Functioning as a conceptual artist and curator or producer, I committed myself to the illustration of a particular idea.
In this case, my challenge was to create an experimental amalgam of art and food that would not be considered lopsided in the sense that it might seem to favor one or the other in a clear way.
With no desire to trivialize either component I let myself ruminate on the questions and concerns.
My first attempt at such an event was called Coming of Age in the Kitchen.
As with most things I trust to resolve through inspiration, the culminating idea burst forth, fully formed.
On a late evening in October, 2011, Tamar Adler and I were dining in Brooklyn. As we ate and drank, she revealed to me the details of an unchaperoned dinner party that she and her and her brother cooked as children; it was a poignant tale set against a period of personal and family hardship.
In the middle of our conversation, I interrupted her to see if she was willing to transform the narrative into a short story. Then, I went on to explain that I wanted to create an event based on the idea that the diners would hear the short story, then eat the same meal served in that story.
Because I kept the meal a secret, choosing instead to reveal the menu in the reading of the Tamar’s exquisite tale, it asked the diners to favor curiosity over their own discernment, creating a different sort of financial and psychological arrangement around the patronage of dining at Montalvo.
I also hypothesized that, post reading, the participants would carry their emotional responses from the library, where the story was read, to the dinner table and that those resulting valences would alter their experience of the meal in a visceral way, with the ritualized repetition of the dinner fusing the form and function of my concept.
It was a great success.
Was my role to cook the food?
As the Culinary Fellow, I formally presented a meal for a menu that I did not write. With the exception of pounding some of the chicken breasts flat, I did not prepare the food, either.
This allowed me to touch on the idea that being a chef doesn’t always mean that you are standing at the stove.
I functioned as the chef for this event in the sense that I was the manager; ordering, sourcing and shopping for supplies, scouting for volunteers to prepare and serve the food, working with HR to assemble an even larger volunteer staff, leading crew members through the kitchen prep and service, familiarizing myself with our workspace and assembling all the items we’d need for service in the mostly bare Villa kitchen.
I also made decisions about microphone placement, the lighting of the fireplaces and chandeliers, flowers, table arrangement, coordinated rentals of silverware and glassware, delegated a head server, worked with that head server to determine the style and flow of service and arranged for there to be a book signing for Tamar’s book, An Everlasting Meal.
There were meetings and phone calls with the marketing department, writing a script for the box office to help them successfully sell an event with an undisclosed menu and I even provided Tamar with editorial assistance in the last moments leading up to the big day.
What part do I enjoy about being a chef?
Often, the most satisfaction comes from creating the menu. I taste flavors and even feel the imagined textures in my mouth as I envision a succession of courses. I move closer to articulating something quite nebulous that I am only able to sense abstractly, at first. It is a kind of creative shepherding not unlike what Bob Dylan refers to as “the itch of the unwritten word”.
What do I enjoy about being in the kitchen?
I enjoy my time at the stove when I feel challenged or experimental — free associating with what’s in the kitchen. I also enjoy placing value on the importance of making things by hand.
As a line cook in the Cafe at at Chez Panisse, I learned to cook many kinds of food at once, often using multiple cooking techniques. If anything, I began to understand how the body could be trained to be more like a machine, ironically enough, through a sort of hypersensitivity to one’s environment.
I still need to rely on that sort of training sometimes, but prefer to cook in a manner that allows me focus deeply and wholly on fewer elements at a time.
What does the every day food component of the Culinary Fellowship mean to me?
As an Artist in Residence, I do not particularly connect with the idea that my art is putting food on the table, because the kind of cooking I am doing tends to be quite simple.
However, as a person thinking critically about food and our relationship to it, I am in a unique environment to observe attitudes about sustainability from around the world just by eating with and and talking to this ever changing community of artists.
My goal is to model environmentally responsible choices; the weekly menus contain much less meat overall and heavily feature local, organic produce. To that end, my culinary practice literally endorses and supports the sort of dietary and cultural shift endorsed by Michael Pollan.
— Niki Ford, Montalvo Arts Center Culinary Fellow, April 2012
*Special thanks to Julie Thorne, Kelly Sicat, Babette McKay, Diane Maxwell, Leah Ammon, Angela McConnell, Loida Lobo, Jensen Rico, Tamar Adler, Devin Rubenstein, Jen Durning, Eden Israel, Deidre Hopp, Laura McGrath, Chris Chapman, Cal Peternell, Julie Innamorato with her husband and friend, Annette, Danielle, Ali, Cheryl, Nancy & Nancy