Food photography essentially falls into two broad categories (my personal viewpoint):
- Capturing the essence of the genuine product in the most appetizing way
- Making an image, a term you alluded to, regardless of how much the deviance from the original presentation.
Of course, food presentation itself is a significant part of the chef's art, and if the chef is a consummate artist, the first category above becomes that much easier.
To achieve the desired result, images such as this one, shot for a newspaper article, take advantage of the ambiance and the environs, much more than the equipment:
(from my flickr photostream).
If you look at the EXIF info for this image, it was a half-second exposure taken at an unremarkable f/3.5, without flash, on an ancient Minolta DiMAGE A200 ZLR.
The dim, warm lighting at the restaurant was used to advantage to convey the warm inviting ambiance, and the direction of the shot was selected to maximize the glimmering reflection of the lights on the slickness of the oily food - that oiliness was part of the editorial brief!.
No specific equipment or software tricks, just some extra minutes figuring out the shot.
On the other hand, for the "made" images popular with the advertising industry, it isn't just equipment, there is also a lot of additives involved. For instance, the food could have been lit with a softbox to make the shadows gentler, the slickness enhanced by spraying a bit of machine oil on it (not kidding!), and some silverware added.
The silverware would be artfully lit by a key-light, or made to twinkle at the highlights by stopping the aperture way down. Sometimes, a hand-held laser pointer or flashlight is used to add interesting highlights, and incense smoke can be used to emulate steam rising from the dish.
Add to that a small portable humidifier / ultrasonic fog spray unit to keep the food moist and provide a "soft focus" glow to the entire "stage", if you want to go overboard.
There is, of course, the ultimate image-maker: An attractive model in the background, ostensibly transported by the aroma or the flavor of the food, and you're getting to the home stretch.
Many of these artifices are easily incorporated into a food shot if you so choose, without hige investment involved. Are they necessary? Depends on your client, the person footing the bill.
... which brings me to my last point: Sometimes, a professional will use an impressive looking lens in preference to a mundane looking one, or rig a dozen additional lights which are actually dialed down to nearly no impact, because the client is really paying for a performance, not just the image. What better way to augment such a performance than through some fancy looking gear, so the client knows their money is well-spent, and that their nephew from art school could not be expected to achieve the professional's results!
I'm not expressing any disapproval of such performance enhancers, in fact I have applied them myself on occasion. However, do keep in mind that they are probably not essential to your goal, depending on how you define said goal.