Zoé Armbruster. From Styling Actors To Styling Plates: How This Cosmopolite Tastemaker Found Her Happy, Healthy Medium
Zoe is a Belgian-American food stylist, cookbook author, producer, artistic director who only two years ago was working as a Sales Manager for a San Francisco-based start-up. Nine published books and a whirlwind of projects later, she is now back to her hometown of Paris, where she co-founded a new company with her partner: Zoe and Blaise.
A month ago, when came the idea of starting The Creatress I immediately thought about my friend Zoé’s inspiring path to become a professional food stylist and published author. I first met Zoé a few years ago in San Francisco, and have been impressed at how she carved out a creative career for herself.
Within a relatively short period, Zoé developed an aesthetic vision in a field that was new to her and created a respected brand in her image. She has elegantly crafted a joyful mix between her French and Californian influences, with a zest.
Her books are a trove of healthy, colorful recipes conceived to energize the body. She finds inspiration from all around the world with a natural focus on veggies and sometimes ventures in gluten-free territory. If you are part of the gourmets who (still) think that eating vegetarian is boring, her colorful palette and playful mixes will persuade you otherwise. To sum up, Zoé manages to elicit mouth watering cravings one would inevitably feel in front of a pastel-colored pastry case in Paris… using ingredients usually associated with bland, but nutritious dishes you would subject yourself to at a stern coffee shop in Venice.
I met Zoe on a gray December morning to talk about her new career. Her studio is located in a quiet back alley in Paris’ 11th arrondissement near a street full of restaurants, bars and local stores where you can shop for the finest ingredients. As soon as she opens the door, Zoe’s bright smile immediately warms me despite the cold temperatures outside. Perched on the last floor of a 19th Century building, the studio’s hardwood floors and wooden cabinets radiate coziness. The morning light floods through the windows, briefly flecking her pale blonde hair. A few of her published books are dispersed here and there. Among colorful frames and plants, a few drawings are spicing up the white walls, filling in for the missing sunshine.
Zoé sits comfortably on a loveseat between decorative cushions: one covered in pale gold sequins, another in burgundy pearl embroidery. The studio is rather small, accommodating a kitchen and a workshop table, which can turn into a sleeping nook in case a rush project would require working late hours. She shows me all her tools and equipment: an ingenuous system of cupboards tastefully displays dreamy tableware in a variety of colors and textures, from pastel ceramics to neutral porcelain. I notice spoons of all sizes carved from wood, matte metals or glass, all neatly arranged. Behind a sliding door is hidden a high-tech monitor and an impressive array of photo hardware, which interrupts my reverie; however delicate, the colorful artifacts are not waiting for the occasional tea party – this place means business.
The open kitchen is narrow but fully equipped, and allows her to supervise the photo shoots while she receives clients. All her activities can be handled in this efficient space: experimentation with new recipes, photos and writing all emerge from here. Zoé serves me an Americano in a rough stoneware cup.
Growing up in Paris, Zoe dreamt to be a fashion stylist. At 16, a rebellious streak makes her leave high school mid-year, and she goes on to work odd jobs in retail. Her parents aren’t thrilled and made a pact with their daughter: Zoe is expected to return to high-school the following year to pass her final exam. In secret, she starts applying to a few fashion schools… and is admitted at the prestigious Studio Berçot, a private fashion design institute with famous alumni such as Isabel Marant. Surprised by their daughter’s grit, her parents finally accept to let her forego the final year of high school to pursue her passion.
At Studio Berçot, she was one of the youngest students and was up to a rough awakening: her classmates had more formal training in drawing or design, and she had to learn everything from scratch. Patiently, she learned the craft and blossomed during her second year. Benefitting from a partnership between her design school and the San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, Zoe found herself in California and made a creative network.
Later, she found an internship in New-York and worked on the set of Ugly Betty as a stylist assistant, a job that she truly loved. She then landed another internship in Nepal in the Hermes’ workshops that made luxurious pashminas. There, she learned about excellence, patience and quality: the ingredients that have ensured the famed French house with the highest reputation. She was affected by the experience, but was not sure of the direction to aim to her professional life. Struck by a bout of wanderlust, Zoe traveled the world from South-East Asia to Australia.
Back in Paris, she got trained in prestigious, avant-garde fashion houses including Rick Owens but couldn’t find a fitting position. She was subjected to the endless succession of internships that was de rigueur in the fashion industry and started to lose patience.
Fortunately, a friend whom she met in San Francisco a couple years earlier offered her a sales job in his startup company in the Bay Area. Even though she never held such a position, her strong determination and go-getter personality make her a good fit for the job. During her tenure, she learned how to contact clients and pitch her products, a skill set that would later propel her when starts her own business.
The Bay Area is a haven of peace compared to the Paris’ self-centered fashion world. Her new career expanded and her responsibilities grew quickly, but after a couple years in the tech industry, a feeling of unrest crept in: sitting at a desk all day left her yearning for more creative opportunities. Fashion, her lifelong passion, became a distant dream. The Californian lifestyle, however, slowly grew on the young woman who used to be a big-city girl. She was seduced by the focus on wellbeing in the Golden State: she took up yoga (as one does upon moving to San Francisco) and made a slow transition toward a vegetarian diet.
At some point, even though her professional track is worthy of admiration, it became obvious that something was missing in her life. Data points and client calls filled her days, but not her heart: a growing desire to create something of her own had been simmering for months. As the urge became stronger, she started a blog as a creative outlet and worked on it in her spare time. With no game plan other than the pleasure and satisfaction of putting something out there, for the world and above all, for herself.
In the beginning, the blog meant to showcase her fashion eye with a section dedicated to lifestyle – one of the fastest growing trends at the time, a fact that didn’t escape this highly intuitive woman’s attention. She had just taken on cooking and decided to share some recipes as well.
Indeed, Zoe confesses candidly that she didn’t cook at all while growing up. There were no sentimental stories about baking with Granny in the family home, even though both parents infused her with notable influences: her father is a gourmet with a passion for fine dining and her mother is an adept of a healthy diet fueled with organic ingredients and veggies “before it became trendy”. Zoe is now making strides at the intersection of both worlds. Voila!
Soon enough, she is faced with challenges to do proper fashion shoots for her blog; not only did she need new clothes each time to create fresh looks, but she was also dependent on a good volunteer to take the photographs. Cooking, however, only requires her dedicated attention – the process is straightforward, starting with the sourcing of basic ingredients. At that time, it was important to feed herself with tasty meals that weren’t too heavy– everything to please her gourmet taste buds but “please, no diet!" Bi-Rite, Rainbow Grocery and the farmer’s market became her new stomping grounds. She sets herself small challenges to learn new recipes she finds online – and learns new tricks everyday.
Talking with Zoe, I understand that being able to do everything on her own, in the peace and tranquility of her home presented a huge appeal: she could experiment at her own pace. She had stumbled upon her happy, healthy medium. It was very immediate and accessible: the cost was only that of produce’s, there was no delay involved except the cooking itself, and no external help was required.
The turning point came as her first client: a friend who had launched a food-delivery startup. After he got wind of her new activity, he contracted her to shoot a series of photos for the revamp of the company’s app. An ambitious project which took her several weekends to complete. This is when she decided for herself that she would quit her job if the clients were happy with the end result. They were, and she did.
She spends that summer in France, where she reaches out to the food stylists she admires and asks to meet them. A few would even invite her on their set. That moment is the beginning of a great adventure of learning and discovery: using her savings, Zoe decides that she would assist professionals for free, and by doing so learns what would become her new career. Thanks to the connections she makes and the trainings she puts herself through, she quickly gains credibility. She keeps working on her personal recipes and photographs and develops a substantial portfolio – which allows her to gain notice from reputed magazines and publishing houses in the field. At that time, she increased her travels between California and Paris, where her special trademark Californian fare hit a sunny spot.
Zoe burned to learn, quickly and from the best. She jumped on a flight to work for three weeks with a renowned Parisian food stylist in urgent need of an assistant; she had to work for free but figured that the opportunity was too good to pass up. She was right, as the experience proved highly valuable both in terms of networking and practical knowledge. While in Paris, she reached out to publishing houses including the giant Hachette and ended up negotiating her first book deal, thanks to her perseverance and the portfolio she had diligently put together. As soon as the deal went through, she was back on the West Coast to follow a workshop organized by the acclaimed food blogger from Cannelle et Vanille, starring the duo behind Sprouted Kitchen. She refined her creative process and worked from her home in California while her work garnered more interest in France; soon she signed a second book deal with another publisher.
Not only didn’t she not stop there, but after her second book she decided to give her career a booster: she enrolled in the most prestigious professional cooking school in Paris, l’Ecole Ferrandi, where she did a formal training for a month.. This experience really gives her the tools to succeed as a professional in the food industry, and opens up future possibilities. Indeed, book orders keep coming her way but she realizes that another aspect of her work is worthy of attention: advertisement campaigns, which represent the biggest business opportunities for food stylists, and with her increasing visibility and newly acquired skills, she now feels better equipped to throw her hat in the ring for big budget campaigns. This relentless investment in her own learning is surely the key to her rapid success.
After a stride of professional successes in Paris, Zoe finally decides to relocate to her adoptive country in 2016 and to leave San Francisco behind. This is when she starts working with a new partner, Blaise, a photographer who admires her work. Together, they start producing sophisticated content that can really meet the demands of prestigious ad agencies and qualifies them as a trusted partners for the Artistic Directors in charge of big campaigns.
In barely two years, Zoe created a brand that allowed her to make a living out of a newly found passion. Her company, Zoe and Blaise, is expected to keep growing. She has put the cookbooks on pause for a little bit while they are developing the new branch of their business. A cookbook published in an English-speaking country would for sure open her work to a broader audience – and I wish her just that.
I am really proud of my friend and inspired by her trajectory. This discussion with her energized me and made me feel ready to take on the world. As I thought about it some more, I started to wonder: what is her recipe? Here are a few “secret ingredients” that I identified from our conversation which allowed Zoe to evolve from a hobbyist to a creative professional making a living from her discipline:
1. Be humble. Know what you don’t know, be curious and seek guidance. Find who inspires you and learn from them.
2. Do it. Whatever you have set your heart to, you will need to learn the craft by doing. You should take any opportunity to start building a portfolio, a collection. Work for free at the beginning, what matters is to get yourself out there, to get known.
3. Dare, dare and dare some more. Reach out to people and follow-up – nicely, but relentlessly. You will take tons of rejection, the secret is to persist and not take any of it personally.
4. Invest. In yourself, in your training, in your gear. Be on the lookout for workshops, professional-grade training, networking opportunities. This is how you will transition from hobbyist to professional: you have to become competitive if you want to make a living out of your passion. It’s okay to take this one step at a time, but you should always seek to improve until you are on par with the other players in your field. You will know you are there when you get there.
5. Find a partner. After the first signs of success, don’t hesitate to partner up with someone with a complementary skillset who will add a business value to your work. This is how you may get a chance to differentiate from your competition and get ahead. And yes, your work can remain a niche! And yes, it can remain authentic – a good match will strengthen your creative work, not threaten its originality.
Use these ingredients in no particular order -- and in large quantities! Then, be patient: at times you will have to let things rest, as your craft won’t be ready to share overnight. But hang on, and visualize the end result. Yes, like a chocolate cake. No, do not eat all the dough in the bowl before you even put it in the oven. Remember to keep a watchful eye while it's baking… as it may be ready sooner than you think!
I hope this story has energized you to start the New Year – and if you needed an extra boost, here is a new recipe that Zoe shared especially with me for the blog. Bon appétit!
Chickpea Pizza with Green Tomato Salsa Verde
Ingredients (serves 2 to 4)
1 cup chickpea flour + 1 Tbsp for dusting
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp black pepper
2 Tbsp olive oil, divided
1 Tbsp almond milk
2 tablespoons water
For the salsa verde:
2 big green tomatoes, quartered in 8 pieces
1 cup arugula
1/2 serrano chile, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1/8 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
¼ cup olive oil
Sea salt, black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a large bowl whisk together the chickpea flour, salt and pepper. Drizzle in the olive oil and almond milk. Mix in the water and use your hands to distribute until you have a smooth, uniform dough. Knead the dough for two minutes. Let it sit while you prepare the salsa.
Combine green tomatoes, arugula, chile, garlic, cilantro, onion, and olive oil in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper and let sit to let flavors come together.
Flour a flat surface. Use a rolling pin roll the dough in a circle. Transfer the dough onto an oven tray covered with baking paper. Bake for 5 minutes.
Spread the salsa verde over the cooked crust and serve sliced.
Chickpea Pizza with Green Tomato Salsa Verde
by Zoe Armbruster