By now you know my blog is photo-centric, and I hope that’s ok with you. Rather than focus on restaurant reviews I like to use this space to talk to the people behind the scenes of food photography – stylists, photographers, prop stylists, editors, you name it. This latest installation is my interview with my friend Pouké, who gives me happy little feelings and puts a smile on my face whenever I think of her.
In the world of advertising and editorial food photography there is food styling and then there is food styling. There’s the act of preparing food for the camera and getting through your shot – and no matter how experienced you are it always requires talent, patience and true grit. Very few stylists take it to a whole other level entirely, and that’s where people like my friends William Smith and Pouké enter the picture.
I hate to make myself appear so jaded sometimes, but in all honestly it takes a certain talent to make me stop and catch my breath. I’ve reviewed hundreds of portfolios, met with numerous photographers and stylists over the years and can count on one hand those who have made me stop in my tracks and make my little heart flutter. I know it sounds silly, but true grace and talent knows no bounds, be it in a painting, a sculpture, musical composition or with food on a printed page.
What can I say about Pouké? Nothing I say could ever do her work justice. I’ve spent years with a beat up and tattered folder with clippings and tear sheets of her work (she doesn’t know this!) and always scour the miniscule type of book introductions and magazine pages looking for that familiar name when I see work that can only be hers. And how do I know? It’s a sense, a feeling I get by viewing her work. She has a magical way with food and I have a hard time defining it. It’s as if she makes ingredients dance, the individual components look happy to be on the plate with the other pieces of food, for lack of better phrasing. It’s harmony, it’s freshness, it’s joy, and it’s as if a soft hand gently caressed the entire plate. Are you still with me here?
Over the past year Pouke and I have gotten to know each other and I shouldn’t say I am surprised to find her as magical and lovely as the work she does. Some of you may know her styling work and I am sure many of you know her through her blog, Atelier Pouké. In her blog she takes us with her on her travels, shares beautiful bursts of daily life and literally makes me swoon with the way she sees the world. Does it surprise me that this same beautiful woman translates her love of life to the plate? Absolutely not.
I sat down to ask Pouke about her work and philosphy.
Matt: I’m going to do my best to remain level headed and not continuously pour out adoration for you because I could do that for years when looking at your work. How long have you been food styling, and how did you begin your career?
Pouké: Fifteen years ago, in
the Sunday Chronicle Food section, I discovered the work of the food
stylist, Erez, who would invariably shock me by his creativity, sense
of composition and obstreperous eye. Every week, he would please my
craving for beauty, art and food. I discovered that, through food,
you could convey a vision of style, color, and texture. His
fearlessness to try anything emboldened me.
I pursued Erez and
started assisting him in his work. I learned some valuable tricks of
the trade, but mostly to trust my eye and heart. Erez went back to
Israel, and gave me his blessings to hit the streets as a food
stylist on my own.
Matt: Do you prefer advertising or editorial work?
Pouké: It is like asking me if
I like Paris or Berkeley. Well, both wildly, but for different
For me, at the
beginning, I felt that my impulsive and intuitive nature coupled with
my little experience served me well in the editorial world…books,
magazines and more books. It was great, and validating. I was making
collaborative art. What fun it was…and still is!
Then, the world of
advertising started catching up with the more creative style of the
editorial world, which gave me a bridge into that side of the
business. Early on, I had created a free form, Asian-influenced salad
for a poster, which was hung in William Sonoma store windows. One of
my earliest advertising clients noticed the poster and hired me. So
it was a creative idea that led me into advertising.
Eventually, I learned
to really appreciate the quest for perfection that is often required
for advertising jobs. It draws on all my experience, all the tricks
I’ve learned, and the techniques I’ve mastered. In the
end, there is a wonderful satisfaction to achieving absolute
perfection. Yes, I love my job!
Matt: What is your philosophy on food?
Pouké: Food is love. Food is
creativity. Food is pleasure.
Love of good
ingredients, that are made by farmers and artisans with a passion for
the earth and its bounty. Love which is put into
the folding of such ingredients to produce healthy,fresh, pure, seasonal,
decadent meals and then offered to the ones you love.
Love that we tasted
through the dishes fed to us as children and that, during our whole
life, we try to recapture.
Food is creativity in
the way you chose to make your food: colors and composition for the
eyes, exotic spices and textures for the mouth. Letting go of rules
and come up with new pairings: How about a strawberry and parsley
Food then always
becomes pleasure in its anticipation and comfort. And what pleasure!
It is the most social, intimate and joyful aspect of life.
Matt: What do you find most challenging to work with? What brings you the most pleasure?
Pouké: What is amazing is,
after all these years, I still find challenges in most shoots. I think sometimes that
I have seen and cooked everything, but then invariably something new
will come up like: transforming crumbled tofu into a moist,
appetizing scrambled egg looking dish, or making fake but realistic
pools of melted snow and ice around a soft drink can. Pleasure is
when I am asked to come up with something beautiful. When food can
become art, everything flows from there.
Matt: You live in the Bay Area, one of the most beautiful and delicious places in the US. Do you have any favorite markets or restaurants that you visit regularly?
Pouké: I visit the Berkeley
Farmer’s market at least once a week. It is Berkeley, so it is
quirky, lively and a feast for the eyes, mind and belly. You will
encounter the raw food dishes table, then come upon the wonderful
sounds of 60’s soul performed by a medley of musicians, then
the massage table between baby lettuces (called gems!) and
strawberries (blood red to the core), young and old meeting and
chatting like in a village, even prams from the local daycare,
snaking their way through the crowd and stalls and carrying, like a
mini omnibus, at least 8 wide-eyed toddlers.
For work, I depend
practically exclusively on the Berkeley Bowl — a privately owned
supermarket with the biggest and most varied produce area. You want
fresh baby corn on the cob, watermelons in November, Persian
cucumbers, ramps, dragon fruits, Seville oranges, you name it…you
will most likely find it there. The crowd is diverse and fun to watch
as you wait in long lines at the cashier.
Now for restaurants, my
favorite over and over is Cesar, the first ‘tapas’ bar to
open here. It is crowded; it is loud. The décor is modern with
a mosaic blue bar. The drinks are tasty and the food is traditional
in the sense that the ingredients are top notch and they are prepared
simply with a nod to lustiness and abandon (plenty of garlic,
peppers, mayonnaise, herbs, sugar, cream). Just give me a glass of
chilled Bandol rosé, a ramequin of their divine salt cod and
potatoes cazuela with tall croutons and aioli and a pyramid of their
paper thin garlic and rosemary fries and I am very happy indeed.
Second best is the
Cheese board pizza place for lunch. For $2.25 a slice, you get the
best pizza ever (sourdough crust, different toppings each day), a
seat at a communal table, a drop-in live jazz duo or trio, sometimes
with a singer, and the best people watching this side of St Germain
des Près. Since there is always a long line making their way
to the counter, you can have a glass of wine and (why not ) a side of
roasted garlic (resting in a big bowl on the counter)!
Matt: How did growing up in France shape your perspective on food and culture? And what do you miss the most?
Pouké: Somehow, even in their
obsession with food, the French manage not to be neurotic about it.
It is a much anticipated pleasure that you give yourself without
guilt. The French accept good food as an inalienable right, partake
of it in moderation, and value quality over quantity. They also
accept the fleeting nature of pleasure and know when to let go. This
is all part of an unspoken culture that you assimilate growing up
The French have built
an identity and pride in their amazing variety of resources and
dishes, their wine growing history, and their amazingly refined
gastronomy. By the way, most of the time, the French eat very simply.
Haute cuisine is reserved only for special occasions. When, as a
child, you grow up flambé-ing crepes for your family, you know
that food is special and fun!
But, it is still
amazing how much time French people devote to food. At any given
meal, discussions would start about what the next meal would be or
memories of past gastronomic successes, or stories about how to get
the right food and how to best prepare it. It is an all-consuming
Growing up, you quickly
learn to appreciate simple pleasures, like the butter drenched pain
au chocolat on the way home from school (not too difficult), or the
single scoop of ice cream from the little shop that was open during
the warm months and made its own ice cream with seasonal ingredients.
But it is also, a communal pleasure, a ritual, a celebration of
friendship and family. Time is set aside. Shops close, offices too.
It’s time to eat. And well.
What I miss: the
beautiful displays of produce, the window decorations in the bakery,
the rituals of packaging pastries, the care and artistry that goes
not only in the taste but in the presentation. And… the choice
in chocolate bars!
Matt: Your writing is just as luscious as your food. What inspired you to blog?
Pouké: It was like writing
letters to my far away friends. It was to give me a voice that I
didn’t have, working in a visual world. It was a way to connect
with the past, and be myself, discovering the important or the sad,
the funny or the crazy.
Matt: Pouké, thank you so much for sharing your world with me. You’ve managed to enlighten and also make me hungry for a seat at Cesar right now – and it’s 8:24 in the morning as I’m writing this! One last question: What’s in your tool kit that you could not live without?
Pouké: Knife, paint brush and
an earl grey tea bag….
To see more of Pouké’s magical artistry with food, visit her website at Pouke.com and don’t forget to read her personal site at Atelier Pouké. The images used in this post are copyright the respective owners and have only been posted on Mattbites.com for interview purposes and can be removed if requested. Just trying to do the right thing, folks!