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A Seat at the Table

nycfood18 (2)

Surrealist bread sculptures, climate change jello, and supper clubs-as-activism: meet New York’s culinary obsessives reimagining the art of food

Taken from the winter issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

What does the future look, smell and taste like? In New York, certain creatives are beginning to use food as a medium for new kinds of art practice and activism. Whether arriving at food after their college art degrees, or training as chefs only to want to take their craft beyond the kitchen, what links everyone is a desire for inclusivity: to encourage people to engage with the art world in a more interactive way, or to create experiences of eating and drinking which raise awareness for issues that effect us all, like women's rights, the onset of climate change, or the health of the poorest kids in our cities.

For Dazed's winter issue, we brought together the restauranters, performance artists, curators, community organisers, sculptors, zine editors and chefs who, in their own weird and wonderful ways, are pushing forward the future of food. – CMH

LIL’ DEB’S OASIS

Realising they had a symbiotic relationship in their approach to food, Hannah Black and Carla Perez-Gallardo started a catering company, Table Table. Still itching for a way to incorporate their art practices from Rhode Island School of Design and Bard, in 2016 they birthed Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, a restaurant, queer safehaven and ever-evolving art installation in the middle of Hudson, NY. Lil’ Deb’s serves insanely delicious, Latin-inspired cuisine, but it is the pair’s approach to the space that is even more original. “I think that’s the most rewarding thing,” says Perez-Gallardo. “We get to work together in the studio on our art every day.” Reaching out to the local creative community, they furnished the restaurant with hand-marbled seat cushions by Hudson artist Christin Ripley, colander lights by LikeMindedObjects, and rotating art exhibitions and merch throughout the year. But the restaurant also provides a necessary function. “When you’re in a small town, you’re all smashed together,” says Black. “Older people become your close friends and there’s economic and political diversity. It felt necessary to create a space that was reflective of these differences and be open-minded.” – EO

LINYEE YUAN

For a while, LinYee Yuan had yet to connect the dots between graphic design and its potential role in the politics of food. She juggled her job as an editor at the industrial design platform, Core77, with running a responsibly raised beef barbecue company, HNH BBQ, that she co-founded. But as a design-focused foodie born to a nutritionist mother and garden-fanatic father, she wanted to know how designers could contribute to the conversation. Enter MOLD: founded in 2013, Yuan’s online editorial platform and print magazine features articles that sound like they were ripped straight from the pages of a sci-fi novel – for a taste, think edible robots, algae alternatives and 3D printing for agriculture. “It was kind of on the outskirts of rigorous writing, and certainly too far out for traditional food media,” says Yuan of the magazine. Since then, she’s been a panel speaker for the New Museum, and collaborated with Sight Unseen on an experimental measuring jug for New York Design Week. All this, she says, continues to open up debate around the future of food.“There’s so much separation between our food production and the way we are eating it. I think design’s role is bringing that intimacy back.” – EO

GHETTO GASTRO

What do Martha Stewart and Michele Lamy have in common? They’re both honorary members of the Ghetto Gastro culinary collective, a group of four Bronx-based food obsessives who make the cultural collision of food, fashion and music look – and taste – next-level. The group formed in 2012, bringing their respective experiences as chefs to bear on a new dining concept rooted in their home borough. “We’re talking about a team that has held it down in some of the most well-respected culinary environments in the world, all of us rooted in The Bronx,” says Jon Gray of co-founders Pierre Serrao, Malcolm Livingston II and Lester Walker. “It was inevitable that we’d all come together to make it pop.” In practice, that could mean cooking Thanksgiving dinner for Rick Owens’ team, or serving lines of crushed coconut on mirrors at an 80s Miami-themed Art Basel party. One memorable moment, a ‘mob dinner’ with Martha Stewart in support of No Kid Hungry and the NY Food Bank, reflected the group’s mission to highlight real issues faced by New York’s poorest communities. “There is a reason one of the most critical Black Panther programmes in the 70s was free breakfast for kids,” says Gray. “Food and creativity are fundamental building blocks of empowerment on so many levels.” – CMH

LEXIE SMITH

“I’m not actually interested in making food look pretty on a plate. Like, why do we never feature the bottom of bread, only the top?” asks experimental baker Lexie Smith. Instead of mixing in with New York’s sometimes-insular art crowd, Smith prefers hiding out in her apartment with her boyfriend and pet snake, turning sourdough into sculptural bread dancers and baking challah to look like braided hair. Despite her lack of classic culinary training, Smith has worked on the pastry programmes for some of downtown New York’s hottest restaurants, including El Rey, Cafe Henrie and most recently at Lalito. Making original use of her art history degree in other ways, she also runs Bread on Earth, a blog exploring the art of breadmaking through a historical lens which has enabled her to exhibit her bread as sculptures in galleries, pop-ups and editorials. It’s for this reason Smith has found herself dubbed a ‘bread artist’, an unconventional job title for someone whose deftly kneaded creations sit somewhere between food and art. But for Smith, the guiding principle of her work remains the same: “Coming from a place of privilege, I wouldn’t ever want to use food in a way that wasn’t genuinely nourishing.” – EO

AUDREY LOUISE REYNOLDS

“If you wouldn’t put it in your body, you shouldn’t put it on your body,” says Audrey Louise Reynolds. Through seasonal clothing dyes sourced from plant extracts, Reynolds is always thinking about ways in which the fashion world can operate sustainably. The North Carolina native runs her own namesake line of naturally dyed clothing, harvesting ingredients from foraging excursions at home in New York and abroad (recent finds include coral, plankton, squid ink, and a rare purple slime secreted by a French species of snail). Using her business to support otherwise failing farms for the cotton in her garments, she incorporates education into her work by making instructional zines that encourage consumers to make their own dyes at home. But Reynolds actually got her first break making pigments for big-name designers like Marc Jacobs. “I was able to make good choices through working for other people, but not the most amazing (environmental) choices,” explains Reynolds. “I want to ask the question – if we can absorb carcinogens through wearing chemical dyes that lead to illness, why can’t we absorb the positive benefits of wearing things known to be good for us?” – EO

ALISON KUO

“Just think about how you enter the room at mealtime: what do you see, what is everyone wearing, what do you hear? How can we push it past the routine, but also past what’s trendy or mindlessly novel?” For Chinese-American performance artist Alison Kuo, the act of preparing, serving and eating meals is ripe with opportunity to “pay more attention to what you’re doing”. Kuo’s unique lens on food has resulted in performances where the entire show is composed of Chinese takeout ordered to the gallery space, or another where she blindly made cocktails from behind a fabric screen, spilling bottles all over the table. Growing up on the edges of Dallas, Texas, Kuo looked to escape her suburban alienation inside Chinese restaurants with her family (it’s worth mentioning Accidental Chinese Hipsters, Kuo’s now-defunct cult blog documenting stylish Chinatown pensioners). Most recently, she performed in a group show, Fun House, co-curated by Emma Orlow, where she lay naked in a bathtub filled with champagne-flavoured gelatin. “What I didn’t expect, lying there in a weird collagen golem that I spent days preparing, is that it would be so supremely comfortable,” she muses. “I think I scared some people, but the best moment was when an elderly woman told me, ‘I like your comfort.’” – CMH

EMMA ORLOW

The fusion of experimental cuisine and colourful art generally eyeballed by curator and writer Emma Orlow is apparent in her favourite snack: Japanese sweets. “They’re not healthy at all! But I’m looking at the packaging from an art perspective,” she says of the gleefully hyperactive designs. Orlow began making connections between food and art early on, via a specialised ‘Food Art as Body Politics’ college major. Orlow admits it’s nothing new to use food in art practice – she references Martha Rosler’s incendiary Semiotics of the Kitchen film from 1975 as an inspiration. (Apron! Bowl! Chopper! Look it up.) But she also feels that, in politically deranged times, a turn to food can assume new cultural weight beyond comments on domesticity. “It becomes more important to respect food and the political qualities of it. Part of that is climate change. Part of that is starvation. What does it mean to work with a medium that a lot of people don’t have access to daily?” Now, Orlow is teaming with regular collaborator Serena Hovnanian on the Scratch ‘n Sniff studio – a conceptual space for exploring food in relation to art. “(Food is) radical for the art world,” she emphasises of her approach. “It goes against traditional ways of selling art, it goes against traditional ways of having art” – and ways, presumably, of smelling art. – CMH

JEN MONROE

There’s no accounting for bad taste, unless you’re Jen Monroe – in fact, the future-minded food artist embraces it through her ongoing project of the same name. It all began with that classic culinary mise-en-scène: a literary dinner-party, in this case an all-black banquet as described in JK Huysmans’ Against Nature. From there, Monroe began her monochromatic meal series – “dinner theatre gone off the rails”, as she puts it – themed around nearly every colour of the rainbow. But while the former chef samples visual culture in every meal – namechecking films like Daisies and Tampopo, and books like Araki’s The Banquet as inspirations – she also wants to stimulate her clientele beyond absurd aesthetics and tasty treats. A recent meal transported diners to a more political place by posing the question of how we might eat seafood in 30 years – the tipping point for ocean food resources, according to scientists, because of warming seas, pollution and overfishing. The results included his’n’hers jello: “an absurdist take on the gender binary”, one pink half for women infused with biotin, the other green and bacon-flavoured for men. Monroe loved the project because she had “a clear objective that wasn’t just pleasure and surprise”, but admits the bacon-flavoured jello was “understandably challenging” for some diners. – CMH

DEVONN FRANCIS

My family is from Jamaica. What people don't realize is that Jamaica has one of the most culturally-diverse food histories, so when you say "diaspora" you have a lot of ground to cover,” says DeVonn Francis of YARDY NYC. A Cooper Union-trained performance artist, Francis says he followed in his father's footsteps when he came to food, initially waiting tables at Estela and Outback Steakhouse out of financial necessity. But taking their cues from artist mentors like Sharon Hayes, Cliff Owens and Tameka Norris, Francis eventually discovered how to express their diasporic heritage through making meals more like performance art. Francis creates pop-up dinners in performative spaces such as the Boiler Room that aim to queer the kitchen space, through dishes such as grilled conch with chayote, sorrel, verbena powder and pickled melon rind, as influenced by their family. YARDY also gives explicit support to black and brown folks in disenfranchised communities, and individuals who express their genders in whichever way they see fit – something that in most heteronormative-run kitchens there’s little space for. - EO

Hair Sean Michael Bennett, make-up Kali Kennedy at Forward Artists using NARS, set design Gerard Santos at Streeters, styling assistants Marisa Ellison, Sarah Lequimener, hair assistant Dustin Elliot, set design assistants Colin Walker, Danielle Selig, Abdiel Muñoz, production Mini Title, production assistant Ryan Hall

Special thanks to Emma Orlow for her curation of this portfolio. Find out more about her Scratch 'n Sniff Studio here.