Food as art

Appreciating the presentation

By Ken Swarner on June 12, 2008

Jonathon Jones, an art critic with the Guardian in London penned a terse column last year after (much to his chagrin) Ferran Adria, chef-proprietor of the celebrated Spanish restaurant El Bulli, had been invited to participate in Germany’s Documenta art show.

Chefs as artists? Jones says “not.”

“In reality, even a genius among chefs is obliged to please the customer (and cook to order), which means no chef can claim the freedom of mind that artists won in the Renaissance,” Jones wrote. “Caravaggio could paint fruit that looked good enough to eat, but he also painted tortures to turn your stomach; that’s art. Until people go to a restaurant to think about death, cooking won’t be art.”

I’ve eaten some dishes that tortured me, but I suppose Jones had something else in mind. Is he right, though?

“Generally art is a (product of) human activity, made with the intention of stimulating the human senses as well as the human mind; by transmitting emotions and/or ideas,” according to Wikipedia. “Beyond this description, there is no general agreed-upon definition of art.”

I’ve experienced meals that transformed my life — real passion, form and beauty. If Congo the monkey fetches $25,000 for his art, then I’m damn sure celebrity chef Daniel Boulud’s oyster filled with slices of scallop and cavier, Chincoteague oysters, a sprinkle of lime, oyster liquor, grated horseradish and a garnish of crunchy celery, radishes, minced chives and a dab of uni deserves a place in the Louvre.

In fact, Ferran Adria wrote this of his work: “The act of eating engages all the senses as well as the mind. Preparing and serving food could therefore be the most complex and comprehensive of the performing arts.”

I suppose if more people embraced food as art, there would also be fewer starving artists.

On with the show

Food as art arrives tableside in many forms. In Thailand, cooks love black colored food because it makes an exceptional backdrop for the other colors that go on the plate. 

That’s a detail Olympia’s Dana Squires appreciates. Squires not only paints pictures of food, she literally chops, bakes and purees it into her art. Take, for example, her quarterly bento boxes. The Japanese bento box is traditionally a take-out or home packed full service meal in a lacquer container. Every three or four months, Squires gives family and friends decorated bento boxes full of meals she prepared around a certain theme — a la art in a box.

Recently, Squires created Flower Bentos in bright floral boxes. Inside, she prepared an around the world tour — spicy Thai Nasturtium salad, Persian Jeweled Rice with saffron and rose petals, Moroccan Orange Flower Water Biscuits served on a banana flower petal, Dandelion greens, Lavender shortbread and flowering tea — these accompanied with poems and quotes all purposely displayed like a grand collage.

It made sense to ask Squires if she believes the visual aspects of presentation affect the taste of the food.

“I think the visual presentation affects the whole experience of eating,” Squires says. “Like the different feel of eating in a greasy spoon and a haute bistro, the experience surrounding the eating influences state of mind. Eating something beautiful puts you in that ‘space’ of having a lovely enjoyable experience, even before you taste.”

Squires participates this August in Olympia’s Here Today, a public art event featuring eight artists adorning the city in a variety of mediums. Squire’s work Leaf & Twig includes three trees decorated with paper leaves covered in earthy and exotic spices.  Literally, the trees will smell as good as they look.

“I love to cook and feed people — my work evolved naturally out of that,” she says.

Employing mixed media, she also draws brightly colored pictures of world foods like Moroccan salad with oranges and carrots in cran d’ache, and with acrylics adds the recipes for effect.

Squire’s relationship with food and art traces back to her Peace Corps days. Through that process, she did what she calls the full circle, starting with culture shock and the belief that people live vastly differently across the globe, followed by the decision that people actually live quite similarly, and finally back full circle to recognizing how differently people live out their lives.

“That is what I am about,” Squires says from her studio. She enjoys capturing the many faces of people and food through her art — both edible and not.


Artists I know

The tagline at Celebrity Cakes in Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square reads: “Where every cake is a work of art.” Owner Odette D’Aniello makes flour, water and sugar her medium. Her work, best known in the display cases at Metropolitan Market in Proctor, may not satisfy Jones’ need for angst, but it certainly could help liven a funeral.

Her shop recently turned out a spring cherry blossom cake with antique green and pink frosting more characteristic of Sumi-e than Costco.

“We are very specific about colors, symmetry and design here,” D’Aniello says.

She says her designers approach cakes like empty canvases.

“It is an art,” D’Aniello says. “And you can taste that.”

They lack a tagline, but Loren Robinson and Leo Nichols, partners at Upper Crust Pizza in North Tacoma make their pies art. Avoiding the typical, unimaginative melting together of toppings and cheese, Robinson and Nichols make statements with their pepperonis, tomatoes and the like — think pizza meets Geometric Modernism.

“A lot of what we do is playing around with colors,” explains Robinson, who left the corporate world as a graphic artist last year to open The Upper Crust. “There is art even in pizza.”

They create on the fly as well.

“A customer wanted us to add peppercinis to our Checkerboard pizza so I wrapped one around each olive — it looked pretty cool,” Nichols said.

Behind the scenes

What better person to ask about food as art than Karen Wise – the celebrated New York still life photographer who made her mark capturing the splendor of food (

“When a beautiful dish is plated and placed on the table in front of me I love the challenge of capturing the colors, the textures and the flavors on film,” Wise says.

Like Jones, Wise made mention of Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, but she neglected to mention the tortures.

“Even in the 1500s food and wine were celebrated in art, they were painted often and these masterpieces spoke of intoxication, pleasure, richness, and invited the viewer to look and wish he/she were there.”

How could a painting or photograph of food be more or less artful than the real thing? Except, of course, I can’t lick a Caravaggio (well, I could, but…)

When Wise steps around the camera, she sees the beauty in the first bite as well.

“I think a beautiful visual presentation of a dish will inevitably make the food taste better; there is definitely a psychological element to taste,” Wise says. “And bad visual presentation could definitely spoil your appetite, and/or make the food taste worse. The visual perception is one of the first parts of our appetite.”

I’ve heard art best described as work that moves individuals. In other words, screw Jones, only the viewer should decide what is and isn’t worthy of the name. If you believe Squires’ Thai curry with nasturtiums constitutes art, guess what — you’re right.

Power to the eater.