Pro Food Stylist Lisa Spychala Learns New Tricks at Escoffier

Experienced food stylist Lisa Spychala explains how a stint on Food Network’s Chopped led her to seek an online culinary education with Escoffier.

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February 16, 2023 12 min read

Experience alone doesn’t always create confidence.

That’s what food stylist and television producer Lisa Spychala realized, after over a decade in the industry. While she had the culinary skills to get freelance food styling jobs and had learned many tricks of the trade, she knew that there was a big piece missing—education.

Find out how this successful food stylist upped her game through culinary school at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts!

How the 2008 Recession Led to a New Skill

When Lisa first started her career, she had no idea that the job of “food stylist” even existed. “I didn’t know that the chef on camera wasn’t the person that made all the recipes that you see,” she explains.*

But she learned quickly. Lisa’s first job out of college was as an associate producer for a company that produced satellite media tours. These lifestyle segments for local morning and interview shows often featured a chef and their food.

When she first started, her company would hire a food stylist to set up the plates. But food stylists can be expensive. And during the 2008 recession, every client was trimming their budget. With less money coming in, Lisa’s boss had to cut costs. He asked himself what else Lisa could do, since she was already on salary.

“In his Italian accent, he said, ‘Oh, Lisa, you could food style. You do it!’” she recalls.*

So she did! Her boss sent her to take a few classes on food styling, which helped her to improve. And she found that she loved the cooking as much as the styling. Soon, she was building a name for herself in the industry.

Lisa Spychala“The more I started [food styling], the more my name got thrown around. I started doing it for a bunch of other clients in addition to producing.”*
Lisa Spychala, Escoffier Online Graduate and Food Stylist

Now 14 years later, she’s a successful food stylist in New Jersey and New York City who has worked with famous chefs and celebrities!

Pasta, salad, garlic, and other foods styled on a wooden table

A spread styled by Lisa for an Italian food cookbook. Photo by Carley Storm Photography.

Behind the Scenes As a Food Stylist

Many people think food styling is simply plating a finished dish and making it look pretty. Not so!

“In most cases,” Lisa explains, “you’re responsible for everything: shopping for the ingredients, cooking the ingredients, [plating the dish]. You have to know how long the food is going to be on set. How many multiples do you have to make? Is anyone going to eat it? That’s a huge deal. I often use toothpicks to keep something together. But if someone’s going to take a bite out of a burger, you don’t want them to bite into a big toothpick.”*

There are many misconceptions about what’s real and what’s not. “People say, ‘I heard you use motor oil for pancake syrup.’ Well, I don’t, just in case a host decides to take a bite out of a pancake. The food is real.”*

A drink being poured into a glass with a lemon and lemons in the background

A styling session for a social media account that recreates ancient recipes. Photo by Carley Storm Photography.

There are also legal requirements to consider when you’re food styling for food brands. Whatever you’re selling has to be real in any imagery. “If I have Edy’s Ice Cream as a client,” Lisa says, “I need to use that ice cream… You can’t just use mashed potatoes in place of [the ice cream].”*

And when someone is eating on air, you have to make sure the food tastes good or you may get a reaction that you don’t want! “There’s nothing worse than [the host or talent] getting a bite of something cold or something gross,” Lisa says. “That reaction can’t be taken away when you’re on live TV.”* So there is a crucial cooking element to the career of a food stylist.

Cheese Puff Crusted Fried Green Tomatoes

Lisa’s Cheese Puff Crusted Fried Green Tomatoes

Food stylists are usually freelancers rather than full-time employees. They have to reach out and network to keep their schedules full.

And Lisa has certainly made the rounds!

She’s worked on Food Network’s “The Kitchen,” with Alex Guarnaschelli, Geoffrey Zakarian, Jeff Mauro, and Sunny Anderson, styling food for each celebrity chef across four episodes. She’s also done food styling for Anne Burrell, Carla Hall, Katie Lee, and Aaron Sanchez, among many others.

“I have pictures in Anne Burrell’s apartment making her Cheetos® Mac & Cheese,” she shares. “It was just me and her hanging out in her apartment—it was so cool and surreal.”*

It’s not just celebrity chefs…Lisa has worked with some movie stars, too!

“I had a fun food styling job where Freddie Prinze Jr. was the talent. It was for a dishwasher brand, so all I needed to do was make the kitchen look gross. I had to make stuck-on spaghetti and over-baked mac and cheese. The whole point was to make it the opposite of what I’m used to making it look like. And, of course, Freddie Prinze Jr was the heartthrob when I was a teenager. That was really cool.”*

Lisa Spychala“I’m thinking ‘Oh my God! I’m making sticky spaghetti for Freddie Prinze Jr. He is married to Sarah Michelle Gellar. I am a HUGE ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ fan…Are we best friends now? That was a trip!”*
Lisa Spychala, Escoffier Online Graduate and Food Stylist

Food Network’s Chopped Leads Lisa to Escoffier

In 2020, Lisa got the chance to step out from behind the camera and get into the spotlight.

While she has many years of cooking experience as a food stylist and in a restaurant setting, she never felt comfortable calling herself a chef. So she usually ignores the casting emails that she gets for cooking shows.

Then she received an email for an episode of Food Network’s Chopped. The theme? Chef’s Best Friend…aka their dogs.

“I have a golden retriever I’m obsessed with,”* she says. So she figured, why not give it a shot? After all, they would tell her if she wasn’t qualified.

She filled out her application, and she was delighted when she was selected as an alternate. This meant that she’d just be on hand in case one of the chefs chosen for the show backed out. “That’s perfect,” she thought. “I don’t have to be on Chopped. I can talk to the culinary producer, schmooze, make some friends, get a job with Food Network.”*

But the week before the shoot, she found out she’d be competing on camera after all.

“I was panic city,” she recalls. “I studied everything I didn’t need to know, like how to make cookies or desserts from memory. I just overwhelmed myself. I like to say I was on Chopped for about five minutes because—spoiler alert—I was the first one to go. But it made me realize what I didn’t know. You can’t learn everything, of course, but I realized I needed more fundamental knowledge about cooking. When they gave me the basket [of ingredients, I realized], ‘Oh. I can’t just take anything and make something out of it.’ That’s something I’ve always wanted to be able to do.”*

So after over 10 years as a food stylist, working as a line cook, and getting the ax from Chopped, Lisa finally decided it was time to go to culinary school.

Lisa Spychala“I was on Chopped before I started culinary school. That was really the inciting incident. I took one look at the fresh sardines, bone marrow, and peanut butter they gave me and thought ‘Girl, you need to go to culinary school.’”*
Lisa Spychala, Escoffier Online Graduate and Food Stylist

Backing Up Experience with Education at Escoffier

For her education, Lisa chose to pursue a diploma in Culinary Arts through Escoffier’s online program. This would give her the flexibility to do freelance food styling work while she got her education.

“It was a whirlwind,” she recalls. “I was working at a restaurant, freelancing, and then doing culinary school. The time management part took some getting used to. Ultimately, I think, it made me a better worker. I knew that I had to carve out time for the actual lessons and washing my own dishes along with the dishes I dirtied from culinary school. That was what I think was the hardest part.”*

Escoffier student lisa chopping vegetables in her kitchen

Lisa doing her Escoffier coursework from her home kitchen.

While she was familiar with online school, she wasn’t sure what to expect from Escoffier’s online culinary program. “As I was doing it, I thought, ‘This [online program] actually makes a lot of sense.’ There is a lot you can tell from the photos about what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. No, Chef doesn’t know how much salt you put in. They can tell by the consistency of your rice from the pictures. And it is about you learning and self-critiquing.”*

For Lisa, confidence is key. Now that her time in school has come to an end, she has found a new level of self-assurance.

“I think if I were to go back [to Chopped],” she says, “I would be able to do way better in the competition because I just understand food a lot better.”* She certainly wouldn’t be as intimidated by that basket of ingredients this time around!

Lisa Spychala“Now I know what goes into making and cooking the food correctly, as opposed to it being an art project. There was always a level of cooking to food styling, but [now I know] how to make it taste right.”*
Lisa Spychala, Escoffier Online Graduate and Food Stylist

endive salad on a white dish

An endive salad styled by Lisa for an Italian food cookbook. Photo by Carley Storm Photography.

Bringing It All Together

Now that she has the education to back up her experience, Lisa is looking forward to her next steps. Those will certainly include food styling. But instead of strictly supporting the star chefs, she’d like to become one of them, developing recipes and getting in front of the camera.

“Next, for me, is to start honing in on how-to and social videos,”* she says. She’d like to help people with both everyday and special event cooking, like the Thanksgiving turkey or bone-in roast beef for Christmas. Those dishes can be intimidating, but she hopes to make them fun and approachable.

Education helped her to build her own confidence, and now she hopes to bring that to others.

Lisa Spychala“Once you get the hang of [cooking], not only is it fun, it can be simple and easy and delicious. I think people get intimidated when there’s no real reason to be. Like anything else, you’re nervous until you know what you’re doing.”*
Lisa Spychala, Escoffier Online Graduate and Food Stylist

Say Yes…And Know When to Say Say No

Lisa has some words of advice for others who are considering culinary school or just getting started with their careers in food.

First, “Never stop learning. People thought I was crazy for working, food styling, and going to culinary school all at once. But I want to learn so much.”*

The next piece of advice? Take every opportunity you can. “When it comes to work, I always tell younger people that I’m a ‘yes’ person,” she says. “When my boss asked me, ‘Can you food style?’ my whole life would have been different if I’d said, ‘No. I’m not doing that. You don’t pay me enough for that.’ Saying yes, within reason, opens up so many doors. It eventually made me indispensable to a company that needed to downsize. They couldn’t get rid of me because I was doing too many jobs.”*

But there is a point at which you do need to recognize your own value, which is another piece of Lisa’s advice. “Don’t let employers put too much on you without asking for a raise,” she adds. “I learned that a couple years later with age and wisdom! But say yes to things, and make yourself indispensable to your industry because it’s only going to help you.”*

Lisa Spychala“When you stop learning, you stop living.”*
Lisa Spychala, Escoffier Online Graduate and Food Stylist

For Beginners, Experts, and Everyone in Between

It’s not only beginners who may wish to improve their food knowledge through education. Even people with years of experience in their field may see the value of learning new skills, techniques, and culinary cultures from around the world.

Whether you’re just graduating high school, decades into your culinary career, or looking to make a career change, a degree or diploma from Escoffier may help give you the confidence you need to take the next steps.

Contact our Admissions Department to learn more about our programs and find out which one could be the right fit for you!

To learn more about culinary school and culinary careers, try these articles next:

*Information may not reflect every student’s experience. Results and outcomes may be based on several factors, such as geographical region or previous experience.

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