Photography & Styling

How We Get Ugly (but Delicious) Foods Ready for Their Close-Ups

February 23, 2018

Inspired by Netflix's new show, Ugly Delicious, we're taking a closer look at some of our favorite ugly—but undeniably delicious—Food52 recipes, and the food styling tricks we use to transform them in the photo studio .

A beautiful spread of tacos doesn't look quite as photogenic from the pot. Photo by James Ransom

Some dishes will just never be famous on Instagram. As one of Food52’s food and prop stylists, even when I do my darndest to find their good sides, prop and pose them for internet stardom, they do not have the same beguiling qualities as avocado toast. They’re not pleasingly symmetrical from overhead, blazing with colors, intriguing with textures and rollicking toppings. Their charm comes when you taste them—some of the least photogenic foods are the most delicious.

The main culprits are usually dishes that are predominantly brown and/or shapeless. When we used to teach a food styling class at Food52, we let students play with pretty salad greens and toasts and then throw them a challenge: the brown foods section. We’d give them a recipe for some sort of delicious brown mush like stewed lentils and pointers for styling them, including:

To show you what we mean, we took very quick photos (no propping or lighting) of a few totally satisfying, objectively delicious dishes that play hard to get in the studio (the rainbow bagel did too, but because it was super important to make them into a pyramid). Then you’ll see what the recipes looked like after the photographer and I tried to give them their worthy time in front of the camera by incorporating some the styling pointers I mentioned above.

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Do you have any favorite ugly-but-delicious foods, and tricks for making them look prettier on the plate? Share them in the comments, or in our #f52grams contest launching on February 26—be sure to use the hashtag #f52ugly!

Dug-into chicken fried steak vs. pre-bite

I was worried about the stark whiteness of the gravy, coupled with the amorphous, craggy chicken fried steak. How would they interact together on the plate? But first, I set a scene to distract in case my gravy dribble wasn’t perfect. I imagined the scene of Amanda’s first Chicken-Fried Steak, which she chronicles in the recipe’s headnote: rustic, cozy, with a tiny saucepan of gravy kept warm on the grill—and beer (Amanda likes beer). I cheated and used some extra sage and black pepper to break up the very white gravy; photographer James Ransom’s moody lighting did a lot of heavy lifting here, too.

Just-mixed dan dan vs. plated and garnished

Neutral plates, linens, and silverware can be good for neutral-colored food since the colors blend and texture can take the focus of the shot. That’s what we did for these ridiculously delicious Dan Dan Noodles (make a triple batch of the warming, slightly numbing chili oil for ramen, fried rice, dumplings, eggs). Creating a monochromatic, matte, simple backdrop allows the shine from the saucy noodles and the chili oil to catch your eye. Green garnishes to contrast and James’s deep shadows didn’t hurt either.

Pork pot hot off the stove vs. taco party

Soft pork shoulder and rich sauce, Merrill’s Slow-Cooked Pork Tacos are so satisfying. But there’s a lot of chunky-looking sauce—good for the kind of taco that drips down your arm, but like ragu or curry, it appreciates a palette to lounge on. In this shot, spoonfuls of the pork went on tortillas. Then, I added some jazz hands by way of taco fix-ins and a full, colorful table scene. Once they lure you in, you see the pork there in all its sauciness.

None of these styling “rules” are hard and fast—every dish is a special snowflake and styling it (if at all) is a matter of personal preference. Moreover, it all looks the same in the stomach. (But we’re here for food styling pointers if you want ‘em!)

Do you have any favorite ugly-but-delicious foods, and tricks for making them look prettier on the plate? Share them in the comments, or in our #f52grams contest launching on February 26—be sure to use the hashtag #f52ugly!

Want to discover even more ugly-but-delicious foods from all around the world? Watch David Chang and Peter Meehan explore everything from street food tacos to noodles to fried chicken and more on Ugly Delicious, a new Netflix show that premieres on February 23rd.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Iglika Petrova/Sprig of Thyme
    Iglika Petrova/Sprig of Thyme
  • M
  • Erin Aguayo
    Erin Aguayo
  • BerryBaby
Editor/writer/stylist. Author of I Dream of Dinner (so You Don't Have To). Last name rhymes with bagel.


Iglika P. February 28, 2018
Ali, I love this article!!! So much styling wisdom and tips in it! After reading it, I realized that unintentionally I had avoided photographing "ugly" foods. Now I feel so inspired by you and I am off to tackle some uglies. Thank you for sharing.

P.S. It ws such pleasure working with you last month. Thank you for the amazing experience!
M February 26, 2018
The low bar for food "ugliness" is really sad. Can't we embrace food styling without framing the actual food as "ugly"? If the food we cook invokes feelings of unpleasantness and revulsion, we have a real problem.

Erin A. February 25, 2018
We made Marcella's smothered cabbage soup for some friends recently, and I noticed, despite our wedding china and a grating of parmesan, that they were more than hesitant to tuck in. I was simultaneously happy and annoyed at the relief on their faces when they said, "oh, this is really good!" Of course it is...maybe some chopped parsley on top would have helped...
BerryBaby February 23, 2018
Many years of styling from food to bath towels. Lots of tricks, and mostly, in my case, to have things look better than they actually were. Fun industry and a very precise art. One setup can take hours. Love the food shots on Food52. I appreciate your attention to detail. These days, I bake and snap it 😄 BB