Edible Art: A Menu of Satire and Photography with a Culinary Twist
The new book, “Le Corbuffet: Edible Art and Design Classics,” provides an intriguing collection of 60 recipes that are inspired by an array of paintings, sculptures, and design.
“We all must eat in order to survive”
In 2014, artist Esther Choi found an intricate menu of obscure dishes created for a dinner in honor of Walter Gropius, the critically acclaimed German modernist architect and founder of the Bauhaus School.
The menu was designed by Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy. This discovery inspired Choi to create a social experiment of her own. In 2015, she developed a series of pun-inspired recipes and named those dishes after contemporary artists and designers she admired. This experiment involved 20 guests, one chef (Esther Choi) and a tiny Brooklyn apartment.
The resulting book, Le Corbuffet, provides an intriguing collection, which includes 60 recipes that are inspired by an array of contemporary paintings, sculptures and design. Choi, who is also a writer and self-taught cook, leaves her humorous mark on the art world using food as a creative medium. I particularly like her Jackson Pollock Pot A Pie, Frida Kale-o Salad, Rem Brûlée and Quiche Haring.
Choi sat down with me to discuss her experience creating Le Corbuffet and inspirations behind it.
What was your inspiration for this project?
“Le Corbuffet began as a series of reflections on cultural valuation and privatization. Several years ago, I found an indulgent menu for a dinner organized in tribute to the Bauhaus founder, Walter Gropius. The dinner was to take place during a time of interwar rations in England. It made me reflect on the elite, cult-like status of certain figures and cultural artifacts in the art and design worlds.
I began to create dishes based on puns of canonical art and design works. I was interested in satirizing how the global market ‘gobbles up’ art and design commodities (as well as the historical narratives used to valorize these art/design works) and how humor could play a critical role. Sometimes the dishes I created were served at events; at other times, they were presented in small gatherings. They were never intended as fancy art parties, but rather, as opportunities to think through and ‘sketch’ this relationship in a participatory and informal setup.
The book is another platform for exploring these issues. It appropriates the conventions of cookbook publishing to make its case. While it is still based on the satirical act of gobbling up art/design works much like how they are gobbled up by the market, it also hopes to propose that the value afforded to these grand objects and their narratives can be reclaimed by ordinary means, using basic kitchen implements and everyday ingredients.”
Have you always been interested in edible art? Can you explain your creative process behind making these recipes?
“The appearance of food in the histories of art and design has always been of interest to me, particularly when artists and designers have approached food as a medium to engage in forms of social and political critique. I wouldn’t say that I’m interested in ‘ edible art’— that is the design of food for the sake of spectacle or experience.
I based each recipe in Le Corbuffet on a pun that referred to a canonical artist or designer, or artwork or design object. When it came to developing the recipes, I was inspired by a range of factors: material relationships between ingredients and the artist/ designer’s medium; conceptual parallels; the cost; an artist/ designer’s biography; food history and politics; and, of course, how things tasted.”
When do you first remember having an interest towards learning about food? Did you ever play with food as a child?
“Food was an important part of my upbringing during my childhood and adolescence. My family is quite ethnically diverse, so food informed my understanding of ethnicity, class, migration, and family history through my personal, lived experience. As a Canadian-born Korean kid, I was mindful, for example, to not bring ‘ smelly,’ ‘ ethnic’ foods to school for lunch, to avoid being picked on by other children. At a young age, I understood food as a marker of social standing, assimilation and cultural difference.”
Would you consider yourself to be a foodie? Do you have any favorite chefs or restaurants?
“I enjoy learning about food, and especially eating it. There are so many gifted chefs whose work I admire; in particular, I think Ignacio Mattos is supremely talented. But I’m also equally fascinated by traditions and techniques that I learn from friends’ relatives; the knowledge that gets passed down over generations. Restaurant food, while delicious and an incredible treat, can be quite decadent and costly. I will always opt for a simple homecooked meal, given the choice.”
What are some of your favorite dishes and ingredients?
“I don’t really have particular likes and dislikes when it comes to food, but I think I tend to gravitate towards peasant dishes: food made from accessible and humble ingredients, and the endless ways that these ingredients can be recombined inventively with skill. That’s something that I find truly impressive.”
Which one of these recipes are you most proud of?
“My kimchi recipe. My parents gave the recipe four thumbs up, which meant a lot to me. It goes without saying they have collectively eaten a considerable amount of kimchi in their lifetime.”
What were some challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
“The biggest obstacle when producing this book was the dilemma of how to create and photograph sixty recipes within a limited economy of means. All of the photographs were shot with medium format film, so there was additional overhead involved. But when I began to place more of an emphasis on resourcefulness rather than resources, it became a fun challenge. I kept the cost of each recipe within a small budget. Props for photographs came in all forms: from packaging used in supermarket produce, odds and ends from the hardware store, and free offcuts from a marble manufacturer across the street from my studio. I gave myself a strict quota of how many frames I could shoot, and I even found a thirty-year-old lighting kit from Craigslist which I drove to New Haven to pick up. I think this led to the ad hoc, improvised nature of the sculptural compositions.”
What kind of artists, designers, sculptors do you gravitate to when thinking of a new recipe?
“Language played a significant role in determining whether a recipe would ‘work,’ since the recipes were based on puns. My editor at Prestel and I also had discussions about the selection of artists and designers, as they had some concern about keeping names recognizable. But as so much of the histories of art and design are largely white, male dominated, it was important that I try to keep the selection of figures as inclusive (and mindful of this bias) as possible.”
Do you have a big selection of cooking books at home? Any favorites that you draw inspiration from?
“Ina [Garten], Yotam [Ottolenghi], and Julia [Child] all share equal real estate on the shelf.”
Beyond this book, do you have any plans on creating more work that integrates art and food in the future?
“I’m interested in supply-chain models of food production, and the socio-ecological parameters required to ensure truly ‘sustainable’ products. Cocoa production, in particular, is of keen interest to me. I proposed a project related to Brazil’s cocoa production for the Sao Paulo Architecture Biennale, but the funding never came through. If someone would like to sponsor a research trip to Brazil, I’d love to talk!”
All photographs are from Le Corbuffet: Edible Art and Design Classics © 2019 by Esther Choiand and published by Prestel.