Susan Foresman, who does for food what Elizabeth Arden does for women, is rummaging through a box of frozen chicken fillets, searching for the most photogenic specimens.

She holds up a piece of chicken, eyes it carefully, shakes her head, and tosses another fillet onto a growing pile of rejects. "That will never be a star," she says, sighing in mock despair.

Foresman -- part chef, part make-up artist, all workhorse -- knows what it takes for a piece of poultry to become a star. For almost three decades, the Washington food stylist, one of a small but growing number in the area, has been making everything from ice cream to seafood look good for the cameras.

On this particular day, Foresman is working from the well equipped studio kitchen of Capitol Hill photographer Taran Z., preparing for a seemingly routine photo session involving a few of the products of Pierce Foods, a processor of pre-cooked chicken. The resulting color photographs will eventually grace the pages of Pierce Foods' price guide.

And eventually, the public will see Foresman's handiwork: perfectly coiffed Hum-Dingers, alluring Thrillers and delicious-looking Natural Chicken Breast Fillets. But not before the stylist -- along with a photographer, an art director, an account supervisor and several assistants -- spends almost 12 hours (and about $5,000) orchestrating the image, a process Foresman describes as "fast food made slowly."

Styling food, according to those who do it for a living, can be a lot less glamorous than the end product -- a sumptuous buffet in a film, or a dessert spread in a cookbook -- might indicate.

On the other hand, the work is far from routine. In the course of her career, Foresman has been asked to cook baked beans in an airport hanger, stage a banquet in a forest (an esthetically beautiful if practically unbearable assignment, she recalls), and assist in styling an entire grocery store full of food for an ice cream commercial, a job that took 36 hours.

"It's glamorous in that it's well-paying," says Peter Brett, a pastry chef at the Capitol Hilton who freelances as a stylist. According to those in the business, food stylists in the Washington area can earn from $200-$400 a day, depending upon the assignment.

The bottom line in food styling, says Lisa Cherkasky, a local chef who worked on Time-Life Books' Healthy Home Cooking series, is to get consumers to say of a product, "Oooh, I want that!" In a business where appearances are everything, she says, one "must be familiar enough with the food to make it beautiful for the camera."

To that end, however, it takes more than just the instincts of a good cook to fashion food. "Too many people who can barely hold a spoon up in a pot" call themselves food stylists, laments Foresman, who studied dietetics at Penn State and launched her career with a job testing recipes for General Foods in White Plains, N.Y.

Stylist Deborah Wahl, who graduated from Ohio University with a Bachelor of Science in Commercial Foods ("yes, I went to school for this") and once worked as the Director of Food Standards for the Marriott Corporation, emphasizes that patience, an artistic eye, and "a big car and a strong back" for hauling props and equipment are just as important in the business as food preparation skills.

So, too, is a "respect for confidentiality," adds Wahl, whose clients have included most of the major fast food chains. Stylists, after all, are often among the first to see a company's new product, and "ad companies are very competitive" and protective of their marketing strategies, says the stylist.

Because food that might otherwise look terrific on the dinner table or in a restaurant is subject to intense scrutiny under the lens of a camera -- which magnifies a pudding's every bubble and a roll's every crack -- food stylists, like make-up artists, employ a number of tricks to highlight a product's features, and minimalize its flaws: Soap bubbles might be added to a glass of milk to give it a freshly poured look, meat might be slathered with Vaseline or mineral oil for sheen, and droplets of glycerin might be placed on fruit and vegetables to lend a fresh, dewy appearance. One way to keep carbonated beverages looking fizzy is to add a tablet of Alka Seltzer prior to their being photographed.

The tools of the food styling trade are as unusual as some of the techniques. Among the many appliances pressed into service are paint strippers (for spot-cooking meats), portable clothes steamers (for melting cheese) and talcum powder (which lends itself to simulating white-hot coals, among other things). And ordinary household staples become surgeon's instruments in the hands of a stylist, who might employ tweezers to position a single crumb, a hypodermic needle to apply a single drop of moisture, or the tiniest of scissors to trim a bun.

In addition to performing as cook, chemist and artist, a stylist is often asked to perform minor miracles, like finding pumpkins in spring or cranberries in summer, for photographs shot out of season. As a safeguard, Foresman says she has tomatoes in various stages of growth sitting on her window sill at home. She also keeps on hand baskets of whole nuts in the shell, and freezes the likes of raspberries, blackberries and loganberries.

Food styling, says Foresman, "is a matter of putting a lot of pieces of a puzzle together -- and you hope you have everything." The stylist takes her job seriously enough to devote two rooms of her Arlington apartment to the storage of cookbooks and food props: Her drawers and cupboards are filled with a rainbow of napkins, china in myriad patterns and hundreds of picture-perfect skewers, scoops, and pots and pans in every conceivable shape and size. Except for the iron skillets -- "you want them to look used," Foresman explains -- she never uses the props in her own kitchen.

Not everything is as easily anticipated as out-of-season food or a proper place setting, however. When she was a budding stylist in New York in the early '60s, Foresman remembers, a stagehand on "The Garry Moore Show" substituted lighter fluid for brandy in a cooking sketch demonstrating flambe'ed peaches -- on live TV, no less. "We had a bonfire going," recalls the stylist with a laugh. Another time, spying a listless beer amidst a mammoth spread of food, Foresman ran on the set and added a dash of salt to the brew, to give it a proper head. To the horror of stylist and crew alike, the beer overflowed onto the carefully arranged table. The stylist has a rule now: Never pour liquids on a set.

Food styling sessions are not unlike theater performances. For the Pierce Foods assignment, for instance, hundreds of chicken parts are brought in to "audition" for a chance to appear in the company's price brochure. The "winners" are given star treatment, which means each piece is individually cooked and manicured. The "losers" are tossed out, eaten by the crew, or otherwise relegated to sit under the studio lights as "stand-ins" for the more photogenic models.

Once the food to be photographed is ready, "it needs to be shot quickly, or it dries up," says food photographer Taran Z. "You want to catch it right out of the oven."

In contrast to print work, film is "faster and more forgiving," says Wahl, who last spring worked on an as-yet-untitled comedy for 20th Century-Fox, on location in Washington. For that assignment, Wahl was asked to orchestrate two food scenes, one involving a cocktail party for about 60 people, another depicting an embassy reception for 200 guests. While the food served merely as background, "it had to be real, and safe {actors were required to eat it}, and for the sake of continuity, it couldn't be changed." The embassy scene took 20 hours to shoot, which meant that Wahl had to keep the props -- including a whole roast pig, 30 pounds of lobster and a buffet's worth of desserts -- looking as fresh as if they had just been delivered from the kitchen. (The highlight of that particular job, says Wahl, was when William Hurt was filmed popping one of her hors d'oeuvres, a deviled egg topped with caviar, into his mouth.)

But adding models or actors to the set only complicates a stylist's job, which alone requires him or her to "look at 25 things at once," says John Gingerich, the art director working on the Pierce Foods brochure. Wahl once worked on a hamburger commercial with a vegetarian actor who refused to eat the featured product. She solved the problem by cutting out the back half of the burger, leaving the front part exposed to the camera, so that the actor bit down only on bread. More recently, Wahl was forced to use a stand-in strawberry cake after an actor had eaten the prop, which was serving as background. "An occupational hazard," observes Foresman, who's seen it happen more than once.

While stylists are called upon to "manipulate" products, rarely is fake food substituted for the real article. "Never in my life have I used shaving cream for whipped cream, or mashed potatoes for ice cream," claims Foresman. "There's nothing that looks better than the real thing," agrees John Schaffer, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and, more recently, a recipe developer/stylist for Time-Life Books.

Illusions aside, "Clients don't want {their products} doctored too much," says Susan Jenkins, who oversees the Pierce Foods advertising account. Consumers, she explains, expect to see in the package what they've seen in the photographs advertising the product. What's more, the law requires it: Campbell learned that lesson the hard way in 1969, when the Federal Trade Commission sued the food giant over television commercials in which marbles were placed in bowls of vegetable soup, forcing the vegetables to the surface and giving the illusion of a fuller and thicker product.

"Generally, what we do is smooth the rough edges," says Jenkins. In most cases, that simply means spending more time on a product than is the norm. Confides one stylist, "It takes me an hour to make a Roy Rogers hamburger."

Over the years, the way food has been presented has changed dramatically, say local stylists. Overstyling is out. The natural look is in. Food photographs, says Wahl, "used to be very rigid. Now, food kind of happens on the plate," a phenomenon Wahl attributes in part to the emergence of nouvelle cuisine in the '70s. Technology is also changing the food styling business, says Shaffer, pointing to the microwave oven. And in recent years, flowers and fresh herbs have replaced parsley as the stylist's garnish of choice.

Meanwhile, the competition is heating up. While the Washington area -- home to Marriott, numerous food trade associations and several large grocery chains -- offers a host of possibilities for food stylists, there are an increasing number of chefs and others interested in pursuing the profession full time. Even as seasoned and respected a professional as Foresman acknowledges, "You're only as good as your last job." To get an edge on the competition, one fledgling stylist admits to scheduling her meetings with potential clients around the lunch hour, at which time she pulls out her portfolio of food photographs to "get 'em hungry."

Back in the studio, Foresman is putting the finishing touches on a chicken fillet sandwich. Like a seamstress, she carefully stiches a strand of curly green lettuce onto the base of a flawless white bun, from which a circle of bread has been removed to better fit the bun to the fillet. She looks the sandwich over and, satisfied, carries it to the set, where the crew waits to capture it in all its perfection.

And as Taran Z. begins shooting the assembled chicken parts, the music playing softly in the background -- "Under Pressure," sung by Queen -- sums up yet another day in the life of a food stylist.