Posted on Wednesday, November 23, 2011 by Simon Hodgson
Lisa Mishima and Yvonne Mouser turn food into art at Sam's Movie Night
From painter to pastry chef, ceramicist to wine cellar owner, innovative CCA alumni are shaping creative niches across the world of food and drink.
Twenty people stand around a long butcher-block table. The lights above cast a pale glow on its surface, illuminating the ingredients piled in its recessed trough -- lemons, lettuce, flour, eggplants, bell peppers -- without lighting the faces of the diners. They are here for Hands On, a food-making experience in which they use their hands rather than utensils to create a three-course meal.
"Cooking is very much a form of art," says Lisa Mishima (Graphic Design 2005), who concocted Hands On together with her boss, Randall Stowell of the creative production company Autofuss, and friend Yvonne Mouser (Furniture 2006). "Both cooking and art involve concepting, crafting, and presenting a piece. But there is something about consuming one's creation that feels even more personal, immediate, and honest."
Initially, the guests are nervous, even clumsy. Flour falls to the floor. Slowly, the experimental chefs grow more confident. There are giggles around the room, then nods of approval as the dishes take shape. The menu features Caesar salad, handmade pasta with pesto sauce, and tiramisu. Some diners shape vegetables into utensils and use those instead of spoons or spatulas. Maybe there will be a meal at the end of this.
The Concept Makers: Food as Theater
Mishima, Mouser, and Stowell are carving new ground at the cutting edge between food and art. Hands On presents food as theater. At their concession stand for another creative venture, Sam's Movie Night, they make metaphor literal. To accompany the creature-feature Piranha, for instance, they dreamed up a beverage called Flesh Wound, limeade served with a mangled cherry and a cherry-juice ice cube that bleeds into the soda.
The staged drama of these food-themed presentations is a thrill for both the participants and the creative team. "We had no idea people would be so excited," says Mishima. "The first time we staged Hands On, they were so anxious to get started, they jumped in before we'd finished the instructions. They were just happy to get their hands dirty -- it looked like a bunch of children playing."
That youthful sense of play is the dynamic driving this creativity. Mouser, a furniture artist (she designed the butcher-block table for Hands On), points to the way the chefs created utensils. Several guests used zucchini as rolling pins, while one enterprising diner grated pecorino with an artichoke. "The artifacts for eating can be just as meaningful as the food. The ingredients become sensory paints to color a meal, and the tools can elevate the experience from the ordinary." The strangest sensation, Mishima adds, can come from just "swirling heavy cream with my hand, and feeling it transform in my fingers."
The melding of art and food by so many CCA alumni is almost certainly a natural consequence of the cross-pollination among the college's various programs. The curriculum encourages openness to other media, and alumni carry this with them out into their careers. Mishima and Mouser first met in 2005 in Oaxaca, Mexico, as participants in a CCA Cultural Diversity Studio. "With a continuing interest to experiment," say Mouser and Mishima, "we let the concepts drive the medium, and in doing so we are always discovering something new."
The Presenters: Food as Experience
Leah Rosenberg (MFA 2008), today the head pastry chef at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's fifth-floor Blue Bottle Cafė, understands how inspiration can come in unexpected forms and places. "During my first year in the MFA program, I started taking cake decorating classes outside of school. I'd come from Vancouver with the hope of finding a new direction. I'd bring the cakes I had made in the classes to my critiques. I loved the response -- it was what I wanted when someone looked at one of my paintings. Eventually I realized that my gratification was not so much about the cake or the painting, but watching my peers consume and enjoy something I made.
Maggie Preston (MFA 2008) feels a similar alchemy. She grew up on a winery outside Healdsburg, in Northern California wine country, and she's now a photographer, a teacher in the after-school arts program Out of Site Youth Arts Center, and, you might say, still grafted to her family's vineyard. "I work at the winery part-time, doing all their photography, maintaining the website, and helping with events. And I've worked crush -- it's also known as harvest, the time when all of the grapes are processed in the winery. That's hands-on, and pretty intense."
Preston articulates a link between the experience of food and the experience of art. "In my photography, I'm trying to create spaces, images, and installations that people can't just label and move on from; they need to spend time with them, and also ideally encounter them outside of where they were originally made. People seeing or tasting something for the first time can enjoy a purely aesthetic experience, rather than examining it in a technical light. Whereas when you make something, you're too close to it and can't taste it anymore."
The Creators: Wine as Artwork
Self-described "cellar rat" Shauna Rosenblum (Ceramics 2006) had a rather more instinctive reaction to the prospect of joining her father's wine business. "I didn't want anything to do with it. No way!" She chose art instead, and with her parents' encouragement, won a scholarship to study Ceramics at CCA. Five years later, she has launched her own viticulture business, Rock Wall Wines, in Alameda. So, what changed?
"My lightbulb moment came when I was in the glaze lab one night. I was preparing for professor John Toki's Clay and Glaze class, creating new glazes using base glaze and different additives. I confronted my triple-beam scale, wearing my safety goggles, surrounded by all my cups of glaze, when it hit me -- I already know how to do this! Blending glaze and blending wine are very similar processes. All the time I spent helping my dad blend wine had made those skills totally innate. That summer, I went back to the winery with a flurry of new questions. I'd been bitten by the winemaking bug. It was through ceramics -- something I fell in love with on my own -- that I fell in love with my family's winemaking tradition.
"People always laugh when I tell them my undergrad degree is in ceramics, but I couldn't have had a more perfect education. It taught me about risk taking, speaking in front of an audience, explaining myself concisely, being able to fluff up a story when necessary and, most importantly, creative problem solving. In both the wine business and the art world, people want to hear the story of what they're buying. When people bought my art, they wanted to talk about what I was thinking when I made the piece. In winemaking, people are thirsty for those same geeky little facts. Rock Wall Wines has a pilot program with terracotta tanks made by John Toki. He taught me so much about working with clay, glaze, glass, and metals. We stayed in touch, and he's doing some very exciting stuff with terracotta winery tanks -- totally against the industry's move toward concrete. This last harvest I fermented some Muscat Canelli in his tanks, inoculated it with a champagne yeast, then put it through malolactic fermentation to create a velvet finish. The result is a floral, aromatic muscat with flavors of blood orange, starfruit, honeysuckle, and mandarin blossom. We call it the Hipster Muscat.
CCA from Coast to Coast
It's not just in Northern California's wine industry where inventive alumni are crossing the boundaries between food and art. The Oakland-based Aaron Gach (MFA 2002) has driven his Tactical Ice Cream Unit -- a working ice cream truck that doubles as a mobile home base for activists -- to demonstrations in Vancouver, Chicago, and New York. Another alum in the Big Apple, Kari Morris (Painting/Drawing 2005), is steadily building a business making small-batch syrups. "The goal of Morris Kitchen is to provide quality products that are made with genuine care, by hand. The ginger syrup is produced here in Brooklyn. The labels are letterpressed and hand stamped with a bottled-on date. We're also working with an apple orchard in upstate New York to make a boiled apple cider syrup, great served with ice cream or fall cocktails."
Another alumna working on the art of the cocktail is Jennifer Colliau (Wood/Furniture 2005), whose company Small Hand Foods creates specialized syrups for pre-Prohibition drinks. Given the recent resurgence of enthusiasm for speakeasies among hipsters and foodies, Colliau's orgeat (a French almond syrup originally made with barley) and grenadine are prized by advanced bartenders from the Mission District to Massachusetts. Colliau's vocation combines art and science (for instance, investigating the inversion process sugars undergo when heated), as well as history. She created a pineapple gum syrup after rediscovering an old recipe for Pisco Punch, invented in San Francisco in 1893.
The Compulsion to Create
Ronald Wornick, a longtime CCA trustee, notes many similarities among creators in both the food industry and the art world. "They are often people who are restless. They're the ones possibly born on the cusp, with more than one personality. Whether in business, or science, or art, they're driven to make new observations, to find a new voice as a maker or an artist." Wornick has experienced that drive himself. Over the course of his long and varied career he has been a professional musician, pioneered freeze-drying technology, earned a graduate degree at MIT, and rose to senior positions at such food giants as United Fruit and Clorox as well as his own Wornick Company, which introduced MREs to the U.S. military. In his career as a food industry scientist, executive, and director, Wornick has been responsible for inventing many new products. "It feels very good to create," he says. "And if you combine creativity and restlessness, you may find yourself running a corner bakery, or you may find yourself running Sara Lee."
Today Wornick is an amateur wood artist, a collector of contemporary craft, and the owner of Seven Stones Winery in California's Napa Valley. "I put a few vines in the ground," he says, modestly. "They became one of the small number of Napa vineyards with a cult following. It was very serendipitous, the shift from food to art and wine. The distances are not great. It's been an exciting and fulfilling adventure."
Despite the similarities between making art and making food, Wornick notes a critical difference in the marketplace. "Food consumption is finite. You cannot triple the size of the food market in the United States. So producers compete against one another rigorously; you have to differentiate yourself significantly from whoever you're trying to bounce off the shelf. Art doesn't face the same limitation. All art forms enjoy unlimited creators and beneficiaries."
The Entrepreneurs: Food as Business
What started out for Tim Kelly (MFA 1999) as a job to pay off student loans evolved into a long-term partnership with Hillstone Restaurant Group, a company that owns numerous restaurants from Santa Monica to the Hamptons. "In 2002 I joined Hillstone's design and construction department, and I maintain an art practice that includes video and photography. A restaurant is essentially a theater in which food is the main character. Everything else is the supporting cast. There's a lot of overlap between art and food, particularly in performance, which is what I studied at CCA. The differences arise in process and execution. Working in a corporate environment is quite different than the studio. But in the end, it's all about connecting on an emotional level with your viewer or customer. Otherwise, as the basketball player Allen Iverson might say, 'it's just practice.'"
In 2011 Kelly had the opportunity to renovate an old gas station in the northern California food mecca of Yountville and open it as Kelly's Fuel and Provisions. The store features local wine, beer, and merchandise as well as a rotating art exhibit. "I'm interested in having an artist residency to see how other artists respond to the site. There's a fascinating mix of people that come through here, from farm workers to vineyard owners. I help them all refuel in one way or another."
Joseph Pitruzzelli (Industrial Design 2005) has also parlayed restaurant design into ownership. Having cut his teeth designing San Francisco's Etiquette Lounge, he opened his own place in Los Angeles, Wurstküche, which bills itself as a "Purveyor of Exotic Grilled Sausages" and features flavors such as rattlesnake and rabbit, and alligator smoked andouille, as well as a handful of vegetarian options. "It was at CCA that I learned the design process that I now apply to almost everything. I also gained technical experiences, which I call upon to speak the language of contractors and architects. And it challenged me to take risks by exposing me to other creative people. I tell our staff that we sell sausage, beer, and an experience -- and that that experience is consciously designed." Pitruzzelli's fusion of Deutsche fare and design flair has won thousands of carnivorous converts in Southern California. Wurstküche recently opened a second location in Venice Beach.
The Arbiters of Taste: Food as Culture
As editor in chief of the print magazine Meatpaper, Sasha Wizansky (MFA 1998) has a unique viewpoint not only on meat eaters, but also on the way food and art fulfill a range of desires. "Food can fill a physical hunger or stimulate an aesthetic demand. Art can feed a sensory void or stimulate academic discourse. Food and art can both be cheap, mass produced, democratic, expensive, rarified, or entirely exclusive. The more I think about this question, the more similarities I see. In the U.S., though, the necessity of food never needs to be defended, whereas there's a schism between those who consider art a basic human need and those who consider it superfluous."
A former vegetarian, Wizansky coined the phrase Fleischgeist (meat spirit) after noticing a shift toward meat in Bay Area eating habits. "In 2004 I started a collaborative project about meat, and wound up carrying around a 'meat notebook,' talking to people about meat. It's one of the world's best conversation starters. I heard childhood stories, Brazilian barbeque recommendations, and deeply personal meat confessions. Some people were compelled to tell me that they loved certain meat dishes, but felt terribly guilty while eating them."
The number of CCA alumni who've entered the food or wine industry isn't surprising, Wizansky argues, given the college's emphasis on interdisciplinary inquiry. "Though I never anticipated that I'd become a magazine editor, the essential aspects of creating a magazine are collaborative, interdisciplinary, and curatorial, all intuitive skills for art students."
Brazilian food historian Marcia Zoladz (Graphic Design 1975) offers a longer perspective on the links between the two fields and stresses the artisanal (as opposed to aesthetic) qualities inherent in art and cooking. "Although today both belong to what could be described as cultural industry, originally they belonged to the crafts rather than the arts." Based in São Paulo, Zoladz is a journalist, an author who has published cookbooks in Holland and Germany, and a restaurant menu consultant. She delivers lectures across the world (regularly at the Oxford University Symposium on Food and History), and she has traced her nation's sweet tooth from the Arabian Caliphs to the Iberian Peninsula, from the court of Portugal to the African Coast to Brazil.
Creativity Crosses Boundaries
From São Paulo to San Francisco, compelled by intellectual curiosity and pure creative drive, CCA alumni are discovering the many threads that connect art and food. Michael Muscardini (Printmaking 1972) spent 27 years in the construction business, and then in 2004 sold his company to follow in the footsteps of his Italian-born grandfather Emilio, making wine. "My life has been profoundly affected by CCA. Today, running Muscardini Cellars requires both the business skills I gained from being a builder and the creativity I experienced at CCA. The whole process is wonderful -- producing a perishable item that produces so much joy."
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