Art & Photography / In Pictures

Food Stylist Iain Graham on Jelly for Cats

We speak to fantastical food stylist Iain Graham about his latest shoot for The Gourmand and the trials and triumphs of the job

Spritz eats Gurnard Jelly
Spritz eats Gurnard Jelly Photography by Marius W. Hansen, Set Design and Styling by Annette Masterman, Food Styling by Iain Graham, Set Build by Samara Tompsett

We love fantastical food, the more extraordinary the better, from flower ice cubes to this amazing panna cotta (aka rosehip and borrage flower set in jelly) and sugar crystallised roses and cream, photographed by Tim Walker. The latest issue of contemporary food, arts and culture journal The Gourmand, features a story with cats and beautifully compiled, luxury feline treats – wood pigeon sundae, gurnard jelly, real sugared mice – styled by Iain Graham.

The chef and much sought-after food stylist cut his teeth cooking in restaurants like Mezzo, the Providores and 15, before moving on to run vast catering company Urban Caprice, cooking for events and product launches for clients such as Louis Vuitton and Armani. It was only when a dog-walking friend mentioned that she had just started managing a singer called Florence, who needed a food stylist for her second video, that Graham's career took on a new direction. "My debut gig was Florence and the Machine's kind of emergence video," he laughs. He soon left the event company and hasn't looked back, his food styling career including commissions from a diverse range of clients such as Harrods, Vanity Fair and the Independent. "It's just been word of mouth that has kept it all going, and lots of luck," he says modestly of his success. Here we catch up with Graham to find out more about his amazing pieces for The Gourmand and the trials and triumphs of the job.

"I most enjoy a challenge – something either massive in scale or unthinkable to the eye" – Iain Graham

What were the ideas behind The Gourmand story?
The Gourmand approached me with an idea they had to transform food that cats love into unexpected and slightly crazy dishes. I sat down immediately and started drawing… which is often how I work best. It’s amazing what a sketch can unlock in my mind. I think the first idea I had was a sardine sausage roll, with the sardine all raw and shiny in a cooked pastry roll, and a prawn and lobster gateaux to mimic a black forest. Lobster tails replaced the cherries and chocolate flakes were replaced by crispy skin and dehydrated tuna (sounds lovely I know). They were keen on ice cream with catty flavours but I thought why not have some wings and feet on there too and make it really graphic? Another idea was chocolate coated mice or birds feet, dusted in cocoa so they were like beautiful if obscure truffles. In the end we focused on five strong ideas of the twelve I had doodled and we had our shoot. We were all rather pleased at how quick and straight forward the process had been.

Can you explain the fish jelly?
I’ve worked with jelly a lot before so I knew what I was doing. I wanted to make it as scientific looking as possible as well as playful, like those heads pickled in jars at the Natural History Museum. The most visual head of a fish is a Gurnard – wide, orange, flat jawed, big eyed – I mean short of getting an angler fish with its own lure, it’s perfect. I borrowed a really old school conventional jelly mould, boned and scraped all the flesh off the fish and rigged it all into place and poured on the liquid. Once it had set, it looked better than I had hoped, and my expectation was pretty high!

When did you first make jelly?
I didn’t really make jelly as a kid, although I did used to eat the concentrated cubes individually. Only aged 22 did I find out that that was not how you were supposed to eat them. The first one I made professionally was a disaster. I was learning pastry and tried to make this sweet red wine jelly and I put loads of nice fruit in, a bit like a trifle jelly, but I used the wrong fruit. It didn’t set which meant that technically my first jelly was a wet, shit fruit salad.

What do you enjoy most?
A challenge – something either massive in scale or unthinkable to the eye. Be it a fantasy dinner or the most delicate detailed little item, I’ve got to think 'wow, how can I ever do that?' before I take it on. I did a job for Harrods where they wanted this cake scene, but it was a fashion shoot, just a few cakes littered round the outside. So I looked around, had a good think and went for it. I did a Charlotte Olympia shoe cake, a leopard print cake with a leopard on top, a kind of Louis Vuitton polka dot cake... It turned into this amazing scene of cakes and models and it looked great. It has been reused all over the place and has led to loads of other work.

What foods do you enjoy working with?
I love working with fish: it's so versatile. Yyou can cure it, stretch it, bend it; it can look indulgent, naughty, greasy, delicate and delicious. Lots of people think of it as fragile, but for me it’s awesome. I made a wicked octopus candelabra once. Shellfish tends to be a favourite when doing more high end and fashion shoots; I love the uniformity of lots of oysters or langoustine in perfect lines, although the smell does get a bit much after a few hours under the lights.

Which is the most difficult food to work with? Any disasters?
Chocolate. I did this film for Bailey’s Luxe where I made about 30kg of different chocolates: shiny 10cm spheres filled with runny chocolate, gold leaf chocolates, bronzed ones, pistachio ones, you name it. There must have a thousand plus. The shoot was in this tiny studio, there were about ten massive lights, fifteen crew, four models and I had to set this 20 foot table with chocolates. The takes were just one minute long but after each take the solid chocolates were melting so much that although they weren’t moving, they were liquid to the touch. At one point the poor girls just couldn’t pick any up, they were just covering their fingers with brown goo... Awful! It worked out in the end, but I was both sweaty and nervous the whole way through.

Does the work normally get eaten?
It depends what it is really. Sometimes, on the more conventional food stuff, yes, that tends to be lunch. We either eat what we are shooting or I cobble together something tasty with what we have left from earlier shots. But for a lot of things no, which is a bit soul destroying really. I mean things like a fish jelly no one is going to eat and that’s fine, but I did this job in Brazil where they spent about £4000 on shellfish. We had to be onset at 5am in this shopping mall, no fridges and the shellfish had to be the last shot of the day so it was all beyond help by the end. Certainly the biggest lobsters I have ever cooked: 2kg each and I had to bin them all.

Text by Daisy Woodward