How would you describe your work, in a nutshell?
Itʼs about food and all the unbridled joy, memories and connection that come with it.
Tell us about the different strands of your business, from cheffing to art …
Iʼm a private chef and owner of PomPom Catering, a creative catering company which was formed out of my passion for good food and entertaining. As part of my job I cater for small weddings, dinner parties, outdoor eating events, press days, canapé events and more. My catering also puts on a more informal cloak with my guerrilla-style Pop-Ups, which take place in various bars, pubs and restaurants around town.
Iʼm also the voice behind PomPom Cooks, my online foodie platform where I share recipes, long- and short-form written pieces, and my foodie paintings. It created almost out of necessity – I needed a place to catalogue my recipes that clients, friends and followers were asking for. I also wanted to separate my catering company from my food writing, which feels more personal. For people who want to delve beyond reading recipes, I teach Indian cookery classes, which reflect my half Indian/half British heritage. I also paint – I illustrate the food that I cook, and food in general that I deem to be beautiful. Similar to the need to document recipes for people, my paintings have become prints to buy after lots of encouragement, requests and interest. So PomPom Catering is me in my chef’s jacket, apron and Birkenstocks, with chefʼs knife in hand, whereas PomPom Cooks is me in jean and slippers, with paintbrush/laptop in hand and cat on lap!
What inspired your business, and how did you develop the idea?
Both PomPom Catering and Cooks came about from a desire to work for myself and to achieve the variety that I crave so much in my work. I do miss the camaraderie of working restaurants and bakeries, but for me at least, they definitely stifle my creativity. I wanted to be cooking the food that I wanted to cook, and to manage my own time so I could create balance between cooking, writing, and painting.
I took the leap to self-employment very dramatically, diving straight in with no real security or safety net, just a lot of hard graft and belligerence, really. I wrote a lot of emails, made a lot of phone calls, drank a lot of coffee over meetings, worked hard on creating both websites, and whenever I had doubt (I always have doubt), I just did another thing to give me some focus. I cooked a new dish, fed another person, wrote another recipe, photographed another dish, made another phone call … until eventually word began to spread and momentum gathered.
Whatʼs behind the name PomPom Cooks?
Roo is short for Rumaanah, which is my full name and means pomegranate in Arabic. I use pomegranates so much in my cooking and love the symbolism that they hold; when it came to naming the business, I wanted to work pomegranates in there somehow. PomPom was the very first name that came to me, and everything else seemed wrong after it. Itʼs fun to say and read, so I hope that it conveys what my cooking and food are all about.
What did you do before setting up your business?
Iʼm an art school graduate and like so many ex-art students, went rogue. Before, during and after my time at Brighton University I worked in kitchens – cooking had always been the way I made money, made sense of things, or procrastinated by doing. I pushed aside the illustration for a while as there werenʼt enough hours in the day, with how ruthless kitchen life can be.
As any creative person knows, it felt pretty bad to completely abandon that part of me for a time, however all the dots are joining now between my creative outlets of cooking, painting and writing – that feels great.
Where do you find creative inspiration?
I live in Chamonix in the French Alps so Iʼm constantly surrounded by awe-inspiring views. The mountains have a way of making you face your thoughts, so I find that a walk through the woods or up a mountain is a good remedy for when Iʼm stuck in a creative rut. I donʼt always find clarity but Iʼve at least taken my internal monologue outside into the fresh air, which helps me focus once Iʼm back in the kitchen or at my desk.
How did you discover your love for what you do?
The love for food and cooking has always been there; I come from a greedy family who celebrate food in every sense. Family gatherings are always centred around food – everybody cooks, bakes and eats with enthusiasm. Iʼm really thankful for the fact that dieting was never really spoken about whilst growing up – my mum fed us nutritious meals but there was always a freshly baked cake in the house – thatʼs what love is for me.
It took me a while to realise that food and cheffing was going to be my direction. I resisted accepting it as my full-time career for most of my early twenties as I felt like I was neglecting my creative degree. It’s only in the past couple of years that Iʼve got over that judgement of myself and accepted that this is who I am. I live and breathe food – why was I trying to resist it?! Once I got over that I found that my cooking got so much better, and eventually I found the time to paint and draw again with zero brief or expectations from anybody else. A lesson in trusting the process and the opportunities that follow.
What alternative career would you pursue?
There are so many! I like the meditative process of playing with clay and glazes, so Iʼd love to be a ceramicist. I also think Iʼd have a very contented life as a gardener, as Iʼm very happy to have muddy knees and hands.
How does typical working day look for you?
I wish I could say that I have some incredibly structured working day, but I really donʼt. The beauty of what I do is being able to dip in and out of different things. My days are usually segmented into cooking and kitchen prep, photographing and editing dishes, writing and tweaking recipes, painting, client admin, writing a piece of foodie prose, and spending some time managing my websites. It sounds overwhelming and often it is, but I couldn’t imagine a job without variety. When Iʼm good, Iʼll squeeze in some yoga, a short walk, or a few chapters of reading to break the day up. There is always a steady flow of tea, a podcast or music in the background, and a sleepy cat close by!
What are the values underpinning your business?
Anybody and everybody should be able to enjoy excellent food. I would never want to alienate anybody at a dining table, which is why I really take the time to understand each individual client before I write their own unique menu. Itʼs another reason why I have so many different avenues in my business; I want people from all walks of life to be able to enjoy my food in different settings, whether that be on the street, in their own homes, or in a chateau. Food should always unite and never divide, in my opinion. One of my biggest heroes, Anthony Bourdain, once said, “Food may not be the answer to world peace, but itʼs a start.” I agree wholeheartedly.
What has been the greatest hurdle in starting your own business?
Myself! Imposter syndrome is my middle name. It doesn’t stop me from pushing on and trying new things, but has a tendency to suck the enjoyment out of it sometimes, even when things are going really well. I know how common it is – in creative folk especially – so Iʼm working on it.
What does your workspace look like?
It changes daily, often hourly. I spend a lot of time working from home when Iʼm recipe developing, writing, photographing and painting. My ‘office’ changes each time I cook for a new client, it could be in a chateau in Provence, a chalet in the Alps, or a clientʼs homely dining room. I also spend an unfathomable amount of time food shopping in supermarkets and farmers’ markets – constantly lifting heavy bags is why Iʼm likely to beat you in an arm wrestle!
Tell us about your neighbourhood and community …
I’m based in Chamonix in the French Alps, but normally work between the UK, France, and all over, depending on clients. Covid has meant that 2020 saw me in France for its entirety but I was, and still am, really thankful for the local community here in Chamonix. Weʼre a bunch of oddballs really – amongst French locals there are a lot of expats from all over the globe, doing very fun and interesting things. The nature of an expat community means that if youʼre doing a good thing, then people will support and champion you. I have a lot to thank my ‘Cham fam’ for.
How did you arrive at your location – from Brighton to Chamonix?
Long story short – I needed a change, and to do something brave to kickstart my next moves. Moving from sea level to mountain level was the kind of shake up I needed. Iʼd lived in the mountains before and they have a way of pulling you back in – thereʼs definitely magic in them.
Has your work evolved since you began?
Iʼm not one to toot my own trumpet but I would say that my food and cooking have evolved massively in terms of flavours, technique and workflow. There have been no shortcuts and many, many mistakes, but once I’ve recovered from that kitchen nightmare, Iʼm always thankful for it in some way – another thing to learn from. I used to really work myself up over mistakes, but Iʼm a lot better with brushing them off now and just getting on with it.
Is there an element of your work that you love the most?
Achieving flow-state as a creative is the ultimate goal, right? Itʼs the most euphoric feeling once I get that flow-state with writing, painting or plating up dishes. I also love the moment that the giddy, excited conversation at the dining table starts to dull down and is replaced with muffled ‘mmmmm’ sounds as people dig into the food that Iʼve made for them.
How valuable is the online community to your work?
I actually started my business without Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Pinterest, which proves that it is possible to do things the old-fashioned way! I relied on word-of-mouth, lots of meetings, and emails to my website subscribers. At the beginning of the first lockdown however, I did create a business Instagram to promote my newest website, in order to share recipes, new paintings, and my writing on it regularly. I had dug my heels in for a while because of the obvious effects on mental health, but Instagram in particular has been an amazing way to build a community, sell work, promote events, and make friends. I donʼt have what many people would deem to be a lot of followers, but they’ve formed naturally and are incredibly loyal and supportive, which feels really nice.
Whatʼs been the biggest eye-opener for you in running your business?
There are a lot of people who donʼt value all the unseen time spent working behind the scenes – the menu creating, admin, client back-and-forth, shopping, prepping and travelling often get overlooked, or people try to undervalue it. Luckily, I have a wonderful bunch of regular clients and come across lovely, new, respectful people all the time.
How do you differentiate yourself in a creative industry?
It’s hard when there are so many people doing what I do. I suppose Iʼm not trying to mould myself into a trend. I donʼt follow many chefs on social media or look at much artwork similar to mine, so I can try to approach most things I create with fresh eyes. I cook, write and paint in a way that I hope is authentic to me and well, thereʼs only one of each of us!
Do you enjoy working as an independent?
Yes, I mostly love it! Iʼm quite happy in my own company when it comes to work. I’ve tried co-working spaces but struggle to focus when Iʼm not in my own bubble. Iʼm a ‘cosy’ person and like working with my home comforts around me – my blankets, Hal the cat, a well-stocked tea cupboard, the record player and snacks in the fridge! It can get quite lonely sometimes, which is why 2020 was a struggle in so many ways, as I couldn’t interact with my clients and the community around me in the same way. Itʼs in those lonely moments that I miss working in restaurant kitchens where you form solid bonds between your mismatched kitchen family. A good podcast or audiobook whilst Iʼm working will often do the trick by whisking me to another world.
How do you approach marketing and PR?
Aside from updating my website on a weekly basis, I use Instagram mostly to share what Iʼm up to. Iʼm still pretty new to it and wouldn’t say I have a formula, but it’s definitely helping. I also share news and updates through emails to my subscribers, which I enjoy because it feels like Iʼm writing a personal letter to people who support what I do.
What have been your business highlights so far?
Cooking for the Saudi Royal Family in the French Alps – I donʼt think I’ll get to say that again! Above that though, itʼs been riding the tumultuous wave of managing a one-woman business throughout 2020 and still existing, adapting and growing. Iʼd like to think that building solid foundations with a good reputation helped me there.
Whatʼs one thing people would be surprised you do in your job?
Lots of kitchen karaoke when Iʼm by myself – like, a lot. I’ve been caught once.
Do you have any creative pastimes?
I mountain bike and snowboard, which always put me in a great place creatively. The wind in my hair, mud-splattered legs and the bone-jangling is the perfect antidote for when Iʼm stuck in a rut. I always find that Iʼm in a much better place to tackle a piece of writing, new recipe or painting once Iʼve had a fun weekend riding my bike down a mountain. The perfect weekend for me involves van camping, bike riding, and lots of cooking and eating outdoors.
What is the most important lesson that running your business has taught you about life?
Be nice to people – it comes back around. Donʼt be nice for the sake of business either, thatʼs not the point. Reply to emails and kind comments, listen, remember peopleʼs names, collaborate, support your competitors instead of resenting them … and feed people cake!
Any tips for independent creative businesses just starting out?
Be kind to yourself; stop comparing yourself to others, to your own unrealistic expectations or what you think others might be thinking – thatʼs when you can find focus and real fun.
What does the next year hold for you?
I’ve got a few things up my sleeve which I can’t share just yet. Essentially though, I’ll continue pushing myself further out of my comfort zone with new projects and opportunities. Iʼd love to get some more collaborative work in the bag also – fingers crossed that this year might be a little easier to interact and physically connect in than the last.
Find Roo’s recipes, food writing and art at: www.pompomcooks.com
Her catering work: www.pompomcatering.com