A couple of weeks ago, I went to a very of-the-moment French restaurant in Toronto, in a recently gentrified strip of restaurants and fashion boutiques and art galleries that can rival, for sophistication, any European capital, and I ordered their best-known dish, a dish you can’t actually eat. It was a dish that was half-art and half-fish. It made me wonder what we would pay for the inedible and if such luxury and cleverness is part of a genuinely intellectual conversation.
I liked the restaurant very much. And the dish – a sea bass wrapped in a braided salt-dough pastry – was at once delicate and sumptuous. I was very much hoping it would be, as it cost $39. But I also just wanted to see it, to see the cage of golden pastry around the silvery fish. Sure enough, they bring it to you to admire before they have to take it away again to the kitchen to dismantle it. It is beautiful. But the pastry is tough and salty; it exists as a seasoning cooking vessel rather than as a side dish. They bring it back as a plain fish and then you eat it. The pleasure of the pastry sculpture is thus very fleeting.
Inedible food or food for show in fancy restaurants or banquets is not at all new in culinary history: There is a tradition of trick food or sculpted food in almost every culture. Henry VIII is said to have had his cooks pluck and roast a peacock, then place the iridescent feathers back on the bird for serving. (They would then have to be removed again.) He served whole roast swan with a gold crown on its head. Swan is not the tastiest bird (it is said to be stringy and gamey) but it was a royal symbol. Obviously, presentation is an important part of food appreciation, and sometimes one loves a dish for its colour as much as for its flavour.
This is also the kind of thing that inspires rapturous food critics to remind us that cooking is a form of art. I have always rolled my eyes at this idea – cooking has to provide you with calories, a practical function that art does not have, and the intellectual components of a dish, no matter how clever, don’t necessarily improve its flavour – but one has to admit that food and art have a historic intertwining. Dining rooms have always been places for the display of murals and tableaux, and some of the most beautiful canvases ever created with oil paint are still lifes of plump fruit or dripping game. Large art museums now always have expensive restaurants with big-name chefs attached to them, because they assume that the kind of person who enjoys the aesthetic pleasures of the paintings will have a sophisticated palate (and large wallet) to match. I am always uneasy about this alliance of tastes.
In the contemporary era, food has become artwork in a much more direct way – usually as political statement. Italian artist Marinetti published his Futurist Cookbook in 1932. It prescribed a new kind of dining that would have sculptural form, high-tech preparation, and for some reason, could not require silverware for eating. It was part of his revolution for living that saw every action as a form of art and as political action.
Since then, food in galleries has been more closely associated with leftist ideology and, in particular, with feminism. Perhaps the most famous representation of dining in 20th-century art is Judy Chicago’s 1974 work, The Dinner Party – a large triangular dinner table with 39 painted china plates. Each plate represents a famous real or mythical woman; each one looks in some way like a vulva.
Actual cooking and eating is also increasingly represented in gallery art, where a communal meal is often part of the art work. Rirkrit Tiravanija, the U.S.-Thai artist, for example, has turned commercial galleries into large kitchens and produced cheap meals of rice and Thai curry that are served free to anyone who desires them. His pieces have titles such as pad thai and Soup/No Soup. These titles are self-explanatory. This is art as social action and as critique of art: It aims to break the boundary between the cerebral and the everyday, and to create art that encourages social interaction.
I have seen many pieces such as this in the years since Tiravanija started doing this in 1990: galleries as communal tables to remind us of the poor or of environmental degradation. In many ways, this food as art is the opposite, ideologically, of the food as art in the museum restaurants. The food being served in the gallery is meant to be basic and inclusive; the food in the gallery restaurant is luxurious and exclusive. This is a metonymy for one of the paradoxes at the heart of contemporary art: Its makers are social activists concerned with inequality, its collectors the affluent. I have never known any other art form whose patrons are so despised by its creators.
Galleries must have income, of course, and they must become inventive in their capital-raising schemes, and so one cannot blame them for trying to sell fine dining as a corollary to fine art. More than one restaurant in a gallery district has sold an expensive Judy Chicago-themed dinner menu as part of one art fair or another (“Explore feminist art and top chefs, only $200 plus tax and gratuity!”). One wonders if they are missing the point a little.
Beautiful and expensive food is certainly pleasurable and interesting but its relationship with intellectual art production is uneasy at best. That fish was delicious, which was all it needs to be.