Thursday 30 March 2017

Peek inside the kitchen of a food stylist

Sharon Hearne-Smith is noted for her use of colour and vintage accessories in her work, and she applies the same styling principles to her home.

Food stylist Sharon in her kitchen. She got the units from Ikea and personalised them by adding the heart shapes and wooden frill to the cupboards. She says the more scratched the stainless steel work surface is, the better
Food stylist Sharon in her kitchen. She got the units from Ikea and personalised them by adding the heart shapes and wooden frill to the cupboards. She says the more scratched the stainless steel work surface is, the better
Sharon Hearne-Smith loves vintage and she picked up “the shrine to wine” rack in Oxfam Home. She bought the dining chairs at a Herman Wilkinson auction and the legs of the table in a sale for €30. The tabletop was made by the people who made her floor

Judging by the current proliferation of culinary tomes in the bookstores, cookbooks are the new Fifty Shades. Normally at this time of year the display stands in bookshops are stacked with summer reading, but this year it seems to be all about cookbooks. And given that Nigella has reprinted her best-selling range of classics, it must be hard for other cookery writers to ensure that their books stand out.

Sharon Hearne-Smith, however, doesn’t have to worry; she has two USPs. Her book, entitled No-Bake Baking, is all about recipes that don’t require an oven. But even more striking are the colours of the cakes showcased within the book. There’s her sunshine yellow Bumblebee Jelly Cake, the bright green and pink Watermelon Bombe, the Green Goddess Pannacotta Pie and the Candystripe Blueberry Cheesecake. The colours of all the foods photographed just pop off the page. Sharon’s experience as a food stylist to the stars —she has worked with Jamie Oliver, Lorraine Pascale and  the Barefoot Contessa, as well as many Irish chefs —really shows.

A visit to her retro-style home in Dublin 12 confirms that Sharon is passionate about colour, although she says it’s just one of the style principles that inform both the design of her home and her work as a food stylist. The others are texture, contrast, balance and attention to detail. “It’s like driving a car, you don’t think about it” she notes.

Sharon has been involved with food since she was a teenager, as her parents own the renowned Lobster Pot Bar and Restaurant in Carnsore Point, County Wexford. “Obviously I was working in the business every summer and weekend, usually in the kitchen. My mum liked me in the salad section and cold starters. She always said I made everything look nice, and flouncy and colourful,” Sharon explains with a laugh.


Food styling wasn’t a career option back in the mid 1990s. Indeed, even though she was always flicking through food magazines and admiring the pictures, Sharon herself had no idea there was such a job. So, after her Leaving she did the degree course in home economics in Sion Hill —just because she liked the content of the course. “It was a great grounding in basic skills like interior design, and food skills, such as how to fillet fish and recognise cuts of meats,” she says.

After graduation, she got a teaching job but had no real interest in it and soon gave up the permanent, pensionable job in favour of a freelance career as a food stylist. “Straight after Sion Hill I went to London teaching. As it happened a good friend of mine, Orla Broderick, who worked in food magazines, was leaving and going back to Ireland, and she gave me all her contacts. So on my school summer holidays I went to work on the BBC’s Good Food magazine for three months and I never went back.”

That period on the magazine was unpaid, but still, when the school term resumed Sharon rang up and said she wasn’t coming back. “People thought I was mad chucking in the teaching, but my parents were very supportive.”

She spent three years as a freelance assistant stylist and got experience in all aspects of the business. “Nowadays food styling is more well known, but back then people didn’t really know about it. Food styling is needed for food advertising, food packaging, cookery programmes, developing recipes and testing recipes for people’s books, so I was blown away by the amazing job I had landed in,” Sharon enthuses.


When she graduated to professional stylist in her own right, she immediately began to work with the greats. She’s worked with Neven Maguire for 12 years, she styled the food on Donal Skehan’s most recent book — and in turn he did the photos on hers — and also did one of Rachel Allen’s. “I worked with Lorraine Pascale on her first TV series and then on all her books. I did three TV series of the Barefoot Contessa [US TV cookery show] with Ina Gartner. I had to go to the Hamptons for a month each time and it was amazing. I lived next door to Ina in a little cottage. It was hard work, 15-hour days, but great fun. It was like summer camp,” Sharon says with a laugh. “They keep asking me back but it’s tricky now”.

The trickiness is due to the fact that she now has a family — three-year-old Pearl and her husband Martin, whom she met while in London.

“We met in a nightclub. Do people do that anymore? We did! We moved to Ireland nine years ago. I really wanted to come back, but it was a bit of a job to get him to move, as he’d been in London all his life. We took a year out and travelled, then arrived back here. It took the guts of four years to settle,” Sharon notes.

Martin, a qualified electrician, began working as a product trainer for Panasonic while Sharon built up her Irish food contacts and established her business here.

Two things helped to anchor their lives here — the arrival of Pearl and the purchase of their three-bedroom terraced home in Dublin 12, which they bought in 2007, just before prices started to drop. “We don’t regret it, the neighbours are lovely and it has a really long garden with an elder tree. The elder looks after you”, Sharon insists.

Nonetheless, the house, which is 90 years old, needed a lot of work. “When we moved in there was no electricity; we did the rewiring ourselves,” she says. “We did a lot of the final painting too; we’d stay up all night to finish a job.” The long days of food styling obviously helped build her stamina, and other jobs she and Martin undertook included laying rubber flooring in the bathroom.

The rooms downstairs were all small, so they turned the kitchen into an office. They converted one of the two sitting rooms into the kitchen, and by extending it, they created a dining area.

When it came to decorating, a vintage look seemed the obvious choice given the age of the house. “I love the American-retro style but I found it hard to find a kitchen that fitted that look. In the end, I bought an Ikea kitchen and got creative with it. The carpenter put in the frill; it softens the high gloss look of the units,” she points out.

While the kitchen decor is extremely feminine — “I tell everyone Martin picked the pink and green. Not!” she jokes. The worktops are stainless steel. “Lots of people are scared of it, but the more scratched the better,” Sharon insists. They’re perfect for testing recipes and Sharon has done a lot of that since she came up with the idea for her book. “I thought, ‘What can I do that’s different?’” she says. Her solution — to take the oven out of the mix — is a nice twist, great for dessert-lovers.

While the units and worktops are new, virtually everything else is secondhand. “I love finding old treasures in junk shops,” she says. “They all tell a bit of a story and we’re adding to the story.”

No doubt, Sharon’s story will always be colourful. 

‘No Bake Baking’ by Sharon-Hearne Smith, published by Quercus, is out now.


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