MAI FOUAD, AND THE JOY OF FOOD STYLING
Mai Fouad barged into the vast world of food styling without prior planning, to find herself falling head over heels for cooking. Through her passion for cooking, Mai discoverd her obsession with food styling and adorning the table with vibrant colors in addition to serving dishes differently and capturing their beauty through the lens of her camera.
Here Mai tells us about her journey, which led her to working at Fatafeet, a cooking TV channel.
IF WE GO BACK IN TIME, WHAT MEMORIES DO YOU HAVE WITH YOUR FAMILY’S KITCHEN?
Since I was a child, I have loved decorating the dishes my mother made with beautiful colors and attractive shapes. The joy I had while helping my mother was overwhelming, and of course I had my share of bad experiences while making donuts and éclairs, but every failure motivated me to learn more.
My mother’s dishes were unique, especially those made during Fridays, when we made banquets for family and friends; some of my mom’s most iconic dishes were her béchamel pasta and grape leaf rolls, but I will always miss my late dad’s fish casserole, God bless his soul.
YOU HAVE TRAVELED AN UNFAMILIAR PATH IN THE CULINARY WORLD, HOW DID YOU DISCOVER IT?
It all began with my curiosity towards cooking; I was so eager to learn more about creative food presentation and styling techniques, then things got more serious. Of course, numerous difficulties arose and my acquaintances were skeptical about my choice. Still, my patience and passion for learning helped me tackle those challenges and go further. After that, when I realized how talented I am in this field, I decided to delve deeper into it and follow the world’s most well-renowned chefs and food styling professionals.
I don’t deny that I failed sometimes, especially when I attempted to take photos for my dishes in terms of the presentation lighting and photo quality. My failed attempts inspired me to learn some lessons over YouTube and attend paid online courses. Later on, I bought my own camera and started applying every lesson I had using Photoshop and Light Room. On the other hand, I had difficulty finding styling tools dedicated for vintage backgrounds. Still, I gained significant experience in making unique photo backgrounds. After that, I started giving training sessions for those who have the passion for food styling.
WHAT SPECIFICALLY DRAWS YOU TO FOOD STYLING AND PHOTOGRAPHY?
Both aspects complete the other in terms of finding fresh ingredients and choosing the right lighting. That also includes taking photos from different angles in addition to controlling shading and using the right background plus creating the right color harmony to present the dishes as attractive as possible and show all its details.
Integrating all those aspects needs prior planning and possessing the right skill set; I found out that food styling is a world of its own and relies mainly on having the right knowledge, innovation and creativity.
WHAT APPEARS ON THE SCREEN AS A DISH THAT WAS COOKED FOR THREE MINUTES MUST TAKE A LOT OF EFFORT BEHIND THE SCENES TO PRESENT IT DECENTLY, RIGHT?
Taking a photo for a dish in a way that makes it draw the audience is not an easy mission; there are many tricks that get involved in making food look attractive on screen. Sometimes, producing such a video would take a whole day or even more. The preparations mainly revolve around creating an idea for the scene and creating a suitable style, taking into consideration that the recipe itself is delicious and aesthetically pleasing hence the audience fall in love with it, must have it or try to make it as soon as possible.
YOU ADVERTISE FOR MANY FOOD COMPANIES; WOULD YOU TALK ABOUT THAT?
Of course! My start was with Al Alali company, which have become a household name in the Arab markets due to its range of high-quality products. Working with them added a considerable amount of experience. Additionally, I started working with different restaurants and food companies in the UAE. They wanted to present their products in an attractive and innovative manner, such as Home of Switz, Puck Arabia, Betty Crocker Arabia, Capilano honey and Shamis oil Arabia
HOW FAR DID WORKING WITH FOOD COMPANIES STIMULATE YOUR POTENTIALS?
Working with food companies have brought the best in me to make unusual, yet successful, works. For instance, I remember one time when Switz company asked me to present samosas differently and not in the usual way. The first thought that crossed my mind was presenting samosas like if it were tacos or nacho dips.
On the other hand, this line of work requires high time management skills and the ability to save the day at the last minute if needed. In some instances, a food company may ask me to photoshoot 30 different recipes in two days! That includes cooking and photo or video shooting, not to mention editing and submitting the end product. This job requires a high level of accuracy and speed without compromising anything in addition to taking necessary precautions in case a dish got burnt and what not.
WHAT CHALLENGES DO YOU STILL REMEMBER WITH A SMILE?
I had an issue with balancing between my job and children, as I am a mother of three and my kids were still young at the time I started. Additionally, food styling professionals refused to answer my inquiries, which gave me a strong motivation to learn on my own without anyone’s help and regardless of the time I would take. Since then, my moto became “If you don’t try going further than what you have reached, you will never achieve progress”.
WHAT ARE YOUR MOST FAVORITE INGREDIENTS?
I love all Al Alali’s tuna variants and their pasta too. I also love Switz products; it is a staple of my kitchen along with Betty Crocker’s brownie mix.
YOU STARTED WORKING AT FATAFEET VERY RECENTLY. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO YOU CAREER-WISE?
It means a lot to me, both personally and professionally. Personally speaking, Fatafeet is a school that adds to its workers more and more regardless of how experienced they are. There, people get to meet up with the most well-acclaimed professionals and I am honored to work with the first Arab Cooking Channel with the largest staff of culinary experts in the Arab world. All Arab households watch the Fatafeet shows and get to learn from its chefs whom we dearly respect.
In a nutshell, Fatafeet is a world of diverse, innovative, well-crafted and dynamic cuisines. Moreover, we get to learn something new every day, and every chef that comes to the channel contributes a set of new ideas which they incorporate in their shows, where they also get to show their favorite Arab and international dishes.
IF YOU WERE TO WRITE A COOKBOOK, WHAT TOPIC WOULD YOU CHOOSE?
It is a dream I wish to accomplish one day; I hope to have the opportunity to write about the European cuisines, specifically the French cuisine which is considered as the most elegant cuisine in the whole world due to the amount of details and techniques it involves, especially in cooking meats, preparing sauces or baking pastries. I hope one day that I can adapt its techniques to the Arab cuisine in a simplified and accessible way so cooking beginners can put it into good use. Additionally, I hope I succeed in giving effective advice on food styling.
WHAT LEVEL OF INTERNATIONAL FAME HAS THE ARAB CUISINE REACHED?
Living in Dubai, which is a large melting pot for numerous cultures, has demonstrated how prominent the Arab cuisine is, especially the Moroccan cuisine. I believe that we have a great shot to achieve even better in the upcoming years through creating dishes that suites the international audience’s taste while maintaining the genuine Arab flavors.
DO YOU REMEMBER SPECIFIC ADVICE GIVEN TO YOU BY A PROFESSIONAL BEFORE?
Yes, I remember the advice given to me by Chef Mohammed Orfali, who told me: “make life your school, for it will teach you better”. Chef Orfali is a kind of a person who adds to our knowledge something new every day, and he taught me that I must not surrender to my doubts and keep my passion alight no matter the challenges I go through. There is no problem in trying more and sticking to what makes us who we are.
WHAT ARE YOUR RITUALS DURING THE PREPARATION OF A PHOTO SHOOT?
I prefer to work in a calm setting while sipping coffee over Fayrouz’s soothing voice and preparing and styling the dishes while setting the mood.
IF YOU WISH TO INVITE SOMEONE CLOSE FOR A MEAL, WHAT DISHES WOULD YOU CHOOSE?
I would choose seafood paella from the Spanish cuisine and Sushi from the Japanese cuisine.
WHERE WOULD YOUR DREAMS TAKE YOU NEXT, MAI?
At the time being, I don’t call myself a chef; I’m just a foody. Therefore, I hope I can have more time to study culinary arts further and work hard to establish my own line of products as well.
Thank you Mai.