Mouthwatering images of toast smeared with rainbow-hued cream cheese, topped with picturesque sprinkles, fresh flowers and star-shaped strawberries, are what you might find if you search Instagram for “mermaid toast”, the latest pretty-food trend to hit the web.
Pretty food – it’s a thing. You may be surprised to learn that food bloggers put just as much, if not more, effort into their food posts as fashion bloggers put into images of their outfits. Setting the perfect table and capturing a great food image, with optimal lighting and detailing, isn’t easy, and props such as faux backgrounds and reflectors are often required for the task. As a result, food bloggers are ideally placed to offer tips on creating beautifully styled tabletops.
Dubai-based food blogger Najoud Al-Jabri, also known as Chef on the Block, recently shared some of her secrets when she hosted a food-styling workshop at the Nook boutique in Jumeirah’s Beach Centre mall. Having been raised in the Middle East, Europe and North America, Al-Jabri enjoys exploring different cuisines and shares her cooking experiences on her blog and social-media channels. However, Al-Jabri isn’t your average food blogger who simply posts images of recipes that are on-trend at any given time. Instead, she will work within a given cuisine theme and invite her followers to suggest dishes for her to make.
Her Instagram page, which has almost 10,000 followers, is a testament to her culinary expertise. Dishes such as Jamaican coconut gazpacho with calamari and radish sit in saucers surrounded by coriander leaves; frothy smoothies topped with berries and mint leaves stand on marble countertops, surrounded by lemons, limes and dried fruit.
At the time of her workshop at Nook, Al-Jabri was working with Swedish recipes, so she settled on Scandinavian porridge for her live demonstration. Porridge isn’t typically the most aesthetically alluring of dishes, making it an ideal example of Al-Jabri’s food styling expertise.
“Take something ordinary and make it special, give it life,” is the primary goal of both styling and photographing a meal, she says. “Ask yourself: ‘How can I explain my story on a plate?’”
She points out that porridge naturally looks quite bland. “It’s not going to compete with a chocolate cake that has chocolate oozing out of it,” she acknowledges. But any dish can be spruced up before it makes its way onto your table.
To liven up her porridge, Al-Jabri throws in a bit of colour and texture. After making her base from oat, barley, turmeric, saffron, cinnamon, water, almond milk and vanilla, she sprinkles some cranberries, blueberries and coconut pieces into the pot. She advises that these add-ons should all be kept prepared and organised in Tupperwares containers for easy access.
“I love decorating my plate – I feel like when you’re eating, you’re treating yourself to something,” she says.
Styling the table provides an opportunity to use a range of tabletop props. The food blogger pulls out a bag filled with blocks of wood. “You’ll laugh about where I get some of these boards from,” she says, explaining that a new restaurant was opening near her house, so she asked the construction workers if she could take and keep some of the scraps of wood used for flooring. “I know it’s a floor, but nobody needs to know that,” she says with a giggle.
Sometimes, she will paint the backs of the scraps in lighter or darker colours, for variety, and will use them as serving boards or for photography backdrops.
Because today’s dish is Scandinavian, Al-Jabri introduces additional touches that fit the theme: an earthy, homely vibe. So dishes are placed on marble slabs, while tiny flower buds are scattered among cacti potted in geometric jars. She points out that these small decorative touches should complement the essence of the meal. “They also add more life and a finished look to the table setting,” she says. “Have a quick look online for inspiration based on the themes. I love Pinterest – it helps me visualise or gather inspiration for the look and feel I’m going for.”
Setting your table properly is also key. “Each person should have one large flat plate, a small one for breads or salads, a bowl [if soup is served], a starter set of knives and forks, a mains set of knives and forks, a large spoon if needed, and a dessert fork and spoon,” she says.
“Working from the centre out, you start with your larger cutlery, then add the smaller cutlery. To the right of the knives, you should place your large spoon. Dessert cutlery should go above the plate.”
Each guest should be given two cups, one large and one small, for water and extra drinks. She advises hosts to provide serving napkins within a ring on each plate, and also have extra napkins in a holder on the table. “A nice idea would be to use fresh rosemary to be tied to the napkin with twine; this works perfectly for a fresh, calm, natural theme,” she says.
If you want to share pictures of your table setting on social media, Al-Jabri has some additional tips. “I have a toolbox I always use,” she reveals, pulling out a plastic spray bottle filled with water, which she uses for quick sprays over fruit baskets. “Those little droplets, with our phone cameras, will make it look like you have the most beautiful produce,” she says.
For liquid garnishes, she uses a plastic ketchup-style bottle with a pointed tip, and she carries a plain funnel for pouring liquids into cups or maison jars, to avoid getting anything onto the rim. Images of towering brownie or cookie stacks, claims Al-Jabri, aren’t entirely natural. Toothpicks are used to keep a stack compact and upright.
Many of the tools in Al-Jabri’s kit are intended for lighting photographs. She uses makeshift reflectors – essentially the silver covers left over from disposable aluminium takeaway boxes – to add light onto the food, and holds these with clamps or pliers. If she needs to knock back light for a moodier shoot, she will use black boards in place of the reflectors.
Whatever the case, she always avoids turning on the flash setting on her phone. “It’s ugly; I will not accept it – it breaks my heart,” she says. Instead, she recommends that aspiring food photographers buy ring lights – the type often used by beauty bloggers.
It turns out that cooking isn’t the most complicated part of preparing an Instagram-worthy meal. Styling the food and arranging a background for it to be displayed on can take some time, and achieving the perfect mood with props and lighting can be tricky.
“A good photo doesn’t have to be expensive, you just need to understand the tools you’re using,” she says. Her final tip for completing the mood for a meal has nothing to do with cooking, styling or photography, but is arguably just as important: “Have a music playlist ready in the background to add to the theme.”