Stephanie De Luca: Australian food stylist abroad
Building a career
I began our interview by asking Stephanie about how her career took shape.
"I’ve always followed food. Foraging for it, eating it, preparing it, photographing it and selling it. During school and at uni I worked in various cafes and loved getting my hands dirty in the kitchen. I then progressed on to more managerial roles."
"After an internship at the Golden Door Health Retreat in 2012, I developed an interest in healthy treats in particular. I started rolling balls and making sugar free, gluten free and vegan yummies and started selling them on the side."
"As I continued managing cafes, I built the skills I needed to start my own small mobile and catering business called Honey Espresso which sold nutritious baked goods and speciality coffee."
"Eventually, I began to learn for myself what everyone was always warning me of... running a food business is tough work."
Finding a niche
Like many women starting out in business, identifying her niche wasn't easy. Stephanie found hers through serendipity.
"I found it difficult to get noticed and cut through the all of the noise out there, especially since the whole gluten free, vegan trend was really kicking off. Around the same time, my sister-in-law who’s a graphic designer specialising in fresh produce asked for my help with a project - a banana farmer client wanted a fresh look, complete with recipes and styled imagery for his new website! I jumped at the opportunity and started asking: what actually is it that I’m doing? Is it a profession, could I make a living doing this? This random job became my foray into food styling and a natural progression from what I was doing before."
Moving to London
I was keen to find out what prompted Stephanie to move to London. Like many Australian women, Stephanie told me that it was the sheer size of the UK market that stirred her interest.
"After the Banana job went well, I started researching Food Styling and Stylists in general. I found that a lot was coming out of London. I decided to finish up with Honey Espresso because the burning desire to explore the world of food styling was too big to ignore.”
“I moved to London for a complete sea change. I compiled a list of my favourite UK food stylists, photographers and foodie magazines to contact and off I went. I wanted to gain experience from the best and the new challenge excited me.”
“Being in London, surrounded by so many successful and ambitious creatives, gave me the drive and experience that little Brissie quite possibly might not have. It’s so easy to become complacent and comfortable in your own environment.”
The sheer size of London and the breadth of its networks and communities can be overwhelming for many Australian women who are more familiar with small cities. I asked Stephanie about how she made her transition to London work for her.
"London was a really creative time for me. When I moved there, I completely eliminated the things in my life that weren’t doing me any favours, so my head was free to be inspired. My work was shaped in a sense by the same attitude - keeping things simple and pared back and getting rid of useless clutter to make way for something on the plate to shine.”
“Working in London and the countless hours of assisting taught me to be observant, a sponge, watching and absorbing what different stylists do. I think it's really important to be aware of what others in the industry are doing.”
Building a profile in London
Stephanie worked with a number of world renowned brands, photographers and stylists here in London including Jamie Oliver, BBC Good Food Magazine, Delicious UK and the The Great British Bake Off Book 2016. I asked her how she built such a strong profile in London.
“Not having come from a professional "cheffy" background, but instead a simple lover of all things food... sometimes I just had to be resourceful. My confidence grew steadily after a bit of trial and error and with persistence, things starting falling into place and my style was discovered.”
“In the beginning, I reached out to various food publications and stylists for assisting work and offered weeks of my time free of charge. This was a great way to learn the ropes, meet people in the industry, see what happens on set and learn valuable food styling tips. I took a flexible cafe job to pick up some dollars whenever I wasn’t assisting.”
Many Australian women like Stephanie use London as a way to make a career transition. I admired how she was prepared to take advantage of opportunities and keep faith in her own dreams and goals.
“I wondered several times if I was cut out for the food styling industry, especially after not having any professional cookery qualifications and a slightly unorthodox style. The Deputy Food Editor for Delicious Magazine told me on my first day of work experience that 'no one will look twice at you if you don’t have a Leith’s / Cordon Bleu diploma'. I decided that if I could get myself in to her office then I had stood a good change of succeeding."
"I like a good challenge. I’m a creative learner and I learn through discovery and experience and I was determined to take in as much as I could through assisting on shoots. The moment I was asked for my opinion on a shoot, was the moment I started to believe that I could really do it."
Managing doubt is essential to success. I had to smile when Stephanie confided in experiencing second thoughts.
“Sometimes I wondered if swapping my comfortable business at home for sweeping floors, washing dishes and making teas for free in one of the most expensive cities to live in, was the right decision!”
Given her success, I asked Stephanie for top tips into breaking into the London food styling scene.
“Be ok with offering your time without pay. People are hesitant commissioning or hiring someone new for anything, but no one thinks twice about getting someone in to lend a hand off their own bat. It’s the reason I managed to work with so many stylists, photographers and different publications and collaborate with other creatives.”
“When people know you are willing to work for free, and with a smile, they know you are serious about what you want to do. When people in the industry see someone like that, they will want to give you a chance and eventually pay you! The more shoots you go on, the more contacts you will meet.”
Stephanie’s international career has recently expanded to Hong Kong. I asked her how the two cities compared.
“Hong Kong is such a vibrant, foodie driven and super efficient city. However, food styling as a profession isn’t popular here. After London, I decided I wanted to be closer to home but still craved the experience I could gain from living and working abroad. It seemed like a great opportunity to mould the skills I learned in London and apply them to an eastern market. I got in touch with some restaurant groups and small businesses that I thought could benefit from my skills as a food stylist. I found that being a previous business owner myself, gave me a unique edge to help them. With the lack of time and resources dedicated to menu promotion, I felt like it was my calling to assist food brands and businesses with mouth-watering content creation and since moving here, this is the area of work I've been focussing on. My food styling has evolved and grown into a deeper, more personal profession."
Travel is something that energises Stephanie. I asked her if there were any life plans underpinning her enthusiasm for taking in new challenges.
“Yes, there is a life plan and I have to tell my parents and family constantly. I want to gain the life experience that only living abroad can provide. Experiencing the challenges of not having your support network, being alone at times, learning a new culture and way of life, finding new friends, learning new skills... there is definitely a life plan underpinning it to become a more globally minded citizen, gaining depth by being outside my comfort zone and becoming financially savvy and creating a strong business/brand. To be inspired and inspire others!”
As always, I asked Stephanie about her favourite parts and experiences with London. Her answers were typically astute and full of observation.
“For a city that everyone knows runs at full steam, I enjoyed experiencing London’s softer side by spending time out in one of the parks. Whenever I walked or cycled somewhere, I always made a point to go through a park, stopping for a quick breath (sometimes you forget to breathe in such a hectic place). Clissold Park, Hampstead Heath and Bloomsbury Square are among my favourites!”
“I like that Londoners aren’t loud or boisterous (think travelling on the subway in NYC when you can’t hear yourself think) but they still walk around with intent and like they have a purpose. During my time working in the cafe, I would send some locals into a flap because I asked how they were, or how their day was (being Aussie, this is just second nature)… and they just didn’t know how to respond. Although reserved initially, I find that Londoners are generally super friendly underneath and when you dare to get to that level, it's always entertaining. Plus, when they finally open their mouth and that lovely accent hits you.”
“There are endless galleries, exhibitions, museums, music gigs, and pop ups in London and a lot of them are free too. Even when you think you’ve seen it all, someone tells you about the an esoteric collection - a quirky gallery of modern Italian art in Islington or the Dulwich Picture Gallery - that you’ve never heard of and have to check out.”
“Every weekend, I wandered around a new area using galleries or coffee shops as my starting point. Only in London!”