Creativity
Olafur Eliasson on How Cooking Fuels His Art Practice
Olafur Eliasson and his sister Victoria Eliasdóttir. Courtesy of Studio Olafur Eliasson.

Olafur Eliasson and his sister Victoria Eliasdóttir. Courtesy of Studio Olafur Eliasson.

Most jobs don’t come with a complimentary daily lunch comprised of several courses of cutting-edge vegetarian fare. But working for the Berlin-based artist isn’t like most jobs.
At Eliasson’s Berlin studio, lunch is served at 1 p.m. “We often say, ‘One meal at the studio a day keeps the doctor away,’” the Danish-Icelandic artist quipped as we connected via Skype. Indeed, Tuesdays through Fridays, the 100-person team congregates at long tables for a healthy, family-style meal of four to five courses, cooked on site by a team of chefs. “It’s the glue that keeps the team spirit together,” Eliasson explained.
That day, the artist told me, they’d begun the meal with a green salad (with unusual leaves sprinkled in that he suspects were clipped from a plant in his office), then moved on to grilled white cabbage topped with a nut paste; ricotta with sesame seeds; oven-baked eggplant with mushrooms; and the leftovers from a tomato salad from the prior day’s meal (no food is ever wasted). As is the case with Eliasson’s esteemed art practice—he’s addressed climate change by dropping icebergs in a Paris square, and has developed a line of solar-powered lamps—sustainability and ecology are foremost concerns in the kitchen. Meals are primarily vegetarian, and ingredients are sourced locally.
The artist has been running this culinary laboratory of sorts since around 2005, collaborating with several chefs, including Asako Iwama and Lauren Maurer, who established the kitchen in Eliasson’s former studio on Invalidenstrasse; and most recently his sister, Victoria Eliasdóttir. Not only has SOE Kitchen (as it’s known) become a beloved part of working at the four-story studio in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg, it’s earned Eliasson influential guests, from actor Meryl Streep and former Irish president Mary Robinson to chef Alice Waters (a friend of the artist who prefaced the studio’s 2016 cookbook). Beginning this August, the kitchen will temporarily evolve into a full-fledged restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland, with Eliasson and Eliasdóttir at the helm.
Courtesy of Stúdíó Ólafur Elíasson.

Courtesy of Stúdíó Ólafur Elíasson.

Courtesy of Stúdíó Ólafur Elíasson.

Courtesy of Stúdíó Ólafur Elíasson.

The siblings’ interest in food and art traces back to their late father, an artist who made a living cooking for fishermen in Iceland. “His claim to fame on the fishing boat was that he actually succeeded gradually in teaching fishermen to eat fish,” Eliasson explained, nodding to the fact that men who spent their days surrounded by fish were not too keen to actually dine on them. He began by serving deep-fried fish (“he called it Kentucky fried fish”), then gradually introduced unusual preparations, like a ceviche with lime and rhubarb juice. “He made the fishermen appreciate and respect the fish they worked with,” Eliasson reflected. His father’s ability to bring this social dimension to cooking, he added, inspired his own interest in food to a large extent (though don’t expect any deep-frying at SOE Kitchen).
However, the kitchen at his Berlin studio didn’t start out so ideologically, Eliasson explained. It began when the team was composed of only 10 to 15 people, who would take turns preparing lunches—often something as modest as a frozen pizza. Over time, they realized the benefits of eating together, and became more conscious about what they were eating. “We realized it’s important to eat together, respect the food, and understand where it comes from,” Eliasson said. “I don’t mean it hyper-politically; I just mean it’s more about consciousness, really, a little bit of sense of responsibility. I never try to moralize or to be patronizing about the whole food thing.”
As the staff at the studio swelled, it became clear that hiring an in-house chef would end up being both economical and a way to facilitate productivity.
The decision to focus on vegetarian meals (interrupted by the occasional fish dish) was not only an eco-conscious choice, but a fiscal one, as well. Eliasson and the chefs discovered farmers local to Berlin; they’ve since enrolled in the CSA program of the biodynamic farm Apfeltraum, receiving regular installments of seasonal produce. Deep consideration is put into factors like who you’re supporting when you buy food, the carbon footprint of transporting food and cooking, and nutrition.
Courtesy of Stúdíó Ólafur Elíasson.

Courtesy of Stúdíó Ólafur Elíasson.

Courtesy of Stúdíó Ólafur Elíasson.

Courtesy of Stúdíó Ólafur Elíasson.

Though he noted that the kitchen “takes up a great amount of space and compassion in the studio,” Eliasson is confident that his team has come to “appreciate this gentle type of hospitality” that goes into such carefully crafted lunches. “And that is what we are trying to do in Iceland, as well,” he added.
Eliasson has long toyed with the idea of running a restaurant, particularly with his sister’s leadership. While she’s worked at the SOE Kitchen for the past few years, prior to that, Eliasdóttir ran her own restaurant in Berlin, called Dóttir (the naming convention that means “daughter” in Icelandic). Beginning August 11th in Reykjavik, they’ll be serving the public from within the Marshall Restaurant + Bar at the Marshall House, a former fish factory-turned-arts complex where Eliasson also has a studio and showroom, in the city’s harbor district.
The menu will embrace local fish and seafood, and support nearby farmers who are grappling with Iceland’s harsh climate—using alternative farming methods like geothermal greenhouses to grow tomatoes. Eliasson is particularly excited about a batch of Icelandic strawberries they’ve secured, freezing them to make a marmalade. He sees the restaurant as a conceptual project—a food and art festival of sorts, where some dinners will be followed by bespoke programming ranging from experimental jazz to talks with philosophers, artists, or chefs.
Installation view of work by  Ólafur Elíasson. Courtesy of Stúdíó Ólafur Elíasson.

Installation view of work by  Ólafur Elíasson. Courtesy of Stúdíó Ólafur Elíasson.

This may seem like a lot of energy and resources for Eliasson to spend on something tangential to his art practice. But the kitchen is not necessarily separate; in some ways, it’s a part of it. “Sometimes we do these special events where we become very conceptual or ideological or taste-driven,” the artist said. He recalled a recent dinner the team orchestrated in honor of former Irish president Mary Robinson, who now runs a climate justice organization. The team challenged itself to put on a fine dinner for 30 people that also had zero carbon footprint. The menu was made up of primarily raw foods and dishes prepared in a solar-powered sun cooker; the wine was delivered via sailboat. “Obviously, it ended up being very expensive and it had a kind of element of hedonism—kind of crazy in a good way,” Eliasson explained.
The kitchen has also experimented with au courant culinary trends, like fermentation. Things can sometimes get out of hand. “In the beginning, I was excited, but at some point the kitchen just went all in on fermentation, and we literally had to endure the obsessive fermentation period,” Eliasson joked. “The whole studio was fermented, I think.”
They’ve also welcomed research and science into the kitchen. A few weeks ago, the studio was visited by Barry Smith, a neuroscientist with a specialty in food. He took aside a group of workers and had them taste wine while wearing earplugs and clips on their noses. “It was totally bonkers,” Eliasson explained. “You try to drink wine with a nose clip on and it literally takes the taste away.”
He sees his kitchen as a place for creativity. One such experiment involved everyone eating with very long cutlery; they found that the utensils made it so difficult to eat that it was easier to feed one another instead.
“Clearly, some of it is fooling around and having a good time, but some of it is essentially related to art,” Eliasson reflected. When you think deeply about the taste of food as you’re eating it, he said, the experience is so much more intense. “We have, in our face, a handful of senses that are numb, because we don’t pay attention to them,” Eliasson said. “If you pay attention, you can just experience so much more. As an artist, I’m very interested in that.”
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Creativity Editor.