IWYJ: Food Stylist Fell Into Perfect Career

IWYJ: Food Stylist Fell Into Perfect Career

With a liberal arts degree, sometimes you end up in a job you never even thought of before. Anna Shillinglaw Hampton ’00 left College of Charleston with degrees in French and international business and went on to an exciting career in food styling, recipe development and authoring a cook book.

If you’ve ever flipped through Food & Wine or Southern Living, you’ve probably seen Hampton’s work. While she’s been busy cooking up Thanksgiving feasts this summer (more on that later), Hampton talks about how she went from York, South Carolina, to New York City and back down South.

Tell me a little bit about your background and how you ended up at CofC.

Growing up in a small town in York, South Carolina, my family would often visit Charleston on summer vacation. I was completely drawn to the city’s rich artistic culture, beautiful landscape and, of course, the seafood! My interests were always in the arts, as I studied music, art, dance and language throughout high school. After touring several colleges, I only applied to College of Charleston, I  knew it was the place for me.

I love the College’s open-mindedness, the sense of community within the city, and I was grateful to be able to study such a wide range of subjects in the liberal arts. Food has been also been a huge part of my background, with family growing fresh farm produce, and working in restaurants throughout high school and college. I left College of Charleston with a well-rounded view of arts, language, and business. I have a B.A. in French and B.S. in International Business with a minor in German.

A spread from Health with Hampton’s work.

What is your current job title and how would you describe your responsibilities?

I recently joined Time Inc. Food Studios in Birmingham, Alabama, as staff food stylist. I moved from New York City where I lived for 9 years.

After working in restaurants and as a private chef, I began assisting several incredibly talented food stylists, where I developed skills and learned the ropes of the industry. I assisted for about five years before I started leading my own jobs, working freelance for editorial, advertising, and cookbook clients in mainly print, and also video and commercials. At the same time, I freelanced in the test kitchens for Epicurious and Real Simple magazine, where I learned recipe development and writing skills. My first cookbook, Grain Bowls was released in 2016 by Hachette Publishing.

Last year, Time, Inc. opened a beautiful new facility that houses 28 kitchens, 12 photography studios and a video studio to create content for their print and digital brands, including Southern Living, Cooking Light, Coastal Living, and Food & Wine. My job is to work with photographers and prop stylists to create the beautiful food images found on these print and digital formats. The photography is the last part of the process, as it all starts with writers, editors, test kitchen developers and cross-testers to create and test the featured recipes.

My responsibilities are to meet with the editors and creative directors to discuss art before the shoot, work with assistants (we have a whole amazing team!) to coordinate complicated shopping lists, run around procuring ingredients (often out of season, as we shoot in advance for print!) and order specialty ingredients to be delivered to the studio on time. Summer is our busy time, as we are often cooking turkeys and Thanksgiving spreads for holiday print.

Kitchen prep days are needed to get ready and organized before shoot days, which could range anywhere from cooking pork shoulders overnight to freezing 20 ice cream flavors to scoop the next day.

Food stylists have to have some knowledge about every type of cooking, as assignments are very diverse and can come in last minute. When it’s time shoot, we must be well-prepared for any studio environmental factors that may affect the food, such as bright lights or cold air conditioning. Food has to last a long time on set, so we keep dry ice nearby to keep ice cream cold and use tools like heat guns and torches to melt cheese and warm things on set.

Constantly working with different teams and environments require us to be light on our feet and be ready for change at any time.

A spread from Coastal Living with Hampton’s work.

What experiences at the College stand out as having prepared you for this role?

Learning to work as a team. Many of my courses at the College were project or team based, and I learned that everyone has skills to bring to the table, and we can be stronger working together than we are alone.

Travel was a big part of my College experience. I am grateful to have studied abroad as an exchange student in England and then later on working as an teaching assistant in France.

I must also mention that Charleston is such a culinary powerhouse. I mean, I’ve never been to a city where almost every single restaurant nails it. Throughout my years at the College, I worked in front and back of the house in restaurants and bakeries, which helped lead the path to my career as well.

The College is so much a part of the city and not a closed off campus. My experiences in my arts, music, dance classes were carried over into the community, which I found very valuable.

What drew you to your current career?

I’d always followed my interests and skills, but when I had my first day as an intern on set with a food stylist, it struck me like lightning — I knew it was for me. Being able to be creative, and to work with talented artists every day is a dream. For most of my life, I didn’t realize food styling was a career possibility, but now I’m happy I took the time to explore all the options and continued to follow my interests. Some work days are demanding, both physically and mentally, but at the end of the day I remind myself why I love what I do. Because I certainly do!

What advice would you offer students interested in pursuing a career similar to yours?

Number one advice: Be an intern! Be an assistant! Great assistance is always in demand.

Find someone who has the job you aspire to, then ask to work for the experience. Don’t be discouraged when you have to run for coffee or lunch, be happy you’re there! If you find it’s for you, then stick to it with tenacity and soak in the knowledge, you will get to where you want to be.

Number two: Don’t be afraid to ask questions! The more you know, the faster you will grow.

Number three: Be open to change. Don’t be afraid to switch jobs/positions/careers if something is not working for you, no matter your age or job title. Your experiences brought you to where you are so keep moving forward and exploring your options.