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As a freelance food stylist, Lisa Cherkasky of Arlington isn’t hurting for work. On a Thursday she’ll labor over a baked potato, fluffing it into an ideal mound for the outside of a box. The next day, it’ll be a tart for the food pages of the Washington Post or a roasted red snapper with lemon and sage for WebMD. For all of her clients—National Geographic Kids, the Almond Board of California, the Australian Beef and Livestock Council, Manischewitz, etc.—Cherkasky, a former chef, is a perfectionist. She has to be. “You can’t look at it and taste it,” she says. “You have to eat with your eyes.”
Eating with your eyes in Cherkasky’s case often involves forceps and tiny paintbrushes and, if pancakes are involved, Scotch Guard: “It’s so the syrup doesn’t immediately soak in,” she says.
Recently Cherkasky, 51, brought her giant Craftsman toolboxes to the Glover Park studio of photographer Renée Comet. The two, who’ve worked together shooting food for years, had lined up a client looking for updated package images on a line of frozen shrimp and sauces. The first of three dishes is hickory garlic shrimp pasta with avocado and tomato relish.
First up, the pasta. Cherkasky places spaghetti on a plate, then later uses a bamboo skewer to achieve an “organic” pile, tucking in any noodle ends. “It’s funny,” she says. “Food lines up. It always wants to go into a square or a pattern of some sort.”
Then, the shrimp. She places eight shrimp on and around the pasta, turning them just so and creating the look of ample seafood on the plate. Cherkasky, who has an 8-year-old son, doesn’t cook this way at home. It’s too precise, but the two of them do use cloth napkins for most meals. The stylist also cops to ironing her sheets. “I iron everything. I used to iron all of my dad’s hankies….I’d iron my jeans if I liked the look.”
Next, the sauce. The pre-packaged sauce that had been simmering on the studio stove is spooned over the shrimp and pasta. The trick is to make it look saucy, but not too saucy. It’s a long way from churning out dishes on the line at Restaurant Nora, Obelisk, and the Tabard Inn, just three of the area restaurants where Cherkasky worked after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in ’79.
More sauce. Comet consults on the application, applied here with a paintbrush. Home and restaurant cooks tell Cherkasky they could never do what she does. “They say it would make them too nervous to have someone standing over you directing you all the time,” she says. “I’ve pretty much learned to take myself out of it….This is for them (the client). It’s not about me. I’m not defined by this thing I’m doing.”
Next, placing the relish. Cherkasky takes a pair of dental forceps to individual chunks of tomatoes, adjusting them for maximum impact of color and contrast. “My eye is good, and I like to work with my hands. I see details,” she says.
The final shot, maybe. Cherkasky, Comet, and their client’s representative look at Comet’s shots on a monitor and debate at length the placement of a lime wedge toward the back of the dish. “Do you like the lime?” Cherkasky asks. “I don’t mind the lime,” the client rep says. “I like the color.” Comet chimes in: “Maybe the lime should go uphill a little more.” The verdict: The lime wedge stays, jauntily angled. Cherkasky and Comet move on to Dish Two: Buffalo shrimp on a baked potato with bleu-cheese sauce.