From caviar tidal waves to seafood tornados, Food Stylist Iain Graham has an experimental approach inspired by the senses.
Iain Graham is one of the hardest working people in the creative industry. With twenty years experience in the food industry, he is now bringing his energy and experimental aesthetic to food styling, collaborating with everyone from Harrods to The Gourmand. He fuses impossible structures, unique concepts and a deep love of food to create images and campaigns, which transport the viewer into an entirely new realm.
Tell us a little about your background, when did you embark on your professional journey?
I use to come home from school and watch Ready Steady Cook (A popular cooking show in the UK). I was glued to it, and I started thinking, maybe I could do this. My Parents were not into it. This was before the food revolution, before Jamie Oliver, before chefs became respected by the mainstream. I managed to get some experience, which gave me the bug for it and just went for it. I got a job in a restaurant in Teddington. They helped me with everything; they put me through college, and let me live in above the restaurant. I left home and went there and never looked back.
From there, I decided I want to move to America. I worked two jobs to save enough money while studying at college. I spent half my time in a restaurant learning the basics and half my time in a more experimental one. I finished my NVQ in four months with the help of a very supportive tutor. Every evening I would go home and research restaurants in New York, Boston and Chicago. This was before the Internet, so I would write letters trying to convince them to hire me. Eventually, The Marriott in Boston got in touch. They ran an 18-month training program where they gave you a job and got you a visa and social security number. I worked as a pastry chef; it was a vast place and the most incredible experience for a young chef.
Did you spend a lot of time travelling in that time as well?
On a Friday night, after I finished my shift, I would head straight to the greyhound station and head off to a new city for the weekend. I travelled to New York, Toronto, Boston. I just had this fantastic free-spirited, transient life with a mad job during the week. I loved wandering around these new cities and exploring. From there I moved to Australia and worked as a chef and travelled around, before eventually returning to London where I worked at some of the big restaurants at the time, Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, Mezzo and The Providores. I was a chef for 18 years.
When did you discover food styling?
I worked for six years at an event’s company called Urban. They would do everything from Michelin star events to product launches. It was all about making food an experience. It was there I discovered food styling and decided I wanted to focus on that from then on.
And from there you started freelancing?
Working as a chef was not compatible with having kids. So I knew I had to find a way to work with food in an exciting way, but in a job, which allowed me to spend time with my family.
I started by freelancing for Urban, then collaborating with photographers. The food and fashion worlds began to collide at that point, so I was lucky enough to jump on that wave. My did my first big job for Harrods in 2012, and it all snowballed from there.
Do you still work as a chef?
Because I’ve always been a chef, every now and again I want to challenge myself. I often get approached to do one-off events, and it’s a way to keep your hand in something you love, but also keep challenging yourself. It’s a great atmosphere, and the camaraderie that comes with working in a kitchen is incredible. I do sometimes you miss that energy, so it’s great to take on the occasional project.
How did you shape your style?
Food is a medium, which can transport you. It’s highly emotive. It can make you feel everything from nostalgic to grotesque. I’m interested in creating a visceral reaction with my work, pushing the expectations of the viewer. I also love to collaborate. I’ve now geared my food styling into a space which tends to focus on bigger productions where I get to work with a team.
You often collaborate with your wife, Photographer Julia Kennedy. What is that experience like?
It’s really cool. We never clash. Working together is great. We have both seen each other grow and support each other for so long, that when we work together, we have an intuitive connection. It just flows.
What’s been your most rewarding project?
The most exciting project to date was my first big job for Harrods in collaboration with Julia. We were briefed to shoot a food and fashion story, shooting inside Harrods in the iconic areas of the store. The set up’s were complex and decadent; we shot models surrounded by tonnes of exotic seafood on the fish counter. I created fashion inspired cakes, Louis Vuitton Polka Dot cakes and Charlotte Olympia shoo cakes and we had an elaborate set up in the dining room. It was fascinating to fuse these two worlds.
As the store was open during the day, we had to shoot the project over three nights. The store would close, and we would sign in around 1 am, shoot all night and then clean up before the store opened. It was a crazy time as we had young kids at the time.
You have incredible stamina; you work exceptionally hard, how do you do it?
I think that is the chef part of me. I did that job for so many years, and its long hours, high stress and very demanding. I built up a resistance and it just never left.
A lot of food styling is about trickery, using different materials to ensure products are stable onset, such as using mashed potatoes as ice cream. Your ethos differs to this, can you explain?
Essentially, it looks more real when it is real. When I cook, I know how small things can have a significant effect on the outcome, from texture to structure. When you learn the rules, you know how to break them. With ice cream, if you can freeze it hard enough, and it can last long enough, then you can work with the real stuff. On occasions, you do need alternative solutions such as the caviar tidal wave I created for The Gourmand (We didn’t have the budget for that much caviar, so I had to create something which had the same appearance and behaviour). If you are going to create an illusion, then I believe that you have to convince everyone!
Why is food such an inspirational material for you?
It’s universal. Food is used in everything. It’s used as a status symbol to a health symbol and everything in-between. The experience of food is all sensory. Taste. Sound. Smell. It’s beyond a visual medium so that it can tap into different areas of your brain in a multifaceted way. There is so much room to play and explore.
How do you stay motivated?
As a chef, I’ve been exposed to so many ideas, techniques and variations in food; it’s given me solid foundations. I am also very restless, so I’m always thinking about new ideas or approaches. Drawing is always a starting point for me. I sketch out a lot of my thoughts, which can often transport ideas into an entirely new space. It’s become a big part of my process.
What’s a typical day like for you?
No two days are the same. I can go between working on large scale advertising jobs, to experimental editorial projects. I still plan events and design menus, and I do a lot of experimentation in my test kitchen. Some days I’m just hanging with my kids. My work is so much fun; it’s just not work.
I still love what I do, and the jobs keep getting more and more interesting. I am always looking forward, and I’m currently doing a lot of research into nutrition amongst other things. There plenty of scope and endless opportunities with food which keeps things interesting.