He has made amazing documentaries, many food commercials and has seen half of the world. He collaborated with many celebrities such as Mel Gibson, George Clooney, Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver. Robert Payton – A man who combines work with his culinary passion, and… loves Poland too!
Many people in Poland want to go abroad. Why have you decided to move to Warsaw?
I find Warsaw a really accessible city and the people are open too. I love the culture clash here. You have both a vibrant modern culture, and also post communist influences. It’s kind of a mishmash. Of course it’s about the food culture as well. When I first came here 6 years ago, there were just a few great restaurants in the city. In the last six years, the food and wine scene has exploded. My friends from London who have never been to Warsaw are coming to stay now, and saying „Well it must be good if you are there”. Warsaw is amongst the best cities in Europe…. Is that a good answer?
Yes, it is, but it’s a little bit strange for me.
It’s strange for a lot of Polish people. You can be really negative about yourselves. That’s why the automatic reaction is “ Why Poland”?”. Poles don’t always see all of the good stuff about the place. It’s weird, because Poles are a very patriotic and proud nation. Maybe I’m going too deeply, but is it because historically Poles didn’t have many travel opportunities. So the recent Polish generation is all about going overseas. I hope you don’t find it odd I am here.. For me it’s the right decision to be here …Definitely.
So tell me, how did you start your career?
Food or filming?
Filming.. My sister was a singer and she used to be in a TV show in the UK. When I was 10 I went on set and saw the cameramen and kind of thought „I want to be that man”. That was it. I went to film school next, got an interview at the BBC, and worked there for 10 years. In my 1st year at the BBC I went to the countries I had always longed to visit. I always wanted to go to the Safari and I made a film in Kenya. I always wanted to go to the Holy Lands and They send me to Israel and Jordan to make a film about the scriptures. It was the dream come true. I started out as a cameraman and became a director. I was directing documentaries when there was a trend to make adverts looks like a documentary. Everyone wanted life style commercials and they wanted it very natural, so I got into commercials like that. You tend to get pigeonholed in commercials whether you like it or not. So somehow i’ve got pidgeonholed for shooting food and food with performance.
Did it make you happy?
Sure I was very happy, because I’d been passionate about food all my life. When I was a kid, I sniffed my mum spice jars. My dad told me a story that when I was 5 years old and the waiter came to us at a restaurant and asked me „how would you like yours steak?”. I looked back at him and proudly said „medium rare please” (laugh). I don’t know where it came from. It’s probably the same for you. You really don’t know where that passion comes from. It’s not from family, it’s not from anybody else.
In my life, it was from the family, I guess. I used to cook with my mom, when I was little, and when I grow up I wanted to prove to my father that I’m really good at it.
So it’s surprising that You’re cooking now. Because it was like you were forced to do it (laugh).
(Laugh) I wasn’t forced to do it. I just love it. I love to cook, to read about products and learn a lot.
It’s strange because these days people call themselves foodies, but for them the definition of a foodie is someone who just goes out to restaurants a lot. That is not really passion about food. Sometimes they don’t even care about ingredients.
They just take pictures, right?
You worked with many celebrities. Which one you recall the best?
To have a good relation with celebrities you sort of need to be on the even path with them. So you don’t treat them as celebrities and they don’t treat you any differently back. Mel Gibson for example. The day I met him I said „Hi, I’m Rob” and he said „Hi, I’m Mel”. And that’s really great, because, of course I knew who he was, but it’s about being treated as an equal. As for the best moment? – I did a charity film with Diana Ross a long time ago and it was just brilliant. I was pinching myself all the time. She’s such an icon, such a superstar and the fact that she was singing right into my lens it felt like she was singing just to me.
Is it hard to work with celebrities?
Really, whether directing commercials or shooting documentaries, it’s better to not be Star Struck because it affects what you do. I did a sequence with Mel Gibson and George Clooney together for a documentary. That was remarkable because it was 3 years after Mel got the Oscar for „BraveHeart”. I thought „this is an Oscar winner standing in front of me and I’m telling HIM where to stand and what to do”. It’s really hard to have this conversation with you without sounding like a name dropper..sorry. A lot of these guys, and by that I mean celebrity chefs, are much more about being a celebrity and not being chefs anymore. Of course they are really professional. They come on location, do what they have to do and then they go home. They’ve got their empires, cookbooks and restaurants, so the filming is just one part of it for them.
With how many Chefs have you worked?
Lots over the years – Working with chefs doesn’t always mean they are in front of camera, You can end up with development chefs and discussing product and recipes with them. I have been lucky enough to work with many great Chefs – for example Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey, Aldo Zilli.
And which one was the friendliest TV Chef?
I liked working with Gordon Ramsay. I have a huge respect for him and we had good conversations.
You’ve been working in many countries. How does it feel? I guess amazing.
I still have a passion for traveling, which now my daughter shares ( his daughter was present during the interview) , she’s 13 and she has been to over 40 countries already. I love experiencing different cultures.. Traveling is a huge privilege for me and it always will be. What about you?
I like traveling and I’ve been to.. not as many countries as your daughter (laugh), but I think that maybe I’ll be rich someday and I’ll be traveling a lot.
They say: „Spend your money on experiences not on things”. And that’s so true, because nobody can take experiences from you.
That’s my goal. I’m thinking.. Which one of your commercials you like the best?
None of them. I hate them all (laugh). Really I don’t think there is a single commercial that I would say I’m 100% happy with. And I don’t think anyone should. Because you say to yourself „I would have shot it differently” . Every commercial teaches you something for the next one. Its more important what others think of my work. When I go to the advertising agencies or clients and show my showreel I always try and see them before their lunchtime, because then they watch the reel hungry. It’s like walking into supermarket on an empty stomach and you buy twice as much stuff right (laugh).
Clients can be very picky, right?
Clients know their product better than I ever will. Food advertising is interesting because the relationship between the director and the client is probably closer than any other type of advertising. These guys are not comedy writers, or script writers, so they are not that involved in live action parts, but have an amazing attention to detail when it comes to the food. It’s my job to make it look beautiful, but that also involves listening closely to clients, they know their market and product better than I do.
Are you a food lover?
You couldn’t do this job without loving food. What really annoys me is the filming term „food porn”. It’s not porn for me it’s a love affair. A lot of the advertising now is based on the provenance and the quality of the ingredients. You’ve got to be passionate about what you do. It’s such a crazy industry. We spend so many hours doing it, we have to love it. Every meal is an inspiration. You have to remember that some people see food as simply fuel.. not the readers of your blog obviously!
What is your favorite dish or favorite cuisine? Maybe some Polish dishes?
In terms of Polish dishes..I like spicy sausages and pierogi. I’ve had a lot of different pierogi. And I love some of those rich goose and duck dishes which Poles have in wintertime. I don’t like chłodnik (cold soup like beetroot borsh). I love the way the Poles eat seasonally. When I arrived in May everywhere there was asparagus, then strawberries, and then beans and plums.
What do you like the most in your work?
Probably the fact that it combines two disciplines. It’s a creative, artistic discipline, but it requires some technical ability and knowledge too. Its really great to take something from script to screen. Technology is changing every few months. There is always some new equipment, new ways of filming something and I love the fact that you have to be on the top of the game. Everybody is a food photographer now, everyone has camera phones and is taking pictures of food. That opens up new social media opportunities as well. It’s an exciting time to be in this industry. There’s web channels, blogs. It’s expanding exponentially.
Do you have a favorite product to work with?
You remember the challenging ones. It’s really difficult to make curry looks nice. It is generally a brown mess. That’s why it’s really important what you put as accompaniments in the frame You create contrast, and you create a scene. Curry is a bit of a nightmare. Otherwise Asian cuisine is great because of the colors. Asian cuisine is probably the easiest to film – I don’t know if I should say that (laugh). The difficulty for food filmmakers is that we have only two senses available to us on TV – sight and hearing. Whereas food and eating in reality stimulates all the senses. Probably most important is the sense of smell and second is the taste. So you have to shoot in a way that evokes some memories of taste and scent in the viewer. You do it with big close ups, playing sound effects at higher levels and that way you try to get to the viewers other senses into play.
Is there anyone with whom you’d like to work?
I’d love to work with the TV Chef Nigel Slater. I would totally love to work with him. I’d be interested in Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Napa too. I think that many people try to cook like he has been cooking for the last 20 years. His style of fine dining is amazing and his focus on ingredients. He was the absolute leading light 20 years ago and has withstood the test of time. I’d like to work with him because his ideas are totally unique.
When you travel, you’re trying to learn and eat like a local?
There’s not a lot I won’t eat or try. You go to Mexico and you can eat insects, You know that probably you’re not gonna like them, but you’ve got to say you tried. It’s like a child sitting at the dinner the table and saying „I don’t like that”. And you say „Have you tried it?” and it they say „no I don’t like it. “ So i try anything once and maybe politely leave a plate half-full if its bad. We need to explore flavors, this is the only way to find something new. Otherwise, we would all be eating bland chicken breasts for the rest of our lives.
What was the worst dish which you ever had?
We did a film in Indonesia, in a tiny little village up on a hill in Sulawesi. And we had eaten nothing but boiled rice for 10 days. The locals caught some fish in the paddy fields which they cooked for us because we were honored guests. We were so looking forward to it, after 2 weeks of just rice. When the meal arrived they presented us with just the fish heads. It was probably the most disappointing meal I’ve ever eaten in my life.
Only heads… Really?
Yes. The heads of the fish, whilst the children were sitting in the corner of the room on the floor eating this wonderful fleshy pieces of fish. So yes – fish heads with 2 day old rice.. We just squeezed the heads to try get come taste of the fish into this rice. What about you… What couldn’t you eat?
I really don’t like oysters.
Really? I don’t like cooked oysters. I don’t understand why oysters are so popular either . It’s like salt water with the really odd consistency (laugh). When I was a child, I was forced by the dinner ladies at school, to eat strawberry mousse. I was so sick after it. I was definitely traumatized. I didn’t eat anything pink or red for like 10 years afterwards. Really it is bad when school does that to the child. It’s food trauma! Is there anything that you wouldn’t eat?
I would never eat a dog.
I’ve never eaten dog. I’ve never eaten monkey. I saw monkey on the menu once. It’s almost cannibalism.
In your opinion, what is the key to be seen by people from your industry?
Passion and enthusiasm. That’s the key to anything. Oh and no ego.
Ego free filmmaking. I’d love to have a T-shirt with „ego free filmmaking printed on it” (laugh). Ego can be only detrimental. They say that ego is simply a reflection of personality, but to me ego has a really negative connotation. You can say „Oh, this person has an amazing personality!” and it’s a complement, but „this person has an ego” has an entirely different meaning. How’s your ego?
I have no ego, I only have an amazing personality (laugh). I have a last question. If you could say something to the people who want to start with the film industry, what would it be?
In film area? – You notice there are two types of filmmakers. There are those filmmakers who have a passion for a subject and they use a film as a medium for exploring that. And then there are people, who are general filmmakers who will tackle whatever project or subject they are given. When it comes to food, you have to have a passion for food first. You can learn photography and filmmaking but you can’t learn a passion for food. Just be persistent, meet lots of people and someone will see your passion and potential… Good Luck!