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Local chef carves out unique niche in film industry

To hear Brian Friedman's interview with Kendall Gensler on WWNO radio, click here.

Food stylist Kendall Collins Gensler

In the make-believe world of movies, sometimes even the food on the actor’s plate is pretending to be something it’s not. 

Consider the not-so-rare situation in which a scene calls for an actor to eat steak, only the actor’s a vegetarian. 

“We may have to take a slab of watermelon and paint it with caramel coloring so that it looks like steak,” said Kendall Gensler, a leading food stylist for print, video and now film production in New Orleans.  “Then they can continue to eat during the filming and live within their diet restrictions.” 

Vegetarian actors are just one of the potential challenges for a food stylist, which is, as Gensler puts simply, someone who prepares food for the camera. There’s the ultra-hot lighting that melts anything frozen and dries out whatever’s not. And, as Gensler learned on her first movie job, 2010’s The Green Lantern, there’s the occasional aerial combat scene.

“We were shooting a very large cocktail party at the lakefront airport,” recalled Gensler, “and there were helicopter fighting scenes going on overhead, and we had condor crews up in the air, so it was sort of this real trial by fire.”

Gensler’s career path began, not surprisingly, with a love of cooking. But as a student at Europe’s famed Cordon Bleu Culinary School, creating delicious food wasn’t quite enough.

“I love making food look beautiful,” Gensler said, “so I always had enjoyed that as opposed to just the taste and putting it together; really seeing the finished product look beautiful was a lot of fun for me."

Gensler took that love of presentation, as well as a degree in French, and started doing food styling for cookbooks, which led to more print work, including publishing her own quarterly magazine, Culinary Concierge. She then ventured into video and television and, ultimately, the film industry in 2010. She has since worked on nearly a dozen movies with stars like Jamie Foxx, Will Ferrel, and Sylvester Stallone.

Gensler works on food props in the gold room (locked area for holding props) on the soundstage of 'Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.'

In the film production world, food styling comes under the prop department, and Gensler’s process begins with a consultation with the set decorator.

“The set decorator will send me pictures of the china, or the trays that she’s selected, or what candelabra are going be in the room, the colors of the wall, everything so that I can take all these pieces and parts and then decide what am I going put on that plate or on that tray,” said Gensler.

“Sometimes I’m given a little freedom and I can bring in some little pieces and that sort of thing, but usually I have to deal with the set decorator and the prop master and then make the decisions and so it’s very exciting to bring my piece to the table and watch it all come together.”

The resulting food prep shot on the 'Lincoln' set

Gensler is quick to point out, however, that hers is not a glamorous job, and it requires lots of long hours and hard work. And even then, sometimes her work can go largely unnoticed in the finished product, visible only in one quick shot or, sometimes, not at all.

But those challenges are overshadowed by the chance to work with some of the most talented people in the industry, like Quentin Tarantino and Jamie Foxx on Django Unchained. 

Gensler recalled a day on the set of that film, between takes. “Jamie Foxx jut started dancing with two of the women who were dressed as servants,” she said, “and it was surreal because he was dancing to [Bobby Brown’s] ‘My Prerogative’.” 

Gensler said the impromptu performance helped everyone relax a little bit. “The light mixers started making the interior look like a disco, and it was one of those moments that I just said to myself, how did I get here? This is unbelievable that I’m watching this and I’m a part of this.” 

And judging from Gensler’s feel for the current climate of film production in town, those types of opportunities should only increase. 

“I think it’s extremely exciting because there’s so much opportunity,” said Gensler. “New Orleans has such a fabulous backdrop in and of itself and enormously talented people here, from illustrators to graphic artists and people like myself who are just so interested in getting involved. “

Still, there are some in the more traditional movie-making hubs that haven’t quite caught on.  “There are more food stylists in New York and L.A. than anywhere and, a lot of times, we’ll have stylists that are brought in from New York because they feel like we’re not as good.  So that’s one message that we’d like to get across -- that, especially in such a food-forward city, we have a lot of knowledgeable people who can handle it.” 

Brian Friedman writes about New Orleans for NolaVie.

Brian Friedman writes about New Orleans for NolaVie.