Feeding Mr. Banks: Secrets of a Hollywood Food Stylist

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Photo courtesy of Disney.

What do Saving Mr. Banks, Dinner for Schmucks, How I Met Your Mother, and Boardwalk Empire have in common? They all feature the work of food stylist Chris Oliver. As chef and owner of Hollywood Food Styling, Oliver has provided beautiful, edible creations for hundreds of movies and TV shows.

“My niche is the on-camera food for film and TV,” Oliver explains. “I’m a chef, and one of the reasons I get a lot of jobs is when the actors actually have to eat the food. Or they’re supposed to eat the food. So it’s not like I can use glue for milk or any kind of chemicals or take cornstarch to thicken stuff. It really has to be natural stuff that they can ingest.”

But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a few tricks of her own up her sleeve. Oliver shared some of her tips with a few bloggers at her test kitchen in Huntington Beach, California, where she designs and prepares a wide variety of screen cuisine. She gave us a demonstration of how she recreated some 1960s dishes for Saving Mr. Banks.

In the film, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) attempts to convince author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to sign over the movie rights to her Mary Poppins character. One of his tactics is to try to impress her with a steady parade of snacks and refreshments, which get fancier (at least by 1960’s standards) as the wooing goes on. It was Oliver’s challenge to make sure the dishes were not only appropriate for the period, but also reflected the story director John Lee Hancock wanted to tell.

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This Mickey Mouse Jell-O mold illustrates Chris Oliver’s creativity and resourcefulness. Photo courtesy of Disney.

“What I was told when I got hired was, ‘We want to see junk food—Twinkies, Ding Dongs—and then we want to have a progression,'” Oliver says. “So they thought they were going to impress her.”

To make a buffet table look appetizing, she uses risers and double-sided tape to position the dishes with a slight tilt to the camera. Color is also important. A red plate, a garnish of parsley, or a sliced olive on top can liven up even the most boring dishes. She showed us how she carefully layers her plates to add interest without making them too busy. With a few well-placed strokes of a paring knife, she demonstrated how to make a rose out of a tomato or lemon peel. She also cautioned us to be mindful of the placement of the food and how it will appear on-screen, and illustrated her point using a photo from an old cookbook.

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Food stylist Chris Oliver shows off an old cookbook with unfortunate baguette placement. Photo courtesy of Disney.

Cookbooks, it turns out, are Oliver’s secret weapon. She has shelves full of them in her kitchen, from every era and culture. She refers to them often to research era-appropriate ingredients, recipes, and presentations. It was so much fun flipping through pages and coming to terms with the truly horrifying reality of mid-century American cuisine.

But food isn’t all she creates. She’s also had to come up with edible facsimiles for things like vomit and dirt. For one war film, she got very detailed instructions on the kind of dirt they wanted her to make for a group of starving prisoners of war.

“They shipped in samples of Pakistani dirt so that I could match it, so they could eat it,” she said. “It’s a lot easier than you think. I did an edible arm for an alligator to actually eat. We did like a million of them. They’re huge and heavy and we had to figure out a way to cast it and make it.”

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Chris Oliver transforms a plate of boring deviled eggs into a more photogenic dish. Photo courtesy of Disney.

After recreating a few signature dishes from Saving Mr. Banks, Oliver let us try our hand at a few classic recipes, including deviled eggs, fruit kebabs, chocolate tarts, and sandwich pinwheels. I was teamed up with a partner and assigned something called “Moss Balls,” which are basically several different kinds of cheese (cream, blue, and cheddar, among others) rolled up into a balls and covered in parsley. We picked a set of pretty wooden bowls and made them look as appetizing as we could. It wasn’t as good as Oliver’s work, but we were proud of our creation.

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An amateur attempt at food styling. Photo courtesy of Disney.

Before meeting Oliver and her team, I didn’t think much about where the food in films and television comes from. Now I have a healthy appreciation for all of the thought and preparation that goes into it. What a food stylist really does is blend cooking and art in the service of creating the perfect culinary backdrop. Plus, you get to cook for some of the biggest names in Hollywood. As far as dream jobs go, it kind of takes the cake.

Saving Mr. Banks is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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