Let’s be honest. Malaysians really love to eat! The fact that we spend so much time taking pictures of our dishes the moment it reaches our table is a testament that food is at the heart of every Malaysian. But have you ever thought about what it takes to have beautiful magazine-worthy food pictures?
Today, we will be introducing someone who has made food her passion and turned it into a career. Trisha Toh, better known by her online moniker, Trishates, is a freelance art director and stylist specialising in creative food and prop styling. If you had asked Trisha 10 years ago about her career path, a stylist would have never crossed her mind. But since Trisha grew up in a creative and food-loving household, it was only natural for her to eventually fall in love with both. Soon she realised that she could combine the two elements together to create her own style of art — which she has been specialising for the last 7 years.
Trisha has always been drawn to food art and enjoys studying still life masters in their projection of food paintings. Some of her more favourite projects include Troika Sky Dining’s conceptual campaign for three of their principle restaurants — Fuego, Strato and Cantaloupe — inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’. The shoot features the offerings of the three restaurants on a long table, styled with only the ingredients and props that define each.
We found it especially meaningful that Trisha also decided to feature the staff, giving them the recognition they deserve as true heroes of the brand.
It is clear as day that Trisha is passionate about her work, and her personality, infectious! We had such a great time getting to know her as she animatedly tells us about her projects. Enjoy Trisha’s fun interview!
How did you get into food styling? I knew I always had a creative eye early on. It all started as a hobby and a never-ending obsession with design concepts and contemporary visual interpretations that ultimately fuel my styling and art direction you see today. It was only 7 years ago that I realised I could combine my love for food and photography. And that’s when I started teaching myself how to shoot and style, be it at home or at public spaces (e.g. restaurants). In 2014, I remember feeling slightly challenged from the shooting and styling or ‘doing it all’ and wasn’t happy with the shots I had created. That was when I realised I couldn’t do both at the same time. Shoots require a team. And you’ll soon realise and appreciate having a team that looks after their own role. So, I started honing in on my skills and craftsmanship and shifted my focus entirely on styling and art direction as I find that the most exciting and rewarding.
What are some of the challenges you face when shooting with food? I found out that food requires time and attention as much as photography requires time to set the right lighting and camera settings. Food is so fragile, once its out, one must shoot it quickly or you’ll risk having the dish wilted or dried up and dull-looking. And time is of the essence. How do you think Instagram has changed the photography game when it comes to food? I think it is a very positive thing to be motivated and be passionate to get into the creative scene. But I also think that one must question themselves when creating and sharing - do I have a story to tell, or am I shooting just for the sake of it? That said, I think a lot of us underestimate the power of Instagram (sometimes, undermining it by the constant phrasing of ‘for the gram’ which I feel plays down the concept of app). It is a platform of possibilities and it is up to the individual how he/she wants to use it. What are some of the struggles have you had to deal with during the course of your career as a food stylist on Instagram? If I have to be honest, I am tired of people seeing numbers as an indication or verification of my skills, and I highly encourage budding photographers and stylists who are new to the app to not be motivated by numbers. Rather, focus on the stories you want to tell. I see many people feeling dejected when they receive harsh comments on their photos, which makes them share less and ultimately end up hating the application. I say, screw them. And share what speaks to you most. That is your identity and no one can take that away from you. Some photos may not get as many likes as the other, but who cares really? The numbers should not define who you are. I rather see Instagram as a platform of progress, a journey, and sharing photos that are inspiring be it personal or work-related. How did you find your unique style? When I first started out using Instagram, I was literally taking all kinds of photos and kept shooting until I found a style that has now become eponymous to my identity. Tell us about some of your favourite projects. We did a homage to Salvatore Dali in the creation of Proof Pizzeria’s imageries, now hung on the walls of the Arcoris Mont Kiara branch. I also enjoyed creating some images for Borneo restaurant in Bangsar too but found out that they are closing due to MCO, which saddens me. I really strongly urge anyone who is able to, to support the local businesses as much as they can.
Could you share with us the process of how you come up with concepts for your work? Each imagery I’ve worked on is a result of combined and thought-out research in tradition and culture, whilst respecting the food at its different stages and integrating all of this information into a contemporary visual direction. “How can I approach and treat this shoot differently than the rest out there in the Industry?” “Does this speak to the brand and ultimately, the customers?” “Would I hang this on my wall? Will I still be proud of these shots I’ve taken after 5, 10 years or maybe more?” These are questions that I always ask myself. I feel so thankful for my clients who are willing to listen to my ideas and trusted me and my team to execute some really cool imageries. They are all a collaborative effort of which I could not do without the support of my team of photographers and assistants. You also work with lifestyle brands as well, tell us a little bit about that. Yes! I am thankful to the founders of Straits Finery for trusting me to shoot and help style their jewellery in their first three years.
The Rosie the Riveter campaign holds a special place in my heart as it was our third year working together and it was a campaign that promotes all the values I believe in — femininity in not being defined as weak, but strong, powerful and independent.
How different is it styling food compare to lifestyle brands? It’s amazing how my line of work encompasses industries out of food as it only feels natural when I treat the non-food products like I would with a food product. Understanding it and finding the best way to present it in front of the camera. That said, it’s always a learning curve working with different brands and whilst it may be a challenge at times, I see them as exciting opportunities for both the client and myself. Bringing their visual goals to life is what motivates me to work and love what I do — which ultimately, is making art. How are you staying creative during this MCO and what projects are you currently working on? Work has unfortunately come to a halt because of the MCO but thankfully there is work lined up post-MCO, which fills my time with planning. Apart from that, I’m going with the flow and not setting any pressure on myself, but rather let inspiration come naturally. I am currently working on brushing up my skills in photography via online classes, taking up watercolour painting and just cooking up a storm in the kitchen daily (as documented in my ‘rona meals highlight tab on IG). Haha!
One last question before we end. How do you see your profession moving into the new norm especially since things have changed so drastically in the last few months?
The pandemic has certainly left us handicapped for a while, but it has given me time to find goodness where it exists. I am so grateful there are clients who trust us to continue our shoot remotely and independently without their physical presence. But it also requires a lot of communication so not one detail is left out.
Working remotely and domestically also meant I gotta think on my own feet pretty quickly on where and how I'm going to obtain props to push the product's storytelling better, which I find is challenging yet refreshing when I get to solve, sometimes with what I already have!
I'd like to think that times like these we're pushing our creative boundaries more than we know!
Thanks for having me, Team Styllar!
We had so much fun delving into the world of food styling with Trisha and we hope you did too! Check out her Instagram page here.
Words by Denise Lee @createbythemissnise