Is today’s art and food affair haute cuisine at its finest, or a celebration of the essence of everyday culture?
It’s Sunday evening in the upscale Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Leblon. The Ipanema surfers have gone home and the cafés are spilling over with young professionals. Inside Michelin-star Oro Restaurante, the kitchen staff is deconstructing the classic Brazilian churrasco barbecue, transforming it into elegant crisps decorated with drops of tapioca and sparse, stylishly laid leafy greens. An Australian maître d’ is explaining the menu to American and Russian guests dressed in evening casual wear and sitting on chairs designed by Zanine de Zanine. The presentation is De Chirico-esque but the soul is pure Carioca.
Embracing simple pleasures with artistic bravura – from American barbecue to Middle Eastern kebab to Japan’s izakaya delights – is a trend taking haute cuisine by storm and driving an art movement around it. It wouldn’t be the first time “realism” has struck the worlds of food and art. In the mid-19th century, painters Théodore Rousseau and Jean Francois Millet, proponents of the French Barbizon school, catalyzed the Realism movement. Millet’s painting the Gleaners, a rustic portrait of women removing leftover bits of grain in the fields after the harvest, and women baking bread celebrated life and the art of everyday living. Realist painters rendered high art palatable for and relatable to the masses.
On a tangible level, there is something artistic about food – the colors, aromas, and textures. It’s certainly more multisensory than paint. Once in your mouth, masticated and swallowed, it’s gone forever. If you are in a Michelin-rated restaurant, paying serious money for edible art on a plate… it is perhaps the most frivolous luxury of all. In Lisbon, Michelin-star chef José Avillez serves a dish whose visual splatter is inspired by Jackson Pollock. Meanwhile, in Dubai, his restaurant Tasca borrows its name from the Portuguese word for tavern. The number of foodies who seek to entertain themselves by eating out – much like they do when going to the theater, cinema, or a concert – is on the rise. Athena Liu, a Generation X New Yorker-turned- Milanese, has traveled the world with her husband in pursuit of artistic dining experiences and hole-in-the wall discoveries alike. The couple once flew to Östersund by way of Stockholm and drove through a snowstorm to the small town of Järpen to dine at Magnus Nilsson’s Fäviken restaurant. “It wasn’t ideal for a weekend,” she recalls of the ordeal. “For me, it’s always been about the adventure and the discovery, of finding new dining experiences, trying new foods, and seeing how far I can push myself both in terms of taste and going to great lengths to get to these places. It becomes almost like an addiction. While some people vacation on the beach, I travel for food.”
Haute cuisine in Europe reached a new high in 2015, after the Milan Expo and culinary TV shows made superstars out of Italian chefs like Davide Oldani, Carlo Cracco, and Massimo Bottura. The expo also revolutionized the culinary landscape of Milan and northern Italy, rendering it more international than ever and turning it into a global culinary hub. Despite the fanfare of high street openings, TV spots, and fashion events, the spotlight in Italy continues to shine on the simplicity of its raw materials.
“Art, to me, is more a dry spaghetti than a cooked pasta plate,” said Oldani, founder of D’O and one of the main protagonists of modern Italian cuisine. A brand ambassador for Barilla pasta, Oldani is gearing up for the Art of Pasta-themed Barilla Pasta World Championships this month in Paris, where he will join chef Simone Zanoni (Le George restaurant), French chef Amandine Chaignot, Australian food photographer Ashley Alexander, architect and designer Paola Navone, and Italian artist Olimpia Zagnoli.
“Photographing art is the only way to immortalize food. The future [of artistic cuisine] will be all about quality, respect for the environment, respect for the seasons, and the art of the colors of every season that passes,” Oldani adds. Paris-based culinary photographer Charlotte Brunet, who works in collaboration with a food stylist, agrees. Having photographed food for a decade, she asserts that today’s trends lead towards healthy influences and California-style cuisine. That is not to say that this isn’t also an era of overeating and overall environmental malaise, which has spawned a new period of realism, rising from the art galleries of New York to the university shows of Europe. Jennifer Rubell, niece of Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell, received rave reviews after allowing visitors to throw pies in her face for six weeks, during a live performance at New York City’s Meredith Rosen Gallery. Burgeoning artists may continue to learn their craft drafting still lifes of bowls of fruits and vegetables, but in an age of social media, many of them go on to express their art with more experimental methods, multimedia projects, and photography. “The public is more educated and is somehow more ready to discover new things in relation to food. Eating is something we can all relate to. It’s a whole ceremony involving time, objects, light, and clothes… As a photographer, and maybe as an artist or a chef, all those are interesting elements to play with,” says food photographer Jonas Marguet.
“The public is more educated and is somehow more ready to discover new things in relation to food. Eating is something we can all relate to. It’s a whole ceremony involving time, objects, light, and clothes… As a photographer, and maybe as an artist or a chef, all those are interesting elements to play with,” says food photographer Jonas Marguet.
Others have made the relationship between food and art their life’s work. For his Eatup project, Salvo Sportato took a trip around the world to photograph people’s connections with food, and the instinctive nature of their intimate eating habits and culinary traditions. Sportato’s journey took him from the bayou towns of New Orleans to the streets of Tokyo, where he slept on people’s couches and crashed in their guest bedrooms to experience how families eat in a globalized world. Much like Millet, Sportato rediscovered the art in everyday customs, raw materials, the simple way of doing things, and how food brings friends and families together.
Reminiscing about his trip to Marrakech, Sporato reveled in the aroma of the spices emanating from the gunny sacks of the Medina and the warm air from the stone at bread ovens; the seductive movement involved in marinating lamb to cook in a terracotta tagine; and the ceremonial process of making and sharing mint tea with his host family. “Eating with your hands might seem rude to Westerners, but in Morocco, it’s really a dance,” he says. “The process and the steps that go into the composition of a dish are comparable to that of a painter who prepares the canvas and colors on the palette.”