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September 22 2010

Your dinner's on the wall

Broccoli trees, ham houses, chocolate nudes . . . Jonathan Jones meets the people turning food into art

The Mashed Potato of the Future is an inky mountain of mystery. It sits on the plate like a slag heap, or the ashes of an apocalyptic disaster. My wife cautiously digs into it with her fork.

She likes it. My Futurist experiment in cooking has worked. The Mashed Potato of the Future is my culinary homage to the modern Italian poet and avant-garde artist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who in 1930 announced a revolution in the kitchen. Marinetti, inventor and leader of the Futurist movement, had already given the world Futurist art, literature, music and architecture. With The Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, he set out to abolish what he saw as Italy's fattening and mind-dulling addiction to pasta. In place of spaghetti, he proposed recipes that are as arbitrary and disconcerting as the discombobulated poems he called "words in freedom"; food as subversion, as provocation – and as art.

Eighty years after it was launched in a Milanese restaurant (one dish was called Divorced Eggs, with the white of an egg cooked and presented on pureed carrots, the yolk on pureed potato), the great Futurist experiment in the art of cooking is back. An entire movement is menacing the frontiers of art and food, an alternative cookery club that calls itself The Experimental Food Society (EFS). As this avant garde prepares to offer the public a full-scale banquet Spectacular this weekend, I dived in to ask the inevitable question: but is it art? For that matter, is it food?

One of the Spectacular's stars, food designers Blanch and Shock, meet me in a London cafe and show me slides of their work on a laptop. There is something fun and conspiratorial about their talk of underground dining, which reminds me of the London art scene in the very early 1990s, before it was institutionalised. They explain how they created a spooky meal to be eaten by the audience at an immersive theatre event, which involved lots of experiments to devise "edible blood". But blood is edible, I point out. Ah, but this was theatrical edible blood, which looks gory but can be eaten by vegetarians, with no health risk. They make me see that a meal is a piece of theatre: they stage meals as narratives, with each course taking on symbolic qualities. Food is art not just if it looks good but if it makes you aware of richer meanings, beyond the simple fact of filling you up.

Food has always been art – for the lucky few. Wander through the British Museum and you see the ornate table decorations that bear witness to the central place of feasting in courts of all cultures. In 15th-century Burgundy, royal banquets were enlivened by bizarre entremets. Between courses, a giant pie might be carried in: it burst open and out flew six swans. Artists lavished their talents to raise mealtimes to the level of art.

The EFS's banquet is a modern answer to these medieval spectaculars. Members such as photographer Carl Warner stages pictures that at first look like homely painted landscapes – until you realise the trees are made of broccoli, the houses of ham. Warner's pictures are modern answers to the great and marvellous Renaissance art of Arcimboldo, who delighted the 16th-century Habsburg court with paintings of faces composed of fruit or vegetables.

The point of the EFS is not, however, just to create strange, food-based works of art. In a south London kitchen, I watch "chocolate artist" Paul Wayne Gregory at work. He creates portraits, and even a nude, in chocolate, at life size. He explains how he begins with a mould of the subject's face or body and then carves exquisite, lifelike details to create the finished chocolate portrait. But each of his sculptures – like the collections of chocolates he devises and the chocolate lolly I taste – can be, in fact demands to be, eaten. Gregory is no amateur experimentalist but a world-class chocolatier, trained in great European restaurants. His chocs are delicious. I feel I have wandered into the world of Willy Wonka.

The fun of the new experimental cooking is that it is less pure than Marinetti's modernist food. Marinetti did not care if his recipes were tasty, or even edible. That's high Modernism for you. But, just as modern fiction incorporates Joyce and Kafka into more traditional narrative structures, today's avant-garde cuisine is post-modernist, not modernist, art. In that spirit, I laboured in my laboratory to invent The Mashed Potato of the Future. It looks like modern art, with a nod to Malevich's Black Square, the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt, and the late, suicidal works of Mark Rothko. But it tastes, if not comforting, bloody good. Inky good. It is actually a domestication of a classic Venetian recipe. You just need to get cuttlefish ink or a cuttlefish ink-based sauce from an Italian deli, and instead of putting it on pasta, mix it into mashed potato, along with garlic and olive oil. It's delicious. It will surely shake the most passé restaurants to their foundations.

• The Experimental Food Society Spectacular is at The Brickhouse, London E1, on Saturday. Events begin at 11am; banquet at 7.30pm. Details: experimentalfoodsociety.com


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


September 15 2010

In good taste

Foodballs and Philippe Starck pasta aside, our food has remained largely untouched by the designer's influence. A looming global food crisis could change all that

Have you ever ordered chicken Kiev in a restaurant? You don't see it on menus much but last week I did and, of course, I ordered it. It came with a bone sticking out, and on the end of the bone was a little paper hat. First-class presentation. Strangely, though, this fine-dining version was blander than the real thing – the real thing being the kind made of reconstituted chicken pumped full of water and powdered pork protein that you find in supermarkets. Thinking about how the (authentic) ready-meal version is produced, I imagined it very much like the manufacture of a gas-assisted injection-moulded plastic chair. The raw material – let's call it meatstuff – is inserted into a mould and injected with air that forces it into shape, leaving a cavity. The only real difference is that you don't inject a chair with garlic butter.

It would be deeply unfashionable these days to confess to buying supermarket chicken Kiev. The slow food movement has successfully instilled the idea that eating seasonal, organic produce is the only healthy and ethical way forward. But that may turn out to be a rather romantic notion. We are already staring a global food crisis in the face, and the world's population is expected to grow by almost 3 billion people by mid-century. In which case, the industrialisation and genetic modification of food will probably only become more widespread.

The idea of food as a design product is not exactly new. Pasta is arguably the first example of a designed foodstuff, manufactured for centuries in hundreds of shapes, each one of which is designed to absorb sauce slightly differently – mass production by a high food culture. Philippe Starck had a go at designing a new pasta shape in the 1980s, as did the legendary Italian car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, but neither novelty caught on. Really, it was the American TV dinner of the 1950s that turned food into a design product – it even came in a box designed to look like a television. Inspired by airline meals, the TV dinner dispensed with the time-consuming and messy process of cooking, and compacted the turkey roast into a neatly packaged commodity. In this country it all began in 1976, when Marks & Spencer launched its first ready meal. You guessed it: chicken Kiev.

We don't tend to think of food as design and yet we love it when celebrity chefs treat it as such. Even though most of us will never taste them, we are spellbound by the liquid-nitrogen-dipped creations of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria, of The Fat Duck and El Bulli respectively. Their "molecular gastronomy" employs fundamental design principles, such as rethinking accepted norms and prioritising the user experience.

In a way it's surprising that there are not more designers working with food. They certainly exist though. The best known is the Catalan designer Martí Guixé. For more than a decade he has been experimenting with turning food into products, or – perhaps more accurately – experiences. He created the Foodball concept restaurant for shoe brand Camper, where, if it's not self-explanatory, all the food was ball-shaped. He's started a restaurant where everything on the menu is ordered from local takeaways, he's branded organic peas with images of female icons and he's made cakes that look like pie charts – the icing reveals the percentage of each ingredient in the recipe. He doesn't claim to know anything about cooking but, rather, is fascinated by the idea of edible objects.

Guixé believes that food is curiously under-designed, that it is an essentially conservative medium. No doubt that has to do with our – occasionally deluded – perception of it as somehow coming straight from nature. However, as the global food shortage starts to precipitate technological solutions, we may become more used to the idea of artificially produced nourishment. Last month, The Royal Society published a collection of papers on the future of food (covered in this newspaper), one of which speculated that artificial meat "grown in vats" was a viable way to meet our future demand for protein. Indeed it argued that "in vitro" meat was healthier and more hygienic than the real thing.

It is a testament to how diverse the design world has become that there are designers – albeit in the extreme fringe – who are already exploring the implications of that. Oron Catts, a former industrial designer who now operates out of a synthetic biology lab at the University of Western Australia, actually grew himself a steak in 2002. He used cells harvested from an unborn sheep. His Petri-dish steak was rather chewier than a real one, but Catts is not aiming for fine dining. His work – which, at the more "designer" end has included growing a "victimless" leather jacket – is intended to focus debate on the ethics of synthetic biology. On the one hand, we get to eat victimless meat, on the other, he argues, we are creating a new "semi-living class" for exploitation.

So where does the design come in? A recent graduate from London's Royal College of Art took the implications of work by Catts and his partner Ionat Zurr to its logical conclusion. James King, an interaction designer, asked a simple question: if a steak hasn't actually come from a cow, why should it be steak-shaped? In theory, it could take more aesthetic, abstract forms. He decided, though, to retain some link to the animal, instead using MRI scans of livestock and choosing the most aesthetically pleasing cross-sections. His MRI steak looks like a cross between a chop, a brain and a sea anemone. If you think that the premise of mass-produced chicken Kiev is simply verisimilitude – in other words, this object looks like a real stuffed chicken breast – then this is the opposite model. This is food with artistic licence.

Although the work of designers such as Catts and King is speculative, it raises interesting questions about the future role of designers in the food industry. Traditionally their role has simply been to package the food, to make consumables more desirable, to make it stand out on the shelf. Scientists believe that another decade of research is needed before in-vitro meat becomes commercially viable, but it raises the idea of a new role for the designer: not just packaging what we eat, but designing it.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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