When thinking of the point where food and art intersect, some minds will run to a Dutch still life of fruit accompanied by cascading fabric and pewter goblets. Others will recall the recent wave of avant-garde, technique heavy food that crashed upon the world from Spain. Few, however will think of Northern California, a region known for pioneering the political mantra that food must be local, organic and sustainable. That is until now, as the politics of the plate becomes the catalyst for a civil rights movement, a generation of San Francisans who eat with intent are pioneering a new genre of art that is quite literally, food for thought.
‘We like to think we sculpt experiences. How you relate to an idea of food should be opened up by participating in one of our ‘restaurants’ says Sam White, who along with Jerome Waag and Stacie Pierce make up the brains trust of OPEN Restaurant, an artistic collaboration of chefs, artists, farmers and activists who are deconstructing then illuminating the dining adventure. If the adage that says the way to the heart is through the stomach is true then the OPEN team would probably contend it is also the simplest pathway to the mind. With ‘feeding people ideas’ as driving inspiration, it comes as little surprise to discover that that the collaboration sprung from working side-by-side at Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Panisse, the cradle of the American food revolution. Weaned on the restaurant’s philosophy (both White and Waag’s parents are part of the restaurant’s bohemian mythology), OPEN Restaurant is quite unexpectedly growing into Chez Panisse’s wild, witty, question-everything teenager.
For their latest museum-cum-eating house they corralled some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s cleverest chefs, most diligent farmers and fisherman and reputable art institutions to buy into their madness and help overtake a Naval warehouse turned Wonka-esque distillery for their most ambitious project yet. OPEN Water was a weekend-long treatise on the planet’s most precious commodity through a pop-up restaurant, it dissected the vital role it plays in a restaurant in everything from cooking medium to cleaning agent. Entering the reimagined space with its artfully strewn maritime debris as a stormy sea soundscapeabove the cavernous dining room and seeing its spot lit cooking stations manned by the area’s outstanding cooking talent, it was clear that OPEN Water had topped their previous efforts.
The event is part of a continuing patronage by the prestigious SFMOMA, their first collaboration during the museum’s Futurist exhibition saw ten female butchers take apart an entire steaming steer (the blood was apparently difficult to remove from the floor) and dust the crowd and their fresh out of the oven souffles with ‘agent orange blossom water’ with a remote control plane. Their other equally subversive works have included ‘Don’t Bake Alaska’, a wry commentary on climate change by way of the classic dessert and “Saving Flavor Tomatoes” stuffed with ceviche, a reference to agribusiness giant Monsanto’s genetic engineering attempts to splice a gene of a flounder into a tomato. OPEN Water saw a 35ft mechanical shark, passed its cinematic peak as its star and a continuously melting iceberg supply the water for drinking, cooking and dishwashing alike. Every detail was considered from the purpose made ceramics to the ridiculous spiky sea urchin burger to letterpress blue and white menus/maps.
It may all seem a touch esoteric however the crew behind OPEN are far from self-righteous, instead they are channeling a rich vein of historical idealism, artistry and sense of community that has long made the Bay Area as an incubator for progressive and original thought in the United Sates. OPEN is not a theatre restaurant, a cabaret with sloppy activism, instead it is executed in a manner informed by the skill of their training and uncompromising standards. An OPEN experience is as certain to be as challenging and thought-provoking as it is to be a delicious. This was evidenced by the dishes that they served at Water, the standout being ‘briny consomme’, an incredibly delicate dish of four types of foraged seaweed, mussels, line-caught local fish and pearls of salmon roe that looked and tasted of the best of the sea.
That White, Pierce and Waag think of themselves as curators and community builders is clear in not only the strict aesthetic code that informs the look and feel of their work but also the diversity of their collaborators. In bringing together activists, waiters, farmers, foragers, cooks and fisherman to explore with them and their participants the complexity of the food system and our relationship to it, has rarely been so thoughtful and likely never as artful.
© Vogue Living, April 2011, Photography Credit: Emily Nathan