Berruti - Verdier - 2.3.12
Artist Valerio Berruti, left, paints frozen slabs of Italian food as restaurant critic Andrea Petrini (center) and chef Enrico Crippa look on. Photo by Frank Verdier
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Frank Verdier
Wynton Marsalis, left, and chef David Kinch. Photo by Frank Verdier
Frank Verdier
The Japanese-influenced dish Kinch created. Photo by Frank Verdier

PARIS − Three days, 24 pairs of chefs and artists, some 70 dishes prepared
onstage − and only one opportunity to taste anything. It was like walking around a museum blindfolded, or like sitting in a concert with earplugs. It’s as if one sees the performers playing their instruments, or opening their mouths to sing. And you can read their lips or maybe feel the bass vibrating through the floor − but your ears are not satisfied; they are eager to be nourished but remain hungry. Yes, that’s exactly how it was, but with taste and not hearing. Occasionally you could smell the food, but you kept feeling hungry.

Chef Alain Ducasse was the patron of the event, called “Paris des Chefs: Food ‏+ Design,” which took place last month in Paris for the fourth time. In the 1,700-seat auditorium of Maison de la Mutualite conference center, under huge screens, “creative pairs” went onstage: duos of chefs and artists of different kinds. Each pair had 40 minutes in which to demonstrate the connection between them by creating a particular delicacy. Some presented the product of ongoing cooperative efforts; others, the first fruits of the brief encounter that was taking place at the event itself.

The organizers refrained from use of the word “art,” and preferred to talk about “creativity.” The “artist” part of each pair indeed encompassed a wide spectrum of professions, ranging from architecture and graphic art to music, photography and acting. Many of the participants recreated an ordinary encounter between chefs and artists from other fields who have some connection to the culinary world, including architects and interior designers who plan restaurants, and designers who create serving utensils.

Albert Adria, who along with his brother Ferran soared to fame with Spain’s legendary El Bulli restaurant, came onstage with a pair of designers: Ester Luesma Maymo and Francisco Javier Vega Ortega. The two designed the plates used at El Bulli, as well as at Tickets and 41 Degrees − Adria’s new bars in Barcelona. It was interesting to hear people who work with a truly avant-garde culinary expert explaining the tension between the creative and the practical, describing the attempt to create the most modern utensils while fulfilling one important, basic condition: They have to be stackable.

Brazilian chef Alex Atala brought the Campana brothers, a pair of highly imaginative furniture designers. Atala prepared a traditional Brazilian dish of caramel toffee and coconut milk, and the Campana brothers tried in vain to create miniature furniture from the ingredients. “Did you rehearse?” asked moderator Julie Andrieu, a well-known cookbook author and French television personality, pretending to be impressed with the output, which did not look like a particular success.

As opposed to the chef-and-designer duos who made an effort to be cooperative, with respect to the chef-and-actor couples there was a more predictable, and less original, division of labor: The chef cooked and the actor entertained the audience − sometimes taking the wind out of the sails of the chef’s exaggerated pomposity.

David Toutain, the young chef of L’Agape Substance, one of the more modernistic and less comfortable restaurants in Paris, prepared a pale-looking dish of Jerusalem artichoke risotto, and celery and chestnut creme on a dried milk crust. Peering at it, Andrieu the moderator said in a fascinated voice, “It looks like a landscape painting” − only to hear actor-comedian Francois-Xavier Demaison, who was paired with Toutain, quip: “Like the landscape of a country after a nuclear holocaust.”

Film star Carole Bouquet accompanied chef Anne-Sophie Pic, the only woman in France to own a three-star Michelin restaurant ‏(which is named after her‏). Bouquet admitted that she isn’t a cook, but did use the stage to promote the output of the winery that she recently purchased.

A rather more extreme encounter between kitchen and theater − or cabaret , to be precise − was the performance by Frederick Grasser Herme. Grasser Herme is a well-known, veteran “diva” of the Parisian culinary world ‏(Ducasse called her “the Vivienne Westwood of French cuisine”‏): She advises restaurants and edits cookbooks. In the past she worked with Ducasse and Pierre Herme ‏(to whom she was also married‏). She came onstage at the Paris event wearing a black evening gown made with from caul fat, the thin casing of fat that covers a pig’s stomach, in a kind of grotesque tribute to Lady Gaga and her meat dress.

French actor Francois Berleand read a love poem to salami, and two male strippers came on stage. Grasser Herme broke into a dance with them, at the height of which she “branded” their bracelets, made of pomelo peel, with a white-hot iron. Afterward she used a red-ink stamp on their skin − a visual allegory of how beef is handled. For anyone who was wondering, the French audience responded with roars of enthusiasm.

Jazzed-up food

Chef David Kinch of the Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos, south of San Francisco, brought master trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis. Kinch was presented as one of the most important American chefs working today, while Marsalis was described as the world’s most important jazz musician. Kinch and Marsalis studied together in high school in New Orleans, and have remained in contact ever since.

“From an early age, we both knew what we wanted to do,” said Kinch. Marsalis said that before their performance, he inquired about the colors, ingredients and cultural origins of the dishes Kinch would be preparing. So, to accompany Kinch’s first course − a Japanese-influenced dish featuring slices of abalone ‏(a California shellfish‏) and goose liver − Marsalis played a fitting melody. Kinch indeed seems to be a gifted chef; the dishes he presented demonstrated talent and originality. However, the sensual richness Marsalis provided to the ear, and through it to the soul, shed a rather ridiculous light on the unsatisfying feeling one gets from watching people cook − especially in a huge auditorium, in front of 1,700 stimulated and hungry spectators. The Kinch-Marsalis encounter sharpened the understanding that, just as the ear requires contact with sound, in the same way, food has to come into contact with the tongue and the palate.

Of all the 24 pairs, only one really satisfied the appetite − both in the usual sense, and in the sense of forging an interesting connection between food and creativity. Italian chef Enrico Crippa, whose Ristorante Piazza Duomo in the city of Alba has two Michelin stars, invited Valerio Berruti, a sculptor and painter, to join him. Crippa is a thin and restless type, who spoke constantly in Italian; Berruti looked contemplative compared to him.

Frozen slabs

Crippa pulled out folio-sized “slabs” as thick as terrazzo tiles from the freezer, one after the other. Each rectangular slab was a different, Italian dish, ranging from minestrone soup, to polenta with forest mushrooms, to ground meat in tomato sauce, and to tiramisu and zabaglione made from bittersweet chocolate. All the dishes had been poured into flexible silicon molds and frozen. Each mold had on the bottom a motif from Berruti’s work ‏(as one could see from the pictures projected on the giant screen in the background‏): a relief of the figure of a little girl in a dress, created in the spirit of the Romantic genre.

The basic color of the frozen slabs varied according to the food from which they were made, but the frost had lent them all a faded, stone-like hue. After removal from the freezer, they were passed on to Berruti, who stood at the end of the work table with brushes and edible watercolors: orange from saffron, black from octopus ink, red from tomatoes, green from herbs and so on. Berruti painted one frozen dish according to whim, enlivening them with his paints and transferring them for display. Along the table, a series of boldly colored, edible “icons,” as Crippa described them, piled up. At the end of the show the audience was invited to taste them. Berruti proffered samples to the spectators in what looked like a huge communion rite.

Hundreds of spectators − whose hunger had mounted during the three days, when they had to make do with being “nourished” via their eyes − fell on some 30 slabs of frozen food decorated with the same picture of a little girl. I raced down from the balcony and joined them. As the slabs were passed from hand to hand, everyone broke off a piece for himself. The flavors were unexpected: One slab that I had assumed was chocolate turned out to be vitello tonnato: veal in a tuna sauce. A girl next to me recommended her strawberry mousse.

The food we tasted was wet, cold, sticky, surprising, disgusting and also moving − charged with symbolic meaning and yet primitive, at one and the same time. This experience reminded us that cooking is not a visual art. With all the emphasis we put on the appearance of food, there is something more to it than this. We may “eat” with our eyes, but by themselves, they surely cannot intuit taste.