New York-based food stylist Susan Spungen has worked with actress Meryl Streep twice in quick succession - first on Julie & Julia, the movie documenting one woman's quest to cook like culinary legend Julia Child, and then on romantic comedy It's Complicated.

As well as sharing the same leading lady and being released in 2009, these two movies have another common factor: food is a vital part of the finished product. Not merely a static prop, the food has an elevated significance, variously reinforcing character traits, reflecting emotions and even underscoring plot points.

"In movies like It's Complicated where the food is an important part of the movie and it's running through many of the scenes and has to have a certain look and feel and also consistency, that's when someone like me is brought on to execute the vision of the director," says Spungen, whose most memorable scene was the one in It's Complicated in which Streep's character, Jane, is cutting up a chicken.

"Meryl is angrily chopping off the chicken leg when Alec Baldwin walks in after he's stood her up the night before.

"In order to do that scene, we cooked 50 chickens. We actually counted. I think we cooked 50; we might have used 49 or 48. This went on for a couple of days and it was constant chickens coming out. It went on and on because a scene like that has to be shot from a variety of angles and with many takes of each angle so each time it had to be a completely new chicken. I think that's the kind of thing that people don't realise."

Just as the character's emotion was portrayed via the fervent dismemberment of the chook, the food was also intrinsic to Jane's overall identity.

"Food was really very important to her character. It was very much part of who she was. It showed her nurturing spirit, her earth-motherliness, all of that. It was just extremely important to who she was as a character."

Author of Recipes: A Collection for the Modern Cook, Spungen was also the food editor for Martha Stewart Living for 12 years until 2003 when she turned to freelance food styling.

The first hint that a culinary career might be lying ahead came in kindergarten when she insisted on cooking a recipe for "Christmas cookies or something" that appeared in a weekly reader.

Most of Spungen's early forays into the kitchen involved baking cakes and biscuits.

"I liked the trial and error of it. I enjoy feeding people."