Feast Your Eyes | Matt Lee on Kanto.com.ph

Feast Your Eyes

Cereaal founder Matt Lee talks beauty in the context of food photography, and working with an industry both embattled and boosted by the pandemic

Interview Danielle Austria
Images Cereaal

Matt Lee, Cereaal founder and creative director, Header: Work for tea shop Nomu © Cereaal

Hey, Matt! What was breakfast today?

I have the weirdest breakfasts! Don’t judge me but I finished all the leftover lemon garlic tinapa (smoked fish), two burnt sunny-side ups, two slices of tasty (colloquial Filipino for sliced bread), peanut butter, coffee, and a cookie for dessert. Yup, my breakfast has desserts.

Breakfast with dessert should be the standard! We’ll get into work—a lot—later, but walk us through a typical day off with Matt. What do you do when you’re not holding a camera? Are you even ever not with a camera?

Funny enough, I make it a point to leave my camera at home when I’m not at work. I love being fully immersed in my day. There is nothing typical about it though, every day is always anyone’s guess as to what will happen and where I’ll end up.

Had a particularly surprising one lately?

I don’t think the world is ready to hear some of my adventures! Haha. One time, I meant to stay in with no plans, but suddenly I found myself accompanying my friend’s then-girlfriend to a party where I didn’t know anyone. That night, I ended up meeting the big boss of an international food brand which led to a big project night and hanging out with a foreign Miss Universe contestant. Haha.

What’s your idea of self-care?

Something I’ve been learning recently is to not be too hard on myself. I’ve always been one to strive for polished perfection – comes with the profession, I guess. I’ve been teaching myself to come to terms with all my flaws head-on, own up to them and say that my mistakes don’t make me any less deserving of care.

We’re with you there, Matt. Was there a specific moment that led to this realization?

Yes, part of what we want to do in Cereaal is to keep everyone open to constructive criticism, myself included. At first, it really lowered my spirits to know I wasn’t doing as well as I had thought. In order to take that same energy and use it to mold you into the latest, best version of yourself; you have to come from a place of self-love and not self-loathing.

Okay, break’s over! You’ve been doing Matt Lee Shoots (for weddings and destinations) since 2015 and Cereaal (for brands) since 2016. Take us to the start. How did you get into photography?

Back in college, there was never a life plan for me. I took a break and lived in Berlin for six weeks “studying German”. I really did go to study, but I also knew it was going to be life-changing, which it was. I came home with a fresh perspective, certain by then that I didn’t want to enter into a corporate job. I needed the fulfillment of creating something good to put into the world, and I wanted my independence while I was doing it.

I didn’t start my studios at once. It took two years of doing apprenticeships and exploring jobs first. Then suddenly, things just fell into place. I was building momentum with clients. So after I talked to my parents about it, they told me to give it a chance because I’d regret it in the future if I didn’t try my big “what if”.

Were you already into photography before Berlin? A lot of creatives find their way into the profession by exploring hobbies. Was it the same for you? Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera?

I remember saving up every bit of my allowance for my first camera in college. It was important that I saved for it myself. After over a year, with just a college allowance, I was nowhere near my goal. My parents ended up matching my savings to make enough for that camera: a Nikon D90.

For my Berlin trip, I remember buying a really heavy, really bulky pro lens for my trip. Looking back, I had no idea what I was doing. I ended up with all my photos being ultra-wide and tons of backache from lugging that monster around. Haha.

Why set up two different practices?

Honestly, at first, it was because of the portfolio. I don’t think brides would appreciate going to the website and seeing a banner image of lechon (roast pig). So I created Cereaal to become its own thing – something that can grow bigger than myself. Later on, I also realized that both practices are so different with how you run things, how you say things, how you price things. It turned out to be a really good choice.

You shoot a variety of products with Cereaal, but we’re especially interested in how you work with food. What are the unique funs and challenges of shooting in this genre?

As much as I love, love, love food, it’s honestly not the most naturally photogenic subject! Throughout my career, I’ve had to learn to talk to food. Not literally of course, but I’d have the food speak to me and reveal its best facets to the camera. I must sound pretty crazy!

Not crazy, but we might have to draw back a little based on what “speaking” to food looks like. 🤣 How often do you work with a food stylist and when you do, what is that process usually like?

I work with a food stylist all the time. I always think of them as makeup artists but for food. You’d never put a model on set without any makeup on, the same thing would go for food.

It’s definitely a collaborative effort of everyone, including the client. The vision can be inspired by anything – a dish, a color, a place, a feeling. This is why it’s so important to talk to your client and get to know the story of their brand. You get inspired by what they bring in, then you just build on each other’s ideas until it forms a concept.

I’d say you’re pretty much at a point where people hire you for your approach to photography*, but brands and businesses do have their own stories to tell. How do you reconcile that distinct Cereaal flavor with your clients’ own brand “recipes” (if you will)?

This was the existential crisis of Cereaal in its early years as well. What is our style? If you look at our photos, there is something distinctly us about them, and yet it allows the brand’s identity to still shine through. So I guess the way I’d describe it is we’re like salt – our presence is subtle but it’s very much present and it elevates the other “ingredients”.

For Panciteria San Jacinto © Cereaal

Do you think that aesthetic sometimes gets in the way of an authentic food experience? Is this something that you’re conscious of when you shoot?

I thought that was a thing, too, before going into the industry. As a consumer, I’m so wary about the promise of advertisements. What I’ve really appreciated is I’ve seen this movement of photographers and brands to represent their food in a more honest light. Yes, of course, we still dress things up to evoke certain moods, and yes we make things look juicy, gooey, crunchy but it’s approached with sincerity.

The food industry brings obvious beauty to our lives, but it also battles some ugly issues. Food waste is one of them. How can photography be part of the solution? Does Cereaal have ways to avoid or lessen waste from shoots?

Food security is one of the consciousness that we try to keep at every production. I wish I could say we already had programs in place to actively battle food waste. However, we’re still working on it! We’d love to learn from others who could teach us their best practices.

As we know, the restaurant industry was among the hardest hit by the pandemic, but we’ve also seen a rise in home-based food businesses with innovative concepts. Given both the obvious challenges and the opportunities of this time, how have your clientele’s needs and mindsets been evolving?

Great question. I always try to look at the silver lining even with the worst scenarios. I think the pandemic has naturally balanced a playing field. Veterans and newcomers have the same online platforms available to them. Marketing online has become more ubiquitous and creative than ever. It follows that the entire field of food production has advanced. Yes, there are more players, but overall, the appreciation of the value of good food photos has become a given, and that’s what’s going to drive the industry forward.

You’re a business owner, too. What have been your top lessons in the past year or so?

So many times I’ve thought of giving up or closing down, but what helped keep me going is remembering my why – it’s really all about people and wanting to create a place where they can grow and develop.

How would describe your relationship with beauty? Why do we seek it, be it in the things we consume or in ourselves?

I could go the path to say that beauty makes us believe that there is a grand design to everything, that things so beautiful could not have been made by mere coincidence. But I think it can be simpler, to say beauty makes us feel good and we seek things that give us that feeling.

What do you find beautiful?

My concept of beauty has changed so much since I was a kid. I used to think of beauty as only having one standard; think 80s supermodel. Thankfully, I’ve been built to have an open mind, so I allow that image to be shaped by my many experiences and things I’m exposed to. 

Now, I get so excited by finding beauty in “ugly” things. I’ve come to realize that my old perception of beauty was so tied to how I needed to see myself—perfect and flawless, and my new perception of beauty comes from loving the flawed and “ugly” sides of myself too.

Above: Behind the scenes; Top: Photography for Cocina Peruvia © Cereaal

Do you like to cook? Are you any good?

I started to get into it when I was preparing my own food during the pandemic. You’ll have to ask the judge’s critiques for that.

 Later, Matt! Thank you for your time. Before we go, can you indulge us with a snap of Katsu? 🐶

Yas, Kween! •

Feast Your Eyes | Matt Lee on Kanto.com.ph

Delicious discoveries await at @cereaalstudio. Sweeten your brand story through cereaal.com.

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