Delectable eats - for your eyes only

Mr John Sawarto is a picture of utter concentration as he arranges a single sprig of parsley sitting delicately on a luscious piece of foie gras, amid foam sauce.

His job is to make food look so delectable that you feel you have no choice but to indulge.

Some call him a con artist, for getting paid to make such enhancements.

And to some extent, they are right.

Most of the dishes served are not, in reality, as visually appealing as those that he creates.

And under no circumstances should food used for photo shoots or commercials be eaten, says the Indonesian, who is a permanent resident.

The rich plate of squid ink pasta? It probably contains pen ink, a nifty trick he was persuaded to share.

And that gooey melted cheese on that juicy beef patty? It would have undergone the "hair dryer treatment".

Says the 32-year-old, with a laugh: "Once in a while I come across inexperienced assistants or people on the set who want to try the food for themselves.

"I've had to yell to stop them from putting the food into their mouths. Thankfully, none of them has ever swallowed."

Mr Sawarto, who is also a trained chef, moved to Singapore with his family when he was three.

His company, which he started with just $200, now has several restaurants in its portfolio.

It is a rags-to-riches story, but this boss has no qualms doing the work himself. He also offers personal chef services, on top of food-styling consultancy.

The food stylist job is more difficult than arranging food in a pretty manner, he points out. You have to have patience, a keen eye for detail and a generous dose of tenacity.

He recalls working 28 hours without sleep on a TV commercial for chicken porridge, shot in Vietnam.

The shot he created required slices of chicken to fall gracefully through the air into a bowl, along with other ingredients like mushroom. "We used more than a hundred pieces of semi-raw chicken, which still wasn't enough to get the shot right.

"My assistant had to scour the local markets for more chicken, some of which had to be slaughtered live.

He was so put off by the smell of chicken - normally his favourite meat - that he did not eat it for two months.

Sometimes, he also receives ridiculous requests from clients, such as to create beef that is "well done, but still bloody".

"I mean, how do you do that?" he asks with a roll of the eyes.

In such circumstances, you just have to reason patiently with the client, even if that does not usually work, he says. A lot of legwork is done before the actual photo shoot or filming session.

"You may need to comb the island for the freshest greens or the best-looking tomatoes. And out of the 100 you buy, only five are used.

"There's also a lot of washing and repetition in order to get things right," he says.

Mr Sawarto, who honed his culinary chops at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, is pretty much self-taught when it comes to food styling. His favourite ingredients to work with include broccoli and pasta.

"It's hard to go wrong with the vibrant green that comes from blanching broccoli. It just makes the whole photo pop," he says.

He estimates that there are about 10 "good" food stylists in Singapore. Clients pay them up to a few thousand for a one-day shoot, he says.

The self-made entrepreneur has found success, with deals from many Asian countries. But he exudes a down-to-earth vibe in person, peppering Singaporean English with Hokkien phrases and Chinese proverbs.

He is a perfectionist at work, but says he is "chin chai" (Hokkien for anything goes) when he does not have to cook or style and prefers a bowl of laksa or chicken rice over abalone and premium beef.

Being a food stylist means he subconsciously critiques the picture menus in restaurants he visits, he admits.

"I will be thinking that there's too much shadow in this shot, or that the parsley in the other one could have be chosen better," he says, adding that he never expresses these thoughts.

Satisfaction comes when he is able to create food that make people hungry.

"For it to be really effective, food needs to look better than usual. But it still retains a touch of realism. That's something I have to continually remind some clients about," he says.

Secrets of the trade

1. Stationery shops can be your best friend, as they supply little knick-knacks that may be useful in food styling.

2. Patience is crucial. Be prepared for repetitive tasks and catering to the endless demands of a picky client.

3. Do your homework and make friends with grocers so that you can source for that perfect-looking basil leaf quickly.

This article was published on April 27 in The New Paper.

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