"As soon as I could read, I was flipping through my mom's cookbooks," says food stylist Susan Spungen. But it wasn't until age 17, when she took a year off after high school to work the counter at Philadelphia hot spot the Commissary ("I got to do the fun stuff: charcuterie, salads, omelets"), that she discovered just how creative food prep could be. "I loved finessing," says Spungen, 53. "For the perfect smoked salmon slice, I had to be able to see the blade of my knife through the fish. When plating chocolate mousse cake, I had to slice it just so for it to look beautiful." She went on to work as a pastry chef before styling and developing recipes for cookbooks and magazines.
In 2008 Spungen got an out-of-the-blue call from Nora Ephron, asking if she wanted to style the food for Ephron's movie Julie & Julia. "I didn't hesitate," she says. Next came It's Complicated (in which Meryl Streep feeds Spungen's flaky croissants to Steve Martin), followed by piles of pasta for Eat Pray Love.
Her next film project, Labor Day, stars Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, and a peach pie—which actually means several hundred of them. "I baked cases upon cases of peaches, pounds upon pounds of dough," says Spungen, who spent hours coaching Brolin on pie-making for his role. "Styling on movies is grueling, but worth it when the food gets a close-up."
Spungen's schooling in fine arts impacts her plating style: "I go mad for color. Right now, not enough green or purple can find its way into my food." She advises treating large white plates as a canvas: "Look at food like a painting. Think about the composition." When plating a main course, she says, a good rule is to place the protein at 6 o'clock and then group the rest, with little negative space. Garnishes (herbs, microgreens) add freshness. Above all, she warns against getting too fussy. "Simplicity and elegance do go together," Spungen says. "I'm a big fan of dishes that look effortless. That means relaxing your hands when plating. Don't be afraid to gently toss food onto the plate, so it looks like it just landed there."