was my first big client when I start free lancing.  At the time, Roy Rogers owned about 250 restaurants so I did a ton of print work for them in New York and traveled for them to L.A. for tv shoots.

7. What type of food do you enjoy styling?

I like styling everything. I like the variety. Styling produce is great because the natural beauty and organic shapes. I like to keep things loose and playful as far as my styling. The trend now is a little loose. A casual real approach is what most clients want now—nothing overly styled.

8. I know putting food under hot lights is hard to keep fresh but styling on a grille with a open fire, is that harder? Do you use real fire?

I’ve styled with real flames. I had to keep replacing the food because it would burn up. Now many photographers shoot images of grills with flames and then shoot the food on the grill separately and merge the two shots together.

9. Where do you look for your inspirations?

I look online--Donna Hay, Martha Stewart,  Real Simple, and all the magazines. I look at other stylists work. Donna Hay’s work was groundbreaking in the 90’s. She was the pioneer in the selective focus, “blown out”  look.

10. Do you think social media such as Linkedin helped your career? Is a lot of your work now word of mouth?

Social media is important. It’s helps get your name out there and gives you a chance to show your experience.  A website is essential—but the website just sits there unnoticed unless you have a way to draw people to your site.