The art of food

Juicy cherries, creamy butter, flirtatious platters of oysters: food in art and the art of cooking.

Which types of food make your mouth water? That may depend on the times: think back to a 70s style salmon salad or cubes of cheese with gherkins on cocktail sticks. Or the Jell-O trend (savoury, too!), pies covered in frankfurters or canapés from the 60s. Both our tastes and the aesthetics of food change over time. The art of plating differs in every decade, but one thing remains the same: the chef wants to surprise, impress and move his guests. That is why cooking and the way you serve your dishes can be regarded as an art form. Food is an important subject in history of art, immortalised in paintings and sculptures – art that also inspires famous chefs.

The ancient Egyptians depicted fish stalls, cheese makers and bakeries; in ancient Rome, villas were decorated with mosaics of bunches of grapes, roasted birds and bowls of olives. In short, food has been an important source of inspiration for artists for centuries now when it comes to depicting the ingredients and playing around with them. Take, for example, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who was commissioned in the 16th century to paint a bold portrait of Emperor Rudolf II, in which his head was made entirely of fruit and vegetables. Or take Van Gogh, Cézanne or Gauguin – they all painted tables full of colourful fruits. Salvador Dalí’s beloved Gala had the honour of also being his muse for the cookbook Les Diners de Gala. In the book, you are taken into Dalí’s bizarre kitchen full of pompous, surrealist dishes. Later, Andy Warhol took over and elevated the Campbell’s soup tins into art. A bit closer to home, we have the peanut butter floor by Wim T. Schippers or Tjalf Sparnaay’s hyperrealist portraits of fried eggs.

From abundance to sophistication

Once upon a time, lavish tables resulted in beautiful still lifes, but at the table the focus shifted from quantity to the luxury of refinement. Juicy cherries, fat chunky cheeses, creamy butter, flirtatious platters full of oysters and fresh bread: the famous 17th century still lifes still show an excess of luxury. The works are so realistic that you could almost grab a lobster from the artwork. Until the 19th century, there were no courses: everything was put out on the table at once. Sweet and savoury, hot and cold… In between, edible artwork featuring confectionery were placed on the table as decoration. For centuries, playing with expectation, abundance and showing off wealth were the favourite parts of dinnertime. Rich ladies and gentlemen liked
to be immortalised with these showy still lifes or ‘banquets’ to hang on the walls of their dining rooms.

At the beginning of the 19th century, a new form of dining emerged: ‘service à la russe’. Whereas previously all the dishes had been placed on the table at once (‘service à la française’), the dishes were now served by course. It is an entirely different experience: whereas before you were looking at a table full of pectacular dishes and inventive dishes, now there is only one plate in front of you at a time. The legendary Auguste Escoffier refined French culinary traditions. He considered cooking an art form. As a boy, he had wanted to become a sculptor, but instead he went on to become the ‘father of modern cuisine’.

Visual food spectacle

Through this revolution, presentation on the plate evolved over time into a true art. Many trends came and went, but due to the popularity of molecular cooking and the Adrià brothers from El Bulli in particular, chefs became the Van Goghs and Picassos of the kitchen. Ferran’s younger brother Albert Adrià is just as responsible for the success of this culinary revolution. A self-proclaimed avant-garde, he combines taste explosions with visual masterpieces. Mousse gave way to foam and freeze-dried ingredients, liquid nitrogen and the technique of ‘spherification’ came into fashion. El Bulli, for example, came up with the liquid olive: a combination of alginate (yes, from seaweed) and calcium chloride forms a wafer-thin, gel like layer around the liquid.

For centuries, masters of the art of cooking have cleverly played around with what we taste as well as what we see. Take the medieval Pome Dorres: you think you are being served an apple, but it turns out to be an inventive meat pie. British three Michelin star chef Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck, Dinner) devours historical cookery books and translates old, inventive recipes into the present. His version? Meat Fruit. A parfait of duck liver and foie gras wrapped in a citrus jelly, in the shape of a perfectly imitated mandarin. A small still life, but one to really sink your teeth into.

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