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Nir Adar: The Wizard of Ice

Published in Gourmet Live 10.19.11
Nanette Maxim gets the scoop from the TV food-styling star
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“Tricks? I don’t have tricks,” states food stylist Nir Adar, known in the business as the “King of Ice Cream” for his seemingly alchemical ability to make the most temperamental of foods look perfect. For television commercials, Adar has scooped undulating waves of Häagen-Dazs, created the ultimate spoonful of silky ganache-topped Dove ice cream, and built sculptural cones of Friendly’s mint-chocolate-chip blanketed with Oreo cookies.

When you work with food, the temporal nature of things can’t be avoided—juicy steaks dry out, salads wilt, mugs of steaming coffee grow cold, and ice cream can become a gloppy mess. And in Adar’s line of work—styling food for TV and print ads, magazine shoots, and packaging—the star has to appear flawless. Most of us have heard stories of stylists using glue to hold a dessert together or igniting smoke pellets to create steam behind an ice-cold soup, smearing Vaseline on a pie to give it some gloss, or even using motor oil as a stand-in for syrup. That the wizard Adar (whose long client list includes Breyer’s, Applebee’s, Smirnoff, and Wisconsin Cheese) claims not to have a bag of tricks is a marvel in itself.

“If you make love to your food, it looks good,” is Adar’s creed. A trained chef, he explains that his secret weapon is not smoke and mirrors but his own passion for cooking. For a TV commercial for Applebee’s Steakhouse Burger, the client wanted “a messy, homey kind of thing,” Adar recalls. So he and the Applebee’s chef threw burgers on a sizzling grill right there in the studio. Hence, the grill marks in that ad are the real deal, no heated-skewer sleight of hand. Slices of red onion and tomato and a stack of frizzled onions on top are just slightly off-kilter, the juices flow lazily from the burger, and a drizzle of ketchup drapes the whole assembly. “There was no oil, no water, no nothing,” notes Adar. “I actually sign an agreement for most of my clients that says the food won’t be fake.”

For a Burger King commercial, the order of the day was cleaner, more defined: Adar’s BK burger, fresh off the grill, boasts lovely, even lines of black char; melted cheese hugs the contours of the meat; and it’s done perfectly medium. “For that look,” Adar says, “I make the grill marks with a blow torch.”

“I come from an engineering background,” he explains, crediting his father’s profession and influence. “I’m programmed to solve problems.” This mechanical know-how came into play when the stylist was asked to create a lush, swirling pool of caramel for a Werther’s TV spot. Adar consulted his father, and they worked together with a team of grips and riggers to formulate just the viscosity and the vortex that the client wanted.

What Adar won’t do, he says, is make his food too sterile and clean, “like all those shellacked turkeys in the ’70s.” That means he has a reputation for being opinionated. “Some people don’t like to work with me. I take the involved approach,” Adar admits. “They say, ‘Just do it the way I want you to do it.’ In the end, the client has to decide, but my best interest is his best interest.” For Burger King, for example, the stylist created exactly the burger the client asked for, and then did his own version, which he thought was a little looser and more appetizing. The Burger King execs agreed. “People like the comfort zone—they don’t like to change. But I’m a rebel,” says Adar. “Just do some reading about Steve Jobs—give them something they don’t know they need.”

“I know what composition is, and I love food,” Adar asserts. But for his signature ice-cream achievements, how does he prevent meltdowns on-set? “It’s challenging, but I work in a regular air-conditioned environment. Some people use dry ice, but then the ice cream is too cold,” he explains. “You have to understand the chemistry of how it breaks down—the chain reaction, the percentage of air, of butterfat, of inclusions and variegations. Each flavor or brand is totally unique, and for each one I have to find the right scoop and the right temperature and speed of scooping.” (In his spare time, Adar extends his ingenuity to the inventor’s craft, recently creating Crispycones.)

Growing up on a kibbutz in his native Israel, Adar recalls, “food was simply the fuel for work. But then again, no one told me I couldn’t play with my food.” Cooking so piqued his curiosity that after military service, he decided not to study engineering, as his father had wished, but to go to Switzerland (“following a romance”) to enroll in culinary school. “I was too creative for the Swiss,” says Adar. “You try to add an ingredient to a béchamel—no way. But it was a blessing in disguise, because I knew cooking was what I wanted to do.” So he interned at Paul Bocuse’s legendary L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, outside Lyon; launched Prego, an Italian restaurant in Tel Aviv; and then was asked by a New York photographer working in Israel to style food for a shoot.

Tiring of long days in the kitchen, Adar picked up more styling jobs, and in an extremely bold move, came to New York in 1990 with nothing but a single phone number, for Food Arts magazine, and “a few art images that used food—crazy stuff.” He had no real portfolio but called the magazine anyway. The result? Dozens of cover assignments over the course of a two-decade relationship with the late editor Michael Batterberry, and an ongoing showcase for Adar’s food art. A sculptural “fish bouquet” for the magazine (whole fish, shellfish, and spiky tentacles tied together with an octopus-leg “bow”) led to a commission for Cointreau’s Cointreauversial campaign: four bouquets representing the Mediterranean, Pacific, Caribbean, and Atlantic.

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