A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. - Karl MarxArt Basel weekend undoubtedly attests to this. By the same token, most people tend to think of food first and foremost as a commodity - nothing more than a thing to be bought and consumed. Yet food also has the capacity to strive for art, aesthetics, even perhaps metaphysical subtleties.
A recent dinner which put together Chefs Kurtis Jantz and Chad Galiano (the guys behind the Paradigm dinners) and artist Stephen Gamson at PH2 provided an opportunity to explore the intersection points of art, culture and dining.
Miami Spice promotional program, they put their heads together to formulate a menu that would use spices to highlight local ingredients - only to be baffled when they saw so many other restaurants just cranking out the ubiquitous farmed salmon, chicken paillard and skirt steak. So I knew when they were asked to do a collaborative dinner with a local artist that they would come up with something inspired.
Gamson's pictures all use the same simple iconography, borrowed from the visual lingua franca seen on bathroom doors around the world. The first dish we had took visual cues from the artworks, roughly duplicating the forms in some "his and hers" stick-figure anticuchos of baby octopus and chicken liver (though I'm not sure which would be "his" and which "hers"). The baby octopus, marinated with green Tabasco sauce and lemon, was paired with a Boscoli olive sauce (a twist on pulpo al olivo). The chicken liver achieved a crispy exterior and a tender, warm interior, the crunchy batter made using Trisol (one of the many items in Ferran Adriá's "Texturas" bag of tricks). The aji panca tartar sauce was nicely brightened by an unexpected bit of fresh tarragon.
Next course, a Surf-n-Turf of "2 Tails": on the left, lobster tail, cooked sous vide, served over a green bean salad dressed with "Jester" vinegar (made, if I heard right, from the remnants of some heavy-duty Aussie Shiraz from a Mitolo wine-pairing dinner), paired with a 30-second microwave corn cake (derived from an Adriá technique which you can see here, with the added bonus of Anthony Bourdain throwing out an oblique René Magritte reference). On the right, an oxtail meat pie, with a wonderful tender buttery crust, topped with some hot pepper jelly which made for a nice contrast to the rich meat filling.
I was not anticipating a "shout-out" but, lo and behold, the next dish was called "Frod's Shrimp Dickles." Months ago, Chef K and I had gotten to talking about pickled shrimp and I'd told him my mom had a great recipe. He asked me for it, and I got it from Mother Frod and passed it along - certainly never expecting to see it turn up on a menu. But there it was, and their adaptation was actually not so far off from the original - though mom surely didn't pair hers with a surprisingly nice brussels sprout slaw (surprising for me, anyway, as I usually don't like brussels sprouts raw) and some home-made cheese-its. (If you really want the shrimp recipe, I'll post it). Chef K will tell you that a "dickle" is a "dill pickle" - that's also Chef K's creation, not Mother Frod's.
The next course played more conceptually than visually with the notions of commodity aesthetics raised by the artwork on display. As you can see, this looked for all the world like a shrink-wrapped, UPC-stickered mound of supermarket ground beef - about as commoditized as food can get. Yet what was actually contained in the shrinkwrap was beef, mixed with parsley and onion, that had been cooked sous vide to a barely-rare temperature of 45°C and chilled. Embedded within was an egg yolk, which had itself been cooked to 64°C, self-contained but still gooey and rich. At the table were caper "salt" (dehydrated and ground capers) and a vial of some "was dis here" sauce - collectively, all the fixings for a beef tartare (actually cooked, in fact), and the last one also a prop for a funny story.
Chef Chad claims that worcestershire sauce was not invented in England, but rather in his home of Louisiana. The story goes that a chef was working on a sauce, and a good friend and customer popped in and ordered a roast beef po'boy. The chef sent out some sauce for the customer to try, and after splashing some on his sandwich took a bite and exclaimed how good it was. Another customer heard him and asked what it was that was so good, and the man replied "It's this here .. whas' dis here sauce." And so the name was born. (He shared the recipe as well as the story, and I can give that too).
The next item was simple, beautiful, and delicious: "The Golden Egg", the exterior painted a shimmering gold, its contents a lovely, soft truffled scrambled egg.
If simplicity was not your style, then the next dish would have made up for it. Pork belly, slow cooked and then seared, paired with an Inca Cola glaze, whipped spiced banana puree, yogurt spheres, white chocolate powder, and cilantro & cocoa dusted kettle corn. Possibly one note too many (I could have skipped the yogurt, which didn't quite mesh) but otherwise this made for a nice sweet & spice interplay with the meaty pork. It certainly was a nice cut of belly, mostly meat and little fat (maybe, I thought guiltily, too little fat?)
The closer came courtesy of Jenny Rissone, who in "real life" is an executive pastry chef at a Miami Beach resort. It was one of the most fascinating desserts I've had in quite some time. Sandwiched between layers of a crisp meringue "napoleon" was the fruit of the monstera delicioso plant. When unripe, monstera has such a concentration of oxalic acid that it can cause swelling and blistering of the throat. But when ripe, the fruit is sweet with flavors reminiscent of banana, pineapple, and jackfruit. Along with the napoleon was a dulce de leche gelato encased in a beautiful green sugar globe.
When first plated, the globe looked like a frosted Christmas ornament; as it warmed, the frosted condensation revealed its iridescent surface. The color and transformation reminded me of the kinds of things Elena Arzak was doing when we visited Arzak in San Sebastian.
Expectations of art as aesthetism and food as commodity may well have been subverted by this art/dining experience. Stephen Gamson's artwork is unabashedly commercial: the simple figures and bright colors most readily call to mind Romero Britto and Keith Haring - some might say a little too much so, but in any event, this is clearly art that is made to be bought. On the other hand, while it might go too far to suggest that a meal can be serious art (though it's entertaining to follow chef Jose Andres and art critic Blake Gopnik as they attempt to hash it out, as well as Gopnik's thoughts on a dinner at El Bulli), at a minimum the chefs showed that a dinner can be both thought-provoking and delicious.