The meaning of art has been fiercely debated and never settled.
American photographer Norman Mauskopf gave the definition a whirl when recently judging portraits for Santa Fe Photographic. For anything to be art, there must be some element of tragedy, comedy, beauty, irony, or mystery.
What about magic? Or the wow factor — simply being blown away or deeply touched? And what about when beauty and other art elements rest in the eye of the beholder?
It’s all so complicated, and whatever art is, remains subjective. Still, we know when we’ve been moved, if art has touched us.
Maybe art is better defined in broad terms, as in Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter’s declaration in the 1964 protected-speech decision. “I know it when I see it,” he wrote to define the threshold for what was obscene.
So do we know art when we see it, feel it, watch it, hear it?
That’s a bit personal, too.
AND THEN THERE’S FOOD.
Can a bowl of plums and tomatoes, or several raw artichoke halves, pass into the realm of art, beyond sustenance, nutrition and community — if you share? Can a piece of fruit or a plate of food look so dazzling and taste so sublime that it leaves one’s soul filled as it might be after listening to a Bach cantata or George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” or when staring at Vincent van Gogh’s iridescent “Sunflowers”?
Of course it can, and it does. Just look! Just taste!
In my 35 years of writing about food and the arts, I’ve journeyed to understand where the two intersect, not that the road was mapped out or straight ahead. The path has been marked by spectacular sights and inimitable tastes, but it has not all been glorious: Bad meals and mundane plates could’ve filled a ragged street of potholes.
While making my food treks and travels, I didn’t always cover the nirvana moments. Editorial fear occasionally lurked: One editor warned me not to write about mussels buried under pine boughs in southern France, or the evanescent delight of Hong Kong’s tissue-thin dim sum for fear of alienating my readers.
But I’m taking my chances here, if only to show that food can also be art — more akin to performance art than to Michelangelo’s 500-year-old Sistine Chapel ceiling. Even when the food vanishes, the moment is heightened, the memory remains.
MY HIMALAYAS OF FOOD ART.
Certainly Covid-19 has taken its toll on food and on people. Not only are there food shortages, but many people are struggling to obtain and afford what they need. These are tough times in restaurant kitchens, most of which are closed, leaving many food and hospitality employees out of work. In fact, Maurice’s Kristen Murray, a featured chef in this piece, is sponsoring a Go Fund Me effort because she has had no luck with government loans or help.With that in mind, food nostalgia perhaps gives us a break, throws us back to lighter times when food was more than sustenance and nutrition. So bear with me while I reflect.
The 18 haiku-like courses we shared decades ago at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., marked my first Holy Grail food-is-art encounter. We were greeted with minuscule cones filled with spoonfuls of salmon tartare, accompanied by coupes of sparkling wine (maybe it was real Champagne). The evening went on and on like that, one astonishing surprise after another.
Years later, we ordered “lunch” at a three-star Michelin primarily vegetarian restaurant in Paris, Alain Passard’s Arpège, where the diminutive vermillion radish amuse-bouche, shining with what seemed glossy enamel, varnished lasting memories into my mind. (When our reservation was confirmed, we felt as if we’d been accepted to Harvard.)
We tried David Toutain’s restaurant another year. Lunch, of course. Dinner, with wine, can jack up the credit-card limit, and an expense account was not in the cards. Toutain is an Alain Passard acolyte, and we marveled at the silvery-backed sliver of fish glittering on a brilliant spring-green fresh-pea puree. The lace-thin eviscerated egg shells holding inner treasures, and amuses bouches offered up in “birds’” nests and among rocks and twigs, were out-of-the-forest (and farm) stunners constructed from young Chef Toutain’s culinary imagination.
In 2017 we splurged. We went all out. We shared 31 small courses, including seven one-bite appetizers, around a wooden table with fellow foodies from various parts of the world. We had traveled to Magnus Nilsson’s remote Faviken Magasinet. The restaurant, part of a farm, is about 300 miles northwest of Stockholm in the countryside of Jämtland –“between the mountain Åreskutan and the deep, cold lake Kallsjön,” as its website says. All ingredients were grown, hunted and fished from near the farm and restaurant. Ten chefs cooked for about 25 guests, and we imagined a stalwart cavalry of dishwashers juggling hundreds of plates wafting in and out of the kitchen.
My favorite course was a jade-green and pearly white plume of steamed Swiss chard sided by a dollop of jet-black Finnish fish eggs, though the inch-sized oval of an egg coated in ash, sauced with dried trout and pickled marigold, emerged a close second, and the bone marrow pudding made with frozen milk caused a sensation. (Faviken, open only during summer months before hunting season, required reservations be made in April, and even then, we didn’t nail the August date we’d hope for. Nilsson left a couple of years ago to begin a new chapter, and the restaurant is closed.)
Not to ignore Down Under, where Eastern influences have as much say as Western, where fusion food is often the blue plate special.
The chefs at seafood-focused Restaurant Lume in Melbourne, Australia, fed us 14 small plates laid out with food jewels One dish featured a field of slowly roasted and cooked-down carrots concentrated into an autumn-colored deep-flavored puree draping over a bite or two of calamari, fronted by a tiny bunch of those roasted carrots. Another almost crazy beauty was a family of translucent sea vegetables designed to look like a beach, a creamy white wave of foam rolling in. At the end of the meal, a black slate platter arrived, draped with strips of vanilla, suggested as dessert or coffee enhancement. Or maybe the vanilla was a palate cleanser.
These chef-artists from California wine country to Paris to Australia to northwestern Sweden strove for stark yet glittering minimalism to let the ingredients speak out loud. They created over-the-top shapes and showcased colors and shades of the Earth on the plate. While the human hand was apparent, the Earth’s bounty was the star. Funny, desserts were once the focal point of quirky details and unanticipated beauty, but with these meals, visual delights arose in each dish.
The beauty and mystery and magic I’ve seen and tasted in food such as this doesn’t make me a pro in reproducing such dishes. So I’ve asked chefs, a visual artist, poets and home cooks to comment on when food becomes art.
LET’S START WITH A SIMPLE INGREDIENT LIKE A PEAR.
Harney County visual artist Terry Keim shot a photo of a lone, unadorned pear to remind us when we cook and eat we nourish ourselves on several levels. “We use food, a source of nourishment for the body and pleasure for the mouth, to direct the search for beauty and depth of feeling. As we use our eyes, we connect all aspects of our being. Seeing food as art from the Earth reminds us to present what we prepare as art for ourselves.”
There are other ways for pears to turn into art. Pastry chef/owner Kristen Murray of Maurice in Portland takes the fruit to another level with her pear-mushroom salad layered in paper-thin ribbons like a bow and garnished with tiny blossoms.. “As chefs, we get to play with all of these gifts of the land from seed to table by the hand of our trusted farmers. Food can be art. It can be messy, sensual, sexual, intoxicating and comforting. Inspired. Much like art … it should not leave you after consumption. It should dance in your memory. Possibly to never return to your lips but it may never leave your heart.
“I revel at the magic of the layers or construct of an onion, the curious hair or mustache protecting the heart of an artichoke yet hidden behind the talon nail atop the leaves. …I mean the pomegranate or the fig, what joy!”
And then there are the eyes, those powerful hunger tools.
“People eat with their eyes. I first learned that at Cordon Bleu. If it looks beautiful, it probably tastes good too,” said John Paulk, who has been creating high-end food for 17 years through his Portland Mezzaluna Catering (“mezzaluna” is Italian for “half moon“ in a nod to his Italian mother, Carlotta but it is also a knife with a curved blade). His latest deal with the Pittock Mansion was canceled due to Covid-19, but when the plague is over, he’ll pull off his $40,000 contract for a sit-down dinner with American Public Gardens Association members.
Count on his ideas to blow away diners who can expect spectacular flower-filled tabletops laden with eye-popping food.
“I’m all about the splash,” said Paulk, who before becoming a chef in his early 40s, studied opera performance, did makeup for the fashion industry, decorated Christmas trees that auctioned off for $10,000, and ate nightly glamorous sit-down dinners in Columbus, Ohio, where his socialite mother insisted on flowers, cloth napkins and when necessary, the fish fork.
Paulk believes that his food is best presented from the center of the room, lit up sometimes with 20 different colors. “I’m very particular about presentation. I notice details. I’m the guy who can tell which picture is crooked on the wall.”
When his food is prepared and presented with its requisite artistry, he adds, the guests become ”the paparazzi. They can’t take their eyes off it. … I want my food to look like it could be in a window of a Tiffany store.”
No matter how elaborate or elegant, he executes his concepts with research, humor and unflagging flair. “I don’t just schlep food. I meet with clients and sense their aura, what is exciting for them.”
Consider his party for the Oregon Historical Society’s 2017 JFK exhibit. He nailed down early-1960s food and put a contemporary twist on it: Jell-O, steak and potatoes, TV dInners. His doll-sized “TV dinners” of meatloaf, gravy, mashed potatoes and corn were packed into 3-inch sardine tins accompanied by 2-inch forks. He created a rainbow of candy-colored Jell-O desserts, and an appetizer of thinly sliced filet mignon, garlic mashed potatoes, red pepper aioli — a take on steak that everybody loved in mid-century America (and still does).
“Food has to be exciting. It has to be different. Because a dish or arrangement is unexpected, it ends up being a hit.”
Mezzaluna’s tagline is “Artists who just happen to cook.”
THE JAMES BEARD CHEFS
Longtime chef and 2001 James Beard winner Philipe Boulot once ran downtown Portland’s well-regarded Heathman Restaurant , now Headwaters, and these days works as executive chef at the Multnomah Athletic Club. He never fails to proceed seasonally with top-notch ingredients, his head full of cooking chemistry. His halibut with spring morels, slow-roasted fresh corn grits, onions piled one on top of the other, topped off by spring shoots, blends tastes, textures and technique.
Working in restaurants since he was 14 years old in Normandy, France (and at 16, in Paris), he has steadily made his food stand out on the plate, yet kept it bound by decades of culinary knowledge. He believes food is an art, if not exactly, that food is art.
“Food is an art, “ Boulot says. “It’s not only visual but uses history, techniques, personality, smell, taste, imagination, experience, the environment, and a deep understanding of how ingredients react to each other — like a chemist might understand — and then you can be creative. There are many levels at which you can cook, and the more you do it the more there is to learn. It’s a great journey.”
Throwing a splash of vinegar or a tablespoon of lemon juice on the “food is art” argument is Vitaly Paley, 25-year chef/owner of Portland’s renowned Paley’s Place and now the leader of Headwaters, the onetime Heathman Restaurant. Paley is a 2005 James Beard winner, a Juilliard-trained concert pianist, winner of countless culinary awards, and owner of several successful Portland restaurants aside from Paley’s and Headwaters. They include the Imperial, The Crown and Rosa Rosa. During this Covid-19 season, in his typical community-minded way, he is selling Brownsville, Ore., farmer George Weppler’s specialty produce from Paley’s front porch in Northwest Portland.
“I am not in the camp that food can be art,” Paley says. “I consider myself a craftsman first. Sure, there is food that is more special and celebratory than what we consume daily for sustenance. Personally, what drives me in the kitchen these days is making food that is thoughtful, thought -provoking, engaging and soulful. Food full of meaning and with a story that we can all relate to can be a powerful tool that brings us together. Yes, there are more artful plate presentations than others but I think food has a higher purpose and deeper meaning. There is nothing artful about matzo ball soup and Easter ham, but it brings us much needed comfort today and instantly transports us to place in time and a place in life both emotional and geographical.”
Two of his sentimental favorite Paley dishes are steak tartare, topped with an egg, and fennel-rabbit salad.
THE POET-COOKS CHIME IN.
Poet Colleen Rain, who owned a Mexican restaurant in Japan and lives on an island in the Salish Sea, argues, too, that food is embedded in family culture and comfort — but that looks count, especially that of a pie crust.
“In our Scotch-Irish-French family, pie was the empress of desserts and the pastry was more important than the filling,” she says. “One could be forgiven for a lackluster filling but not bad pastry. We loved pie so much that Gabe (my great-grandma) had an old hatbox decorated like a birthday cake that held the birthday pie. The lid was lifted and the pie of choice was cut and served around. I know everyone in my family’s favorite pie and made them for their memorial receptions: Gabe’s was apple: my grandma (Gabe’s daughter) loved coconut cream; my mother’s was pumpkin; my father’s, mince. I hope my son remembers mine are lemon meringue and mince and has both for me.”
Another poet, Wendy Willis, who doubles as a Portland lawyer, calls herself “to put it bluntly—a culinary dilettante. One night kimchi pancakes; the next, roughly rolled out ravioli. And there is over-baked naan and minestrone made from every vegetable left in the fridge. There is strawberry rosewater tart and enough tres leches cake to feed the neighborhood.
“And so, alas, as it is with all the arts, I suffer because I cannot—or really, do not—focus. I am restless and messy and easily distracted. I am impatient and give up way too quickly. Luckily—in the end—there are my cookbooks, smiling back as I blow past, waiting for me and a strong cup of coffee, making pretty promises that I will never keep.”
So we’re not all artists when it comes to preparing food, but we love the inspiration that pushes us on.
- Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. For 35 years she covered food and reviewed restaurants for a number of publications, and for 15 of those, wrote a weekly award-winning food column for The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash. She is a published photographer and poet, and on the board of the Music Critics Association of North America. Her website in angelaallenwrites.com.