Roscoe Betsill; Photo by Steve Viskjo

Over the last nearly 25 years, food stylist extraordinaire, Roscoe Betsill has managed to not only make food look enticing but fresh, even after being under hot lights for a length of time, so that the presentation can be captured by the camera’s eye. The Columbus, Ohio native and Parisian–trained chef has created riveting food presentations and executed client visions across all mediums–editorial, television, advertising, videos, books, product launches, restaurant menus and media tours.  He is one of the most sought-after food stylists in the nation and the sexagenarian certainly has no plans on putting the brakes on his enviable and illustrious career anytime soon.

Roscoe chatted with 50BOLD about how he became interested in food styling.   He also shared how he practically stands alone in a business where there are very few Black food stylists to date. Despite the many obstacles and demands of a job that involves a creative mind, highly skilled hands and quick thinking outside of the box, Roscoe has not let anything get in his way of continuing to build on his dream.

50BOLD: How did you become interested in food styling?

Roscoe: I‘ve always really enjoyed cooking as a hobby. It was something I wanted to make a living at doing. I did not, however, want to end up with a restaurant career. I have some experience working in restaurants and because of this, I knew I did not want to deal with such challenges as very long hours, hot kitchens, bad tempers, and just all of the lunacy that comes with the territory. Back in 1980, I read a magazine article about someone who was a food stylist and it was at that point that I decided to venture into this field. The magazine article, however, did not indicate how someone would go about becoming a food stylist. I realized if I wanted to pursue the art, I would have to learn how to cook really well. So I placed a cooking school on my radar.

50BOLD: Did you go to cooking school and a four-year university?

Roscoe: I graduated from Northwestern University as a Communications major and while I was there, I took a number of advertising and art courses. I was interested advertising and journalism at the time I attended the university. Upon graduating from Northwestern, I decided to go the food career route. I looked into culinary schools like The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York but they had a two-year waiting list. I also looked at École de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris.

I took a two-week culinary course at La Varenne to see what it was like. The director of the school spoke to me about becoming a stagiaire or intern and that I might qualify for the program. As a stagiaire, my responsibilities would be to assist chefs with lesson preparations and to translate the lessons for English speaking students.

In exchange, my tuition would be covered. The school had an opening for an intern but I had to wait nine months, after which I was accepted, and was well on my way. Most of the people who attended the school were planning to work in restaurants, catering or food writing. When I expressed my desire to become a food stylist, the French chefs thought it was comical. They made comments like, “We can’t believe this guy is coming to learn how to cook food that will not be eaten!” Well, this was my basic intro to food styling.

50BOLD: Are there any Blacks in food styling or are you a lone soldier in the field?

Roscoe: I only know of one other African-American food stylist, a woman I mentored in the early 90’s. I know a number of Black people who work with props and sets. Regarding other Blacks in food styling, the woman and I are pretty much it, as far as I know.

50BOLD: When you are hired to do a shoot, do you encounter raised brows when you walk onto a set to do food styling?

Roscoe: I’ve been around long enough and I’m fairly well known in the industry. Early in my career, however, I did find myself in some challenging situations. I would show up at magazines with my portfolio and be directed to the freight elevator. And I would let them know in no uncertain terms that I was not going to take a service elevator and had an appointment with someone who had requested to see my portfolio. I was definitely taking the main elevator.

50BOLD: Please take us through your day as a food stylist.

Roscoe: I generally start with recipes. So the first thing I do is to come up with a game plan that begins with sourcing all of the ingredients. When I get a recipe or a shot list, there are generally some items that are a little tricky to find. It might be something that’s out of season or a rare ingredient. I concentrate on sourcing things first. I usually work with an assistant and if it’s something that’s way out of season like cherries in February, I might have to use fakes because the real ones just aren’t available.

There are a number of food items that I can just order via phone because they don’t have to be scrutinized. Other items must be hand selected because they are really going to affect the look of the photograph. I usually hand pick fresh produce in order to make sure they will photograph well, especially if its something that’s going to be seen as an ingredient. If I know a recipe is going to be extremely time consuming, or I just don’t know how it’s going to turn out, I might make it ahead of time at home, then bring it to the studio. I need to have some idea as to how a recipe will turn out so that when I make it in the studio, I won’t have a problem.

50BOLD: Are there really fake cherries?

Roscoe: Absolutely and I have some! If we needed a beautiful and vibrant cherry with a stem on top for an ice cream sundae shoot and they are out of season, I might use a fake one. I have a small collection of fake food items, but I only use them if there is no other choice.

50BOLD: Do you have a food prop closet?

Roscoe: I do have a food prop closet but mum’s the word. I actually have a storage closet that is just for props. In addition to plates, linens, and flatware, I have jars and bottles that are photogenic. If I need an olive oil bottle or the perfect honey jar, rather than try and find these items when I get a call, I just go right to my collection. I even have milk cartons.

50BOLD: How does someone break into food styling?

Roscoe: Upon completing my schooling, I contacted a number of people who worked at various magazines. They would schedule interviews with me so that I could present my portfolio. At the time, my portfolio was extremely meager. People would tell me that my portfolio was nice enough and that I was on the right track but needed to add more variety. I took the advice I was given and expanded my portfolio. I eventually secured a job as an assistant to a food and restaurant consultant. Via this job, I was able to make my own connections with a few of the food stylists whom my employer worked with. And one of these stylists even hired me as her assistant.

When this stylist went on maternity leave, she referred me to a couple of her clients and it was at that point that my career took off.  So I was extremely lucky. Becoming an assistant is probably the best way to break into the food styling business. Another entry point is to work in a magazine test kitchen. I once had a freelance job in the Family Circle magazine test kitchen. I also worked in the test kitchen at Food and Wine Magazine. Test kitchens are a great way to see what is involved in developing recipes.  Many food-oriented magazines have staff people who not only develop recipes but go on to do food styling for photography.

50BOLD: Is food styling a well-paying profession?

Roscoe: Food styling is a well-paying profession if you have enough clients calling you regularly. The work has to be regular to really make food styling work as a profession.

50BOLD: Did you ever experience disasters during a food shoot?

Roscoe: The majority of shoots are held in studios and if something like a stove is not working properly, this could be disastrous. Staying on schedule for the day is so important. As far as food disasters go, if you’re working on a Thanksgiving spread and then suddenly, the bird is singed, you know it’s going to be a long day. One time I had an oven fire and that was a nightmare; I had to start the entire process all over. Thankfully, this only happened once. Most of my workdays are spent collaborating with talented, good-natured people, who enjoy doing what we do.