In conversation with food stylist and photographer Saba Gaziyani, on the art of making Indian curries look perfect
It takes a unique set of skills to make my nemesis Okra look good, but one look at the images on Saba Gaziyani’s portfolio, and I am ready to eat them the way I would a pack of KFC’s Chicken Wings. Suddenly I know exactly why she’s the best in her business!
Saba’s love for food began on her mother’s knees, as she learnt to cook and appreciate cooking like the good little girl she was. She studied Hotel Management in Mumbai and knew immediately that food was going to be part of whatever she did for the rest of her life. She first tested waters by joining Leela Kempinski as a Junior Chef but after three years in the job, she began to feel stymied by the lack of options available to her.
Already the one styling the dishes on the floor, Saba decided to find another creative outlet for her talents by becoming a food stylist. Over time she taught herself the tricks of the trade and became a noted food photographer. In the last ten years, Saba has taught herself everything she knows by working with some of the biggest names in the food business.
Today , she conceptualizes how food should look from end-to-end, with projects that range from designing food packaging to directing food-based Television Commercials. You may not know her name but you’ve definitely seen her work somewhere- whether in Masterchef India, on Tata Sky, or in umpteen hoardings and print ads ranging from Godrej Hershey’s to Swati Snacks to McCain Foods to Domino’s!
Saba begins most of her projects with a pen and paper sketch, deciding how the dish should look, and envisioning everything from the light and treatment it should receive, to whether the overall look would be contemporary or traditional, to selecting the right shaped wooden bowl from her extensive props department. She works with a team that then helps her stage and execute this vision.
As someone who firmly believes that we see food first, then smell it, and only then taste it, Saba holds herself to extremely high standards, and is willing to go the extra mile to ensure her makhani is the right shade of orange-red, just the way it’s supposed to be. But she’s also old-fashioned enough to believe that you don’t need food colouring or artificial lighting to achieve that perfect look. As she passionately tells me: To make a dish look good, you need to start with the best ingredients and the right proportions, everything else follows from there
I ask her if she has tasted everything she’s shot in the 10 + years of her career as a food stylist, and she laughs and says, “All the time. In fact I seldom have an appetite for sit down meals after sampling food from my day job all through the day”. Her favourite dish to photograph? The pizza - because there are so many components you have to get right, and there is only a short window when the cheese looks meltingly-perfect, before it takes on an unappetizing and stringy quality. Ice-cream shots also have their own unique challenge (try getting the image right before it begins to melt in less than a minute!). Saba sees beauty in extreme close-ups of food, and can make a perfect grain of rice sing with her camera!
A huge part of Saba’s job is just staying abreast with what’s happening in the rest of the food world, reading about the latest techniques, and the latest ways to present them. She reads a lot of the latest food related books , spends a lot of time on British site www.contactacreative.co.uk and although she loves her job and its challenges, bemoans the sameness of Indian curries, wishing she had more ingredients to play with!
Her favourite assignment to date is with the Jumeirah International Hotels, where she styled 150 signature dishes from across their chain of hotels (and these include some pretty big names!) for a commemorative book!
If Saba has one unfulfilled dream, it is to have Heston Blumenthal whisk her away to Fat Duck to photograph some of his foamy and translucent molecular gastronomy creations. Just recently, while reading Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine, she wished she had a chance to style such dishes in her own unique way.
Finally, we ask Saba how home cooks and food bloggers in the post-Masterchef era of cooking can make their food look better, and she tells us that as author of an entire book on the subject- “Garnish Indian Curries”- she just wishes that we would think beyond the coriander sprig to transform our curries – both to add a dash of flavour, and a hint of colour.
When her son was younger, Saba kept him happy by designing tiny moon shaped and star shaped paranthas. Today – when he wants to be a chef in his own right – she never fails to remind him that even before he begins cooking he should have an interesting garnish ready, preserved in chilled water to keep fresh, to add a special touch to his final preparation.
After all, the best eating experiences begin with your eyes!