Food stylist's recipe for success creating long-lasting culinary props that photograph beautifully

Diana Jeffra of Culina Creative shares her journey in food styling.

March 1, 2024, 4:14 AM

For anyone who's ever looked at a perfectly frothy, frosty, chocolate milkshake and thought, "How do they make it look so good?" the answer might be instant mashed potatoes. At least it is for food stylist Diana Jeffra.

If you're not one of the 17.9 million people who's watched how she makes perfectly rippled fake ice cream scoops on TikTok, then let "Good Morning America" be the first to introduce the creator behind the now-viral video.

"Initially, I thought my phone had been hacked," Jeffra told "GMA" of her initial reaction when those food styling videos went viral unexpectedly and caused a "rapid increase in followers from 2,000 to 151,000 on Instagram in just 13 days."

"This surge of interest has been both overwhelming and exciting," she said. "It has opened up a platform for dialogue within the food styling community, allowing us to share and troubleshoot techniques openly. I'm thrilled to be a part of this sharing movement, especially considering the lack of resources when I first started."

Known as @culina_creative on the social media platform, Jeffra has always been artistically inclined and passionate about food, so her graphic design degree, years of restaurant experience and hospitality-focused ad agency work translated to an eventual career as a food stylist and recipe developer.

As creative directors returned from food photoshoots with beautiful images, Jeffra's interest was piqued and she recalled asking them, "Who's making this food? Do you guys hire like a chef every time?"

"They explained to me that there's this woman, her job is 'food stylist' and she makes the food for the camera. And I knew as soon as they told me that, that this was supposed to be my job," Jeffra said. "It was a combination of art and sculpture and food and culinary -- it sounded so perfect for me."

PHOTO: A food styled shoot with fried chicken paired with champagne.
A food styled shoot with fried chicken paired with champagne.
Chelsie Craig; Limonata Creative; Alyssa Sadler

Jeffra graduated from a two year hospitality, culinary and tourism program at a local Maryland community college with a focus on food styling before starting her own business in 2015.

After getting her hands dirty and building up her food knowledge, she faced an uphill battle breaking into the food styling game. Candidly, Jeffra told "GMA" that part was not for the faint of heart, at least financially.

"I could drop like $1,000 on food for a shoot and then you don't get paid for 30 days. So I was, like, barely scraping by," she said.

Determined to persist with an intuitive feeling of "I'm supposed to do this," Jeffra said she got one phone call "and then it started snowballing after that."

Since then, Jeffra's work has included food styling for a wide range of well-known consumer product brands and publications.

Early on, Jeffra was gifted a copy of "The Food Stylist's Handbook" by Denise Vivaldo and Cindie Flannigan, which she said "has been essential in my career" for everything from "tips and tricks about running a business" to artisan techniques on how to craft and style various culinary props.

"If it wasn't for this book, I would be lightyears behind where I am today," she said, especially because she said she's noticed "a lot of gatekeeping" in the industry.

PHOTO: A strawberry honey cake food styled by Diana Jeffra.
A strawberry honey cake food styled by Diana Jeffra.
Kate Grewal

The learnings from that book and seeing how much those authors unknowingly helped her business became the catalyst for Jeffra to get on TikTok and pay it forward. From videos answering food styling questions to behind the scenes processes, Jeffra's page has reached viral status with millions of views and thousands of followers.

Recently, her cookies and cream ice cream, which she made by kneading together ready made frosting and powdered sugar into a dough, soared to social media stardom.

Whether it's savory food, dessert or drinks -- like this non-melting ice she made for a beverage shoot -- Jeffra is constantly learning and sharing her techniques on TikTok.

"There's all kinds of illusions and things that we can do for food styling," she said. "With the milkshake example, it's like instant potatoes to try and just hold it so that it stays perfect."

Jeffra clarified that some items styled to stay perfect tend to be in the background because "there's a lot of truth in advertising laws against that" and "it's never the thing we're actually selling."

"My job is to add stuff to the food to keep it alive and to keep it looking fresh," she said, sharing one of the funnier tools she utilizes to accomplish that, "a hand steamer to revive cheese and make it look nice and warm and gooey."

PHOTO: A San Pellegrino mocktail made with arancia.
A San Pellegrino mocktail made with arancia.
Kate Grewal; Kelsey Linehan

Every intricate detail of Jeffra's techniques, like spraying a glass with glycerin to create droplets that make it appear colder, helps liven up the food shots we know and love.

"The path has been filled with learning curves, but each step has been instrumental," Jeffra said of her food styling journey.

When it comes to the most challenging food items that Jeffra's styled, she stuck to two sweets: chocolate and real ice cream.

"Mastering the art of tempering chocolate and sculpting the ideal ice cream scoop required patience and persistence, but these challenges have been some of the most rewarding puzzles to solve," she said.