When Brian Preston-Campbell reflects on his job, he sometimes thinks about the hamburger scene in the Michael Douglas film Falling Down. The movie’s antihero, a beleaguered everyman on an armed rampage, has just shot up a fast-food restaurant after receiving poor service. When he finally gets his Double Whammyburger, he stares down at it sorrowfully.
“Look at that,” he orders the manager, pointing to the beautiful picture of the burger on the display behind the register. “It’s plump, it’s juicy, it’s three inches thick. Now look at this sorry, miserable, squashed thing. Can anybody tell me what’s wrong with this picture?”
This scene, says Preston-Campbell, 41, describes “what a lot of people think about what I do for a living.” A professional food stylist, it’s Preston-Campbell’s job to make food that looks—and often is—too good to be true. But if the trigger-happy hero of Falling Down had considered the time and skill that went into that hamburger photo, he might have felt some grudging respect for the craftsmen behind it. Making a burger fit to be photographed is a lot harder than making one to eat.
Preston-Campbell described the tricks behind making glamour-worthy patties. First, he said, fry the burger just enough to brown the outside, leaving the meat rare and the patty un-shrunk. Next, blot it on paper towels and brush on a mixture of caramel color and clear pastry piping gel that gives the burger a meatier appearance. (Yes, you need non-meat products to make it appear “meatier.”) Follow that up with grill marks burned on with a hot skewer or electric charcoal lighter. Repeat six or seven times and pick the best one (the “hero,” as food stylists call it) while your assistant sorts through bags of buns. Starting with the very best bun, construct the burger from the bottom up, laying down fixings according to the client’s specific “build order.” Build everything toward the front, so that all the elements can be visible in one shot. If there’s cheese, you might want to melt it by spreading Pine-sol on it, which breaks it down chemically without overly browning it. Apply a little bit of Fixodent to stick the lettuce to the bun or burger beneath it, and fix tomato and onion rounds in place with toothpicks. If you need to, you can hollow out the top bun so that it lies flatter on the produce. Put on the condiments last, using a plastic syringe without a needle. If you’ve done your job carefully and the photographer is talented, you’ll end up with a burger that is completely inedible—but a picture fit to sell burgers by the million.