Eating with your eyes
Sales Director Chris Craig discusses food and art with chef Ollie Dabbous of HIDE and looks at the similarities between cooking and being an artist.
Avocado with white miso, pressed herbs & flowers. Image courtesy of Ollie Dabbous & HIDE.
Like many people during lockdown I have sought solace in cooking. Food has always been my second love after art, but with restaurants closed I’ve been forced to cook more for myself than ever before. This has meant wrestling with recipes and thinking about their ingredients in a way that I never have as a restaurant guest. As the boundary between home office and kitchen has blurred art and food have become increasingly intertwined in my thinking. Food has been the subject of art for millennia: from the frescos, amphora and mosaics of Antiquity and the great Flemish still lifes; to Proust’s Madeleines in A Search for Lost Time and Carolee Schneeman's Meat Joy performance. As such food has been imbued with symbolic importance and exhibitions have considered its cultural importance, but what about the inherent art of cooking and plating dishes?
When I think of artistry in food Ollie Dabbous’ name immediately springs to mind. I was lucky enough to get a table at his first restaurant when it was nearly impossible and booked to return before finishing the meal. His second restaurant, HIDE, is across Berkeley Square from BASTIAN on Piccadilly; and Hedonism, their sister wine shop, is directly opposite us on Davies Street. Dabbous is an art enthusiast as well and occasionally his plates make me think of specific artworks, so during lockdown we had some fun finding some artworks and plates of food that speak to each other visually. Then, as my brain drifted between the two subjects, we talked about the function of sight when appreciating food and what chefs and artists have in common.
Those familiar with Dabbous’ food will know it for its clarity of vision. A guest at HIDE is primed for the experience from the start. “Before the food arrives, comes the menu” begins Dabbous. “That is where the seed is sown and from where the anticipation grows: the wording of the menu. Telling the customer what they are about to eat without revealing every secret of the dish. Building expectation to be exceeded further when they eat with their eyes.” With art there is a similar process, I think: the gallery functions as the restaurant and the menu is replaced by a catalogue or press release – ingredients are replaced by the year, provenance, medium – such details can prepare you but they cannot replace the moment of engagement, of experience in person.
Coconut. Image courtesy of Ollie Dabbous & HIDE.
When designing a dish, every cook thinks of each ingredient independently and as part of a whole. I recognise this instinct in the work of the Fauvists and Colour Field painters. Their ability to place colour next to itself marked two genre defining moments in art history. It is impossible to conceive of painting without their simple explorations. The best cooking “feels pre-ordained, effortless, pure” says Dabbous, channelling the instinctiveness of the colour field movement. “In many ways, the texture, taste and look of a dish should feel organic & harmonious. The easiest way to give this some concrete definition is through an example: vanilla gelato. Pure white, voluptuous mounds of semi-soft creaminess. It looks gentle, virginal and pure. It tastes exactly how you imagine based on how it looks.” There is so much in this that reminds me of Erben, Ryman and Martin’s experiments in the 1950s & 60s with white as a physical entity rather than a colour. Both artists and chefs seek to maximise the impact of their chosen medium, to tease more than just aesthetics out of it.
50 day aged beef ribeye cooked over charcoal. Image courtesy of Ollie Dabbous & HIDE.
There is an emotional response to receiving a plate of food which is similar to encountering a work of art for the first time. Subconsciously we respond to colour and texture in physical and mental ways, this happens in art and food. “The visual is the first judgement you make” observes Dabbous. “It is actually part of your survival system: is this food safe to eat or will it poison me?” Whilst we might not be physically harmed by absorbing an artwork it is certainly true that as a viewer we are immediately disgusted or enamoured by it even before our brains are able to digest its contents or deeper meaning. Soutine’s still lives of butchers’ displays connect on a primal level as much as a high-art one. You can mentally perceive the taste of the subject; its recognisability is essential to its success, something that Dabbous acknowledges: “The aesthetic of a dish is there to enhance the appreciation of the flavour. Meat, at the other end of the spectrum to gelato, should look carnal, juicy and masculine, rather than pretty or neat.” In painting and sculpture characteristics that belong to foodstuffs can add further levels of meaning. For example, whether it is the artist’s intention or not, I immediately connect Dubuffet’s personages series with meat charging them with violence that heightens their impact on me.
Jasmine & peaflower tea Religieuse. Image courtesy of Ollie Dabbous & HIDE.
Creativity is something that all artists and chefs have in common. “My favourite part of my job is creating new dishes and seeing them come to life” says Dabbous. The ability to look at life and tease something out of it that can be developed and presented in a new way is the hallmark of a great artist and we must conclude that this is also true when judging chefs, even if the path that creativity takes varies. Dabbous continues: “There is no set process or source of inspiration. Creativity is innate: people either have lots of ideas or they have very few. The basis for an idea is always a flavour or textural combination, evoking a smell or sensation, something playful perhaps.” Playfulness is something which exists in the work of many visual artists: Oldenberg’s enlargements, Koons’ balloon animals, Rauschenberg’s combines, for example. It can also sometimes be tongue-in-cheek. Warhol’s process of creativity included appropriating images from the public domain and elevating them. Brillo boxes and Campbell Soup Cans had no place at the table of fine art until he put them there. This is something that Dabbous is also familiar with: “You can be just as emotive creating something that people have had before but never done so well, as you can by cooking with more esoteric or exotic ingredients. People always used to talk about the bread and butter at Dabbous, my first restaurant. It was nothing new. What was new was the level of enjoyment the customers were deriving from something they had had so frequently before.”
Avocado, pistachio & sorrel. Image courtesy of Ollie Dabbous & HIDE.
We can’t ignore beauty in this discussion. Great art tells a story, connects with us, but sometimes there is just immense satisfaction in looking at something. Liebermann and Monet both commissioned gardens so that they could study nature’s beauty every day. The composition of a canvas that has perfect rhythm and balance will hold your gaze indefinitely as you revel in the knowledge that the artist conceived it. Similarly, “a beautiful plate of food tells you that the chef cares” says Dabbous; “you know it will taste delicious because if they care about the look then they will care about the taste.” In both food and art there is an inexplicable sense that something works, of its correctness without being fully able to explain why. That is what keeps us coming back to art that really moves us, it’s what makes us go to our favourite restaurant over and over again. “The best food feels right when you make it, looks right when you plate it, and tastes right when you eat it.”
Noughts & Crosses. Image courtesy of Josh Angus & HIDE.
With this sense of being right comes confidence and this leads to distinctiveness. “It is a constant source of joy creating quirky pairings that both surprise and delight. Over time, you know yourself. The resulting confidence and clarity of thought that this assured perspective enables is key in defining your style of cooking: both taste and presentation, that becomes a signature over time.” A chef’s development seemingly mirrors precisely the progression of visual artists whose voices become more defined as they get older. Their styles also become more ingrained in art history and the viewers’ visual vocabulary. It is impossible, for example, to confuse a Twombly painting with anyone else’s work, the same with Picasso. If a chef has a unique voice it is to the benefit of those who get to savour it; the experience is then locked into that physical and temporal location. Perhaps what connects art and food most is this idea of distinction. I want a plate of food to transport me somewhere in the same way that I want an artwork to move me somewhere else. Dabbous is clear on this too: “I would like to think whether eating at Dabbous, my first restaurant, or now at HIDE, from what is on the plate to what is around you, you could be nowhere else.” If my home cooking during lockdown has taught me anything it is that I want to be anywhere else other than here!
- Chris Craig