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Food stylists on sets are all-rounders, industry pioneer says

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Food stylist Ko Young-ok arranges flowers for MBC's mystery drama 'Chip In' (2020).  Courtesy of Ko Young-ok

Food stylist Ko Young-ok arranges flowers for MBC's mystery drama "Chip In" (2020). Courtesy of Ko Young-ok

Ko Young-ok shares behind-the-scenes glimpse of K-dramas 'Princess Hours,' 'Reborn Rich'
By Park Jin-hai

Ko Young-ok of Chorokchanjang Studio is a trailblazer in her field, recognized as a pioneering food stylist specializing in drama and film sets. She made history as Korea's first "full-time" food stylist on a K-drama set, starting with MBC's 2006 romance drama "Princess Hours," also known as "Goong."

"Back then, the profession of a food stylist was rare and just emerging. Typically, the food seen on drama sets was prepared by the food team staffers of the broadcasting company," Ko told the Korea Times in an interview.

"I was the first full-time food stylist hired for that special drama."

During her 20-plus-year career, Ko has worked on a number of hit TV shows, many of which helped spark the K-drama craze.

Her prolific works include "Coffee Prince" (2007), "Boys Over Flowers" (2009), "Let's Eat" (2013), "Mr. Queen" (2020), "Reborn Rich" (2022) and "The Forbidden Marriage" (2022).

A scene from MBC's romantic comedy

A scene from MBC's romantic comedy "The Forbidden Marriage" (2022) / Courtesy of Ko Young-ok

Ko, who studied French literature at Korea National Open University, never imagined a career in food styling until a chance encounter with a TV program that ignited her passion.

"I've always had this interest in art. I learned flower arrangement and pottery. But as soon as I saw the TV program, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue," she said.

Ko took a one-year food styling course at the Asian Food and Nutrition Research Institute at Ewha Womans University in 2002. Since then, she has dedicated herself to mastering culinary skills and obtained certificates in cooking, baking, and pastry-making.

Her first food styling work for a TV show was lunchboxes for a five-minute drama series on MBC called "Hanppyeom (one-span) Drama" in 2003. The series, telling the stories of ordinary people in everyday situations, was praised for its realistic portrayal of Korean life.

"Director Whang In-roi wanted really special lunchboxes, but back then, there were no pretty lunchboxes like today," Ko recalled. "I had to make them from scratch. It took several days to prepare lunchboxes."

"I made light, easy-to-carry boxes myself along with the food placed in them. The drama's format was pretty innovative — a predecessor to today's short-form content. Along with the fresh trial of the drama, my food also gained attention from viewers."

A scene from MBC's smash hit romance drama

A scene from MBC's smash hit romance drama "Princess Hours" (2006), also known "Goong" / Courtesy of Ko Young-ok

Weddings and parties

After that experience, Whang called her again for his new romance drama "Princess Hours." The show, set in an alternate 21st-century Korea that has maintained its monarchy and imperial family, tells the story of Crown Prince Lee Shin (Ju Ji-hoon) and his bride Chae-kyeong (Yun Eun-hye). It became a major hit across Asia and played a significant role in spreading "hallyu," or the Korean wave, internationally.

"The director's jaw dropped when I went to the meeting for the drama and submitted my ideas of the table settings, fabric colors and flower arrangement that I thought were suitable for the two main characters," she said.

Ko said shooting the couple's wedding scene in Macao was very special to her. At the time, the production team hadn't given her a script or any clue in advance as to what scenes they were going to shoot.

"Everything was kept secret and I just carried scissors and wire with me just in case. After I arrived in Macao, I heard that I had to prepare for a wedding scene, and after that it was all hustle and bustle," she said.

"I ran around the streets at night to find materials to make corsages, a flower crown and flower decorations for a church wedding. The flower shops were all closed by then, so I had to call the owner and beg him for help. I spent all night making flower props. It was hard but rewarding once I saw the scene."

A 1.6-meter-tall, five-layered buttercream cake is seen during the JTBC series

A 1.6-meter-tall, five-layered buttercream cake is seen during the JTBC series "Reborn Rich" (2022). Courtesy of Ko Young-ok

According to Ko, food scenes on drama sets require at least two to three people to prepare and party scenes need at least five people. The party scene for "Reborn Rich," a hit fantasy drama telling the story of a "chaebol," or a family-owned business conglomerate,was actually a big challenge, she said.

In organizing the 60th birthday party scene for Jin Yang-chul, the founder and chairman of the fictional conglomerate, Soonyang Group, Ko faced many challenges.

With just a black-and-white photo of a cake from the 1980s, she relied on her imagination and extensive research to develop the concept. Finalizing the design was only the beginning, as the next hurdle was locating a skilled patissier capable of creating a towering 1.6-meter-tall, five-layer buttercream cake.

"Finding the patissier in Daejeon who would make the cake was hard, but delivering it fresh for the set was another challenge. Hiring a special refrigerated truck, we finally made the scene," she said. "It took nearly two months for me to get ready for the brief party scene of the drama. It was quite costly as well."

A scene from KBS2's romantic comedy

A scene from KBS2's romantic comedy "Boys Over Flowers" (2009) / Courtesy of Ko Young-ok

Setting the tone

Ko said a food stylist should be the one who "plans the space" and color plays an important role. In the past, the colors on the sets were vivid and flashy. But today, simple and modern hues are preferred for the plates on a table and flower arrangements as many modern-day sets include toned-down blacks and grays.

Color tells a lot about dramas and films, Ko said.

"Color sets the tone. When I was preparing the food scene of the film 'The Sword with No Name' (2009) — set in the 1392-1910 Joseon Dynasty featuring assassinated Empress Myeongseong — the director wanted the color of the foods to be dark, implying her looming doom," she explained. "The food on the dinner table was made in darker colors to evoke the somber atmosphere of the scene."

Ko studied color studies at the Graduate School of Culture, Information and Public Policy at Hongik University.

She currently teaches students at various culinary schools, including Korea Hotel & Tourism Technical College and Corea Culinary Officer Occupational Training College.

"I often advise my students that food stylists should embody the qualities of all-round entertainers, serving as jacks of all trades," she said. "It doesn't matter how expensive the plate is — if the food complements it perfectly, it will look amazing. I often liken food stylists to magicians, capable of transforming a modest 1,000 won worth plate into one valued at 10,000 won."

A modernized version of 'sinseollo' (royal hot pot)  is seen during tvN's historical romantic comedy drama

A modernized version of "sinseollo" (royal hot pot) is seen during tvN's historical romantic comedy drama "Mr. Queen" (2020). Courtesy of Ko Young-ok

Park Jin-hai


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