Topgolf’s Injectable Donut Holes are ping-pong ball size orbs of dough fried to 50 shades of golden-brown and coated with a cinnamon-sugar mixture.
Delightful to eat. Not terribly sexy to photograph.
That is until you bite into one and flood it with bright red raspberry jelly. Flank it with chocolate chunks, fresh berries and jelly-filled syringes—careful to make the props appear intentional yet spontaneously placed. Scatter a dozen more donut holes and sprinkle extra cinnamon-sugar over the top. Adjust the lighting, nudge the vanilla bean pods, squeeze a bit more jelly onto the cheese board surface, and bam! … you’ve finally got a photo worthy of Topgolf’s brand new menu (released earlier this month—check it out in a venue near you).
From beginning to end, the process of preparing, styling and shooting just one food item can take more than an hour. And it’s not because the donuts are being divas.
Here’s how it works:
The executive chef and his team prepare the dishes with precision and deliver them to our pair of professional food stylists, Carla and Andrea.
Carla and Andrea literally play with their food for a living.
In some cases, our chefs roll out trays of individual ingredients from which our stylists select, say, the reddest tomatoes and prettiest buns to begin assembling our Smokehouse Burger. As Andrea carefully slices red onions and scrutinizes strips of bacon, Carla melts cheese with a handheld steamer and applies barbecue sauce to the patty with a disposable eye dropper.
While Carla sauces the burger and spritzes the veggies with water, Sean, our plaid-clad photographer, stands over her shoulder snapping away. He analyzes the raw images on a screen to his right and adjusts lighting and camera settings accordingly. Sean and Carla work in this Jordan/Pippen-like tandem throughout most of the shoot.
My boss, Blake, who’s serving as art director and volunteer taste-tester, offers up wild suggestions like taking some bites out of the burger.
“I wouldn’t,” Carla said.
Our national culinary and beverage directors are also on hand to ensure we’re accurately showcasing the items, because questions like, “Hey, does this come with powdered sugar? Can we please just throw some powdered sugar on this?” pop up more than you’d think.
Meanwhile, I’m off to the side because there are literally too many cooks in the kitchen, and I’m more curious about what the stylists use hand cream for.
Tortilla pliability, if you’re curious. For like wraps, Andrea said. And the bitters? “To add some color and dimension.”
The rest of the stylists’ work station looks like a well-stocked CVS: Q-Tips, tweezers, spray bottles, a blow dryer, dozens of tiny plastic cups, Vaseline, two cans of Pam. The list goes on, but I stop myself before becoming that guy who incessantly asks about each item’s use. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my wallflower role at this shoot, it’s this: Just let the pros do their thing.
Carla’s knowledge of ingredients and how they react in different environments over extended periods of time allows her to manipulate them in ways that make them look fresh from the oven. Tell her the cheese on the nacho stack that’s been sitting out for 30 minutes could look more gooey, and she makes it more gooey. Suggest the shot could use another prop, and she’ll find the perfect leafy green.
Tell Sean the overall look you’re going for—an emphasis on natural lighting—and make really specific depth of field requests, and he’ll nail it every time.
Tell Topgolf’s culinary team what’s on the shot list and they’ll crank out quality dishes like always.
As for Blake? Just make sure someone’s there to tell him what’s OK to eat and when.
Maybe not this batch, Carla says.