Creative People

Interview - David Prior, Food Writer and Stylist, California

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
15th of June 2012

Uruguay - from a story produced by David Prior, photograph by Pablo Zamora
Uruguay - from a story produced by David Prior, photograph by Pablo Zamora
A story produced in Beirut by David Prior for Vogue Living, photographs by Pablo Zamora
From David's Beirut story for Vogue Living, photograph by Pablo Zamora
One of David's recipes for Delicious magazine

Okay so as usual I'm biased but I HAVE TO SAY, this week, I've saved the best for last.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Brisbane-born, California based David Prior recently and just quietly, I think he may be the smartest person I've ever met.  He's super charming and insanely intelligent and interested in everything and wise beyond his years.  He's a GEM.  To be honest, David's incredibly varied talents and immense worldliness (especially for a chap who's still shy of 30 years) make it quite difficult to describe what he does for a living in a concise, blog-bite way.  But I'll give it a shot.

David started his creative career as Megan Morton's styling assistant in Sydney.  MM and DP got along like a house on fire, but David's intense passion for food and travel was calling.  He left Sydney to study at the world's first 'food university' in Italy, before moving to California three years ago to work with his lifelong hero - revered culinary icon Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. David has been working for the past three years as Director of Communications at Chez Panisse and the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, California.

Along the way, David has travelled the globe relentlessly for the past six years, producing editorial travel and food feature stories in every continent, for the very best publications in the world.  He is a Contributing Editor at Vogue Living, regularly contributes to NOWNESS and writes ‘postcards’ - a popular monthly recipe column in Delicious magazine. Talk about PROLIFIC.

But what is really special about David's editorial work is the simple joy he takes in doing things 'properly'.  He gets amongst it.  He doesn't skim the surface - when producing travel content, he somehow manages to really absorb a place and document it in the way so few writers do.  In any new city, David starts by patiently walking the streets, often with a photographer in tow, not yet sure what exactly to point the lens at, but quietly confident that the city's secrets will reveal themselves.  And sure enough, by some mysterious innate talent, in every new city David manages to uncover the most interesting people and unique stories, allowing for rich, authentic editorial content produced the old fashioned way - by pounding the pavement in earnest.

As mentioned, he's not yet thirty, so, inevitably we haven't seen the best of David yet.  He's destined for very big things.  But don't take my word for it.  Here is what two legitimately professional people have to say about him -

'A fellow Queenslander, David is one of my favourite people in the universe.  Whilst he sits in a coveted spot as one of the youngest but truest authorities on travel - his commitment to food is unwavering.  He left working with me - not that we did get much done - for a spot at the prestigious slow food university in Northern Italy, and took all lessons in Italian!  But don't label him a 'foodie', he would only embarrass at this, as while he is concerned with the enjoyment and beautification of food, he is equally as passionate about its serious side - food ethics, politics and activism. Forget 'Prior for Hire' I say 'Prior for P.M!'

- Megan Morton - Stylist

'David is a terrific writer and producer. He has fun making his stories, and I think that comes across in the images and the words. As a foodie and a traveller, he produces great crossover content. He's been contributing to Vogue Living for the past 2 years.'

David Clark - Editor in Chief, Vogue Living

Okay so I know this interview is a little epic but truly it's such GOLD I could not edit any further.  Bookmark it, return, peruse at your leisure on the iPad this weekend.  It's worth it.  Mr Prior is bound to be famous probably sooner rather than later, and when he is you will have the delicious smug joy of saying 'HEY I know this guy....  He's that food writer I read about on The Design Files!'

Massive thanks to DP for sharing his inspiring story with us today, and for all the stunning shots.  David has been working feverishly to get his brand new website up ready for today and it is 100% AMAZING, do check it out!

You can also catch David's work in the current July/August issue of Vogue Living - he has penned a beautiful story about the home of his friend and mentor, (and TDF favourite!) Megan Morton.

David Prior in Damascus, Photograph by Pablo Zamora
Can you tell us a little about your background – where did you grow up, what path originally led you to working in food and styling, and to being a writer and producer of food/travel editorial… and to California working for Alice Waters!?

Not so long after high school and some failed University courses I ran away to Sydney (I'm from Brisbane originally). I began working as a cook and then somehow a ‘stylist’. In that game all roads lead to Megan Morton and I started assisting her (we fell in love). After a year of laughs (and me crashing her car while high-fiving myself to the Scissor Sisters in the carpark of Westfield Bondi) I started styling on my own.

I kept coming back to food as the area that most inspired me, but didn’t want to be in the kitchen, so I applied for the world’s first ‘food university’ - UNISG (in a castle in rural Italy, no less). Out of the blue I won a scholarship for the full three years, and three weeks later I packed up and travelled overseas for the first time in my adult life, with a one-way ticket.

For over three years I was based in Bra studying agriculture, food culture around the world, animal husbandry, botany, anthropology etc. Learning about salumi, beer, coffee, pasta, fish, cheese, wine and all the good things in life! During that time I lived in a 14th Century former monastery called Palazzo Rosso (the red palace) above the market piazza and met lifelong friends from around the world who have helped me create a pretty handy black book of contacts for my travels.

I traveled ALOT in those years.  I think almost thirty countries.  Mostly focused on studying food and food culture, but you cannot help but soak in everything around it because food is so linked every part of life.  I love the quote ‘tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.’  That line has really inspired so much of my thinking around my work. While I was at Uni to pay my way I started writing and shooting travel and food stories.  Now I've produced stories on every continent and have become a good traveller – I think it is because I am usually on a mission, I become pretty fearless and I always seem to find that right person to help me, the curious hidden things, the most beautiful buildings or trinkets, the truly delicious and the authentic experiences.  Its a weird instinct, one that I can’t really explain but it has served me well.

While at Uni I met Alice Waters in Mexico and I almost died. Alice is/was my lifelong hero – I was given her book when I was 12, and fell in love with the whole philosophy, aesthetic and romance of her restaurant, Chez Panisse. Her approach gives integrity back to people who produce food, and power to those that think beauty is an important part of life.  I got offered a job with her at Chez Panisse and moved from Italy to California about three years go. It has been a roller-coaster of a time. I’ve travelled with Alice all over the place and collaborated with her on books, speeches, op-eds, events (like the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse, shot by The Selby for The New York Times) and all manner of other adventures.

Rhubarb Tart at Chez Panisse, produced by David Prior for Vogue Living, photograph by Eric Wolfinger
Making Candied Rose Petals at Chez Panisse, produced by David Prior for Vogue Living, photograph by Eric Wolfinger
You are the most seasoned traveller, and the kind of energetic expat creative who I feel never sits still in one town for very long. Which city will be your next home?

Lucy you nailed it! I get very restless. I love so many cities for so many reasons. So I always feel like I am missing out on something and find it hard to settle. Never say never to anywhere. My motto right now is - Have suitcase, will travel.

Seville, Spain - photograph by Pablo Zamora, produced by David Prior
What have been some favourite recent projects either with Alice or for editorial?

Alice really hired me to bring to life the 40th anniversary celebrations for the restaurant. We produced 20 dinners simultaneously all around the Bay Area from a pig roast in an iron forge and a Jewish-Roman feast in the Berkeley hills, to a Chinese banquet in the home of 93-year old Cecilia Chiang. When we finally made it back to Chez Panisse where Alice was hosting a dinner, I’ll never forget the sight of hundreds of people having a spontaneous street party outside the restaurant and chanting 'Alice! Alice! Alice!'.  She left the dining room, darted through the crowd (she is barely 5'2) and then popped up across the street standing on a shop counter with a mega phone!  In the end the cops shut the whole thing down which was perfect really.

The other project that is really special to me is a story that has never been published about Damascus, Syria. Pablo Zamora (the wonderfully talented Spanish photographer who collaborates with me on the majority of my stories) and I went to the city with no commission to publish a story, just David Clark’s 'in theory' blessing, right before the Arab Spring started. I was blown away by the city and the richness of the culture and it devastates me to see what is happening there now. Sadly the story never ran because it's been such a tumultuous time in Syria since then.

Image from David's unpublished Damascus story, photograph by Pablo Zamora
Can you list for us 5 resources across any media which you turn to regularly for a bolt of creative inspiration?
I have a friend who calls me the ‘cultural omnivore’. I guess that’s true because I draw inspiration from a really wide net of sources.  Travel and food experiences are key, but also listening to people I meet along the way.  In terms of concrete resources here are a few I go to regularly:

Film – Quite a few of my more successful pieces for Vogue Living have been inspired by movies I have loved. For instance, Tom Ford’s A Single Man inspired the idea behind my LA story. I thought that movie beautifully communicated a time and place. I wanted to see if I could find that Old LA amongst the strip malls, fast food and botox. I did!

NOWNESS– I always check out what NOWNESS is up to. I think they have a great voice and I like its broad focus.

The New York Times' Sunday edition – It’s the journal of record, I love their commitment to journalism and truth speaking.

Maps – I love them. Old and new. My little studio is covered in them. I love imagining what a place is like and then going there.

Cookbooks – I would be kind of lost without them. I have way too many but there are so many better cooks than me and the collected wisdom and skill in those pages really inspires me to improve and be rigorous.

LA story for Vogue Living by David Prior, photographs by Prue Ruscoe
Which other designers, writers, foodies or other creative people do you admire?

David Clark – EIC of Vogue Living. He is a discerning and courageous editor, and his magazine is read and respected the world over. I think that’s something all Australians can be proud of.

Alice Waters – It's not just her inexhaustible energy and pitch perfect food that inspires me. It is the fact that she has been able to inspire a movement and a way of thinking that has gone on to change the way the world thinks about food.

Other inspiring foodie and 'farmie' people - Chez Panisse cook David Tanis – if you read one thing about food a week it should be his column'City Kitchen' published in The New York Times. I also admire the food philosophies of The Canal House ladies, Fergus Henderson, Kylie Kwong, the team at delicious magazine, Sean Moran, Maggie Beer and Stephanie Alexander and Slow Food founder, Carlo Petrini.

I have some friends/mentors who I greatly admire that have always encouraged me and given me real advice - Stylist Megan Morton, Julie Gibbs (publisher of Penguin Lantern - a person with great instinct and integrity), Georges Desrues (my friend from University, a hilarious bon vivant, linguist and no bullshit French/Austrian food writer), Vanessa Holden (former EIC of Martha Stewart Living turned genius Creative Director atWest Elm, Joanna Savill (Sydney International Food Festival) John Lyons (Producer of Brokeback Mountain and Fargo) and my best mate’s mum Judy Stewart – she inspired me to be interested in food and beauty, and still has the best taste of almost anyone I know.

Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, produced by David Prior for Vogue Living, photograph by Eric Wolfinger
What would be your dream creative project?

I think I might just be working on it already. I want to document food culture around the world and share it with people. In an ever more globalised and therefore homogenous world it is vital that we celebrate the amazing, beautiful diversity of the world, and that applies absolutely to food because it has implications for bio-diversity, culture, everything.

What’s next for you?

I am leaving full-time work with Chez Panisse at the end of August. It's time to jump out of the nest and go solo, where I'll be occupying my time on PRIOR stories and PRIOR for hire.

PRIOR stories will be a journal of my travels and observations, and will focus on food but also places, people and things of beauty. Soon there will be a blog and an interactive map with all my tips from my favourite places around the world! *OMG cannot WAIT DP, get on with it! - Lucy

PRIOR for Hire is my commercial work as a communicator, creative director and curator. I have some really interesting collaborations in the works and also have some new editorial coming out soon in the US and Australia. Stay tuned!

Tapas bar in Seville, Spain - photograph by Pablo Zamora, produced by David Prior

California Questions

Your favourite Californian neighbourhood and why?

My own – The Mission in San Francisco. It’s the coolest area in the region (though I do love Oakland too). In fact in the September/October issue of Vogue Living you’ll be able to see ‘My Mission’.

What/where was the last great meal you ate in California?

I had a pretty great taco in the Mission last night washed down with a Pacifico.

Where would be find you on a typical Saturday morning?

I’m always at a farmers market wherever I am in the world (usually with a little hangover), tasting, shopping and taking photos with Instagram (@priorforhire).

California’s best kept secret?

Ironically I think its Los Angeles – to me it's the best and worst of the US in a city. The gems are there if you look hard enough. Great art, food and architecture are there to be found.

Image from David's LA story for Vogue Living, photograph by Prue Ruscoe

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