„Yes, it fucking worked“ – using performance in cooking and tasting
To Cite this Article
In “classic” performance art, food has long found its place as an artistic medium; one of the earliest and most spectacular stageings being Meret Oppenheimer’s “Cannibal Feast” (1959), or, much more recently, the work of Alicia Rios. As a chef and sommelier, the author approaches the subject from the very opposite direction. She argues that performance elements, if taken as tools, can be of great value for tasting and cooking. Confronted with the everyday in a slightly unfamiliar way (the very definition of performance art), not only tasters but also chefs can be challenged to rethink and reexamine objects and acts and thus escape the tunnel vision of their profession or occupation. Her points of departures are two such “food performances”. The first is a cheese and wine tasting she organized and moderated (“performed”) herself during the Month of Performance Art in Berlin in May 2014, during which participants were not allowed to take the cheese and wine into their mouth or touch it with their tongues. The other is a scene from the Danish chef René Redzepi’s Journal (2013), that achieves a similar effect and which she analyzes as a deliberate, spontaneous performance act (instead of just an example of focussed imagination), aiming to cajole the audience/chefs present to think out of the box, in order to transcend deeply engrained notions of “right” and “wrong”.
Food performance, tasting, translating sensual impressions, organoleptic deconstruction, unfamiliar creativity, Meret Oppenheimer, Alicia Rios, René Redzepi, Noma
In „classic“ performance art, food has long found its place as an artistic medium; one of the earliest and most spectacular stageings being Meret Oppenheimer’s Cannibal Feast (1959), or, much more recently, the work of Alicia Rios. As a chef and sommelier, my approach of the subject is from the very opposite direction. I’d like to argue that performance elements, if taken as tools, can be of great value for tasting and cooking. Confronted with the everyday in a slightly unfamiliar way (the very definition of performance art), not only tasters but also chefs can be challenged to rethink and reexamine objects and acts and thus escape the tunnel vision of their profession or occupation.
My points of departures will be two such „food performances“. The first is a cheese and wine tasting I organized and moderated („performed“) myself during the Month of Performance Art in Berlin in May 2014, during which participants were not allowed to take the cheese and wine into their mouth or touch it with their tongues. The other is a scene from the Danish chef René Redzepi’s Journal (2013), which I will analyze as a deliberate, spontaneous performance act (instead of just an example of focussed imagination), aiming to cajole the audience/chefs present to think out of the box, in order to transcend deeply engrained notions of „right“ and „wrong“.
It has long been established that gastronomy, performance art and theater have a lot in common. If we look at theater as the mutual agreement on certain roles and characters, a game of make-believe and what-if, it makes more than sense for instance for Max Shrem to write: „To understand the aesthetics of gastronomy, one must first of all recognize the meal as a performance piece, and acknowledge its cultural affinities with theater.“ Talking about cultural transgression as the breaking down of artistic boundaries and the merging of disciplines, he quotes Allen Weiss on the introduction of cuisine to the ranks of fine arts: „In this originary moment of modernism, every art form now had a place (however actual, however potential) in the synaesthetic matrix; indeed, all the senses needed to be aesthetically justified and represented. Cuisine, along with the other arts – with their attendant representational, symbolic, and allegorical doubles – would now have a determined place in the formal structure of the system of the fine arts.
Yet, my background is not the theoretical argument in classrooms, the philosophical debate on campus. I have been working and living as a professional chef, a sommelier, a restaurant owner, a wine trader and a cheesemonger. At present though, as a food and wine writer as well as food historian, life seems to drift ever further into the direction of art. Having been brought up with the notion of art as something much removed from everyday, something segregated to museums, I’ve gradually veered towards a more inclusive understanding. This is from a painting by the feminist artist Judy Chicago, a poem by Adrienne Rich: „Choosing ourselves each other and this life we stream into the unfinished the unbegun the possible.“ And here is a manifesto from Bread and Puppet, the political theater group founded by Peter Schuhmann in 1963, and housed now in Northern Vermont:
Having organized, chaired and commented many wine and cheese tastings, I’ve become more and more aware of how difficult it is to fully reach out to a tasting audience, to fully connect the senses with our brains. To actively taste is to translate sensual impressions of touch, smell and taste as well as visual (and sometimes sound) into words – a huge task which requires ceaseless practice. Also, in my experience, the challenge starts long before that. Actually „listening“ to your senses presents an enormous task. While explaining about breeds of cows, mountain pastures and milk processing during those tastings, my foremost concern is avoiding that cheese to disappear too quickly, as if this was sitting down hungry at a dinner table. „There are no taste buds on your teeth,“ I keep pointing out, half-jokingly, and, „cheese is made from milk, it is a matter of life; very haptic – so touch it, feel it, think of mothers’ breasts.“ But this pleading only works up to a point, because food-consuming dinner table situations and admonitions not to play with one’s food are so deeply engrained in brains and behaviour patterns.
Meret Oppenheimer: „Freedom is not given to you – you have to take it“ – this was the artist in her speech on receiving the Basle Art Award in 1975, standing up against the limitation and debasement of women in society, declaring the traditional role model as obsolete and all her life resisting attempts at formal categorizations of her work, opting instead for diversity of style, content and artistic media. „Here no caste spirit reigns./Here everyone can freely express himself.“
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: „As a sensory experience, taste operates in multiple modalities—not only by way of the mouth and nose, but also the eye, ear, and skin. How does food perform to the sensory modalities unique to it? A key to this question is a series of dissociations. While we eat to satisfy hunger and nourish our bodies, some of the most radical effects occur precisely when food is dissociated from eating and eating from nourishment. Such dissociations produce eating disorders, religious experiences, culinary feats, sensory epiphanies, and art.“ (my emphasis)
Professional tasters have to overcome the same hurdle, albeit at a different stage and level. They do tend to take in sensual impressions from a limited, often narrowly defined spectrum, they are mostly conditioned to classify as „fault“ anything beyond this, and, most importantly, in a kind of reflex they tend to use a limited, repetitive vocabulary unsuited to translate the wealth of shapes, textures, and aromas in front of them.
It is only through meeting the food performance artist Pepe Dayaw and experiencing his interactions with food and people that I discovered a way to transcend these obstacles. He invited me to take part in the series of events he curated with Lise Poulette as part of the Month of Performance Art in Berlin in May 2014: „Food performs, food performed, performing food, performed food… a flea market of live aphrodisiacs, phagy rituals, food post-porno, there might just be something for every taste. An eclectic mix of people working and playing with food will gather at the MPA-B HUB, Holzmarkt 25 Ding Dong Dom – like herbs and spices in a rice bowl – and simultaneously create a spectrum of edible acts and stories. Departing from each’s specific approach and experiences with food, a constellation of unique narratives weave together in one place, where the link of the end product to be consumed and its process of production is made sensible in the form of rituals that bound the sacred and profane. Durational and prompt performances cooked by locals from Berlin, both alien, native or in-between, for the love of food!… Ursula Heinzelmann will be there with us on Sunday from 6pm, and will tickle our tastebuds at 6:30 with a tasting, exploring cheese and wine in an unusual and performative way.“
At that point I had no clear idea about what exactly I would do. However, this is part of what mingling with performance artists has taught me: To let things evolve instead of aiming for perfection (which holds just as true at the stove as around a dinner table). To overcome my own inhibitions, help others to overcome theirs. In fact, performance art allows for inclusiveness. Anything goes and everything has potential, nothing is too simple, too small or too banal.
The Fluxus artist Alison Knowles has been performing „Making a Salad“ since the early 1960s, most recently at the MOMA PS1. In an interview she said: „My least favorite way to present is to a small class of art students. They have expectations of what it is going to be like to be an artist. I’m such a wayward, offbeat artist, I shouldn’t guide people in that way… I have no straight line of any kind to follow… The idea is that our daily activities, our relationships, and what we do alone – in the kitchen, the hallway, alone at the computer, in the bedroom – should be considered as part of our expression.“ Knowles never loses sight of food as “a substance which nourishes. When we see it being used as art we examine it more intensely. We enrich our lives because we encounter this food again in life. The nonverbal energy that happens when I perform with food interests me.”
Back in Berlin at the makeshift space that was the Ding Dong Dom, watching others perform (we were a group of artists out of which one after another we stepped forward, in opposite to being in front of an audience as such), quickly gave me ideas of my own. I would ask the group to „taste without tasting“. Serendipity had its fingers in it: the floor was wooden and not precious – this can be tricky in other premises. About 20 people stood in a large circle as Pepe Dayaw introduced me and I explained the rules: „Explore, approach, get to know as intimately as possible – but do not put on your tongue or in your mouth“.
It is, of course, not a new idea. The Spanish food artist Alicia Rios performed her piece „Organoleptic Deconstruction in Three Movements“ in 1993 at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. On her website it is described it as „mashing up a variety of pink and white foods with her hands… Enticing images of food were then accompanied by the amplified sounds of chewing and swallowing. Finally she rolled about on a transparent mattress filled with potato chips.“ Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett commented: „She made chewing into a full body process. She externalized the mouth, extended the mouth’s lining to the rest of her skin, and displaced the mouth’s functions onto the rest of the body. Her whole body became a masticating mouth. While etiquette books insist that one chew with the mouth closed, never speak with a full mouth or spit, and dispose of anything removed from the mouth discretely, Rios spoke with her “mouth” full and committed what in most cultures amounts to a sacrilege: „wasting“ food. As Kirshenblatt-Gimblett points out, the Futurists did something similar, also using their hands to chew their food for what they called ‚prelabial tactile pleasure’, and taking the idea of dissociation to extremes.
In my own tentative treading around the fine lines between performance and real life, art and eating, I first poured the wine, a white, dry Silvaner (not a particularly aromatic grape variety). My unusual, liberating approach excluded glasses or any other recepticle, so as I went round with the bottle the group put out their cupped hands, bowl-like. Last, I poured into my own hands. Liquid, cool, non-oily. Many lifted their hands to their noses, bent their heads to take in the smell. Some dipped their noses into the wine. Someone approached her ear, another dipped their ear into it. Wine dripped. Wet hands were smelled, rubbed against each other, wine entered the pores and evaporated, leaving coolness and an idea of ancient caves. Hands were waved to explore that coolness further, helping new aroma particles along, to be freshly released…
Then, the cheese. I didn’t know at all what to expect. I had brought a youngish, semihard Bavarian cow’s milk cheese, whose rind had been washed with a fenugreek infused brine. I cut rindless 1cm cubes and handed them one each, reminding them again of the „no mouth, no tongue“ rule. Fingers felt, pressed gently. Noses inhaled, inhaled deeply. Eyes closed, brain and soul following the scent on invisible trajectories, each of us on their own inner journey. Then again, fingers were eager to feel, press, and rub. Initially the cheese resisted, but gradually yielded, as the body warmth embraced it. Elasticity became malleable, fingers formed and rolled, remembering all kinds of other materials they once touched. Aromas rose, of cows and barnyards, woods and bodies. Everything became more intense, hands warmly, first quietly caressed as if stroking an animal’s warm fur, full of lanolin, then glowing as the solid reverted to almost liquid, and again, pores absorbed what the tongue wasn’t allowed to touch. A feeling of childlike pleasure was palpable, exploring, without fixed goal.
On a later occasion, again teaming up with Pepe Dayaw, we would announce this as a „voyage with a subtle degustation of wine and cheese that will bring us to dig into our own cultural depths and nuances. As we move and touch and listen, we feel how much the tongue detects [normally], how much the nose takes in, our links between smell and language so pitifully weak, those between smell and memory so wonderfully strong. We offer you wine and cheese to explore and dig into your own depths.“
At the Ding Dong Dom, Ayumi Saito, a Japanese food artist, gave me a bright smile, a small dot of kneeded cheese sitting like a bindi between her dark eyes when I finally passed glasses of the same wine around, for tongues to taste and reconnect to the other senses.
In a second step of using performance tools to change and refresh tasting habits, I have applied the same rules to language. With a group of cheesemongers from small, unpretentious retail outlets I started with distributing a first cheese, asking them to describe what they were tasting. Predictably, the adjectives used were „mild“, „strong“, „creamy“, „nutty“, and „savoury“ (würzig). Pointing out their linguistic preferences/limits, I declared those very words as verboten for the rest of the seminar and did enforce that rule gently, but strictly, if in a playful way. The group was forced to search their minds and souls for associations, more precise wordings, reaching beyond their respective comfort zones, to tap into unfamiliar creativity.
The same could be said for the phenomenon commonly called today „Nordic Cuisine“. Its roots lie in Ferran Adrià’s complete questioning of any traditional rules for cooking and cuisine. Searching for a new language at the stove (or any other implement) as well as at the table, he questioned taste as such, making way for a complete resetting of socially conditioned notions. This also calls to mind Ludwig Wittgenstein who wrote: „A present-day teacher of philosophy doesn’t select food for his pupil with the aim of flattering his taste, but with the aim of changing it.“
In an interview, the Nordic movement’s spiritus rector and Noma co-founder René Redzepi told me: „Working at El Bulli left [me] with a great sense of freedom: good food didn’t necessarily have to be French oriented or involve foie gras and truffles from Périgord. It can be whatever you think. We have discovered that by limiting ourselves [to Nordic ingredients], once you break through the initial difficulties, a whole new world opens up, and you start to see the possibilities instead of the restraints. That has been a big part of shaping our cuisine.“ At the same time, the dining rules at Noma also diverged considerably from what was then the norm at this level of restaurant – chefs were serving, diners were expected to eat with their hands. Redzepi talked about steak tartare as an example: „It was created five years ago, at the height of the high-tech era and that dish was like, well, let’s see what we can do without electricity. So it’s a dish where you use only your knife. You scrape and you pick; it’s simple. It’s not an assembly of textures created by machines; it’s an assembly of craftsmanship and products. To enhance that experience you should eat the meat with your fingers. Some people get provoked by eating with their fingers at a fine-dining restaurant, others love it. I think it’s wonderful because it breaks down the barriers.“ On a different occasion he says: “It was an interactive dish, in which you [as diner] had to trim some of your own herbs and garnish from a landscape served in a plate of hay… Every element had meaning and substance. Most of the time, things like this are pretentiously theatrical and pretty terrible. In this case, the whole idea – the thought, the flavours and the performance – were poetry, Neruda-esque.“
Opening up, breaking down barriers – Redzepi thinks of himself and his team as „explorers of the edible world, finding new methods and new treasures, learning how to forage, to sense the world“. He is acutely aware of how important it is to find new ways to look at things with fresh eyes and minds and how difficult that is: „This happens every time we encounter something new: endless possibilities appear… but then a few months pass and the excitement starts to wear off. You’re still exploring, but the intoxicating sense of discovery disappears, and with it that limitless potential. We talked about it in the kitchen, how we don’t look at a carrot anymore with the same excitement as we looked at these dried gems [dried samphire] off the coastline today. It’s an exercise we should look into if we find the time this year: to take some of our most familiar ingredients and rediscover them, as if we’re renewing our wedding vows.“
One method Redzepi found to work well is to occasionally team up with other chefs such as David Chang for „a kind of gastronomic jam session… challenging our routines“. He also talks about feeling the need to trust his gut instinct more, connecting the „reverberations“ from within and long ago to the present moment, all the while thinking and exploring completely freely into all directions. As in performance art, which aims to affect the performer at least as much as it is intended to be observed, Redzepi repeatedly creates situations at the intersection of reality and theater, accepted boundaries and crazy avantgarde. He half-deliberately, half-spontaneously intends them to take a life of its own, to free the group’s creativity and escape their cultural socialization. Thus they discover the amazingly strong and pleasant taste of ants. Describing the initial inhibition to put the living animals in their mouths, he goes on: „With that first punch of flavour the revulsion disappeared. Literally from one second to the next, I went from seeing a box of bugs to letters in the culinary vocabulary.“
His most performanc-related technique however has a strong theatrical element and recalls René Magritte’s „Ceci n’est pas une pipe“ as well as Michel Foucault’s interpretation of it. It first „happened“ when a farmer brought carrots he had by accident left in the earth over the winter. René remembered how well this had worked when they were feeling deadlocked with a cauliflower. „…we tapped into one of our old ways of looking at ingredients, a technique we first used a few years ago when we got our hands on the vintage carrot. Baffled by its sheer unpleasantness, we knew that something special was going to have to happen. Screw it: I held up one of the misshapen things in front of me with both hands and said, ‚This is not a carrot; this is the best, most marbled and expensive piece of côte de boeuf I’ve ever laid hands on.’ I was jolted back to reality (and my carrot) by a roaring laugh from the boys witnessing my unorthodox mind games. My point was that if I could see this carrot as something very costly and precious, it would change the way I treated it. Eventually we did cook the carrot like a steak, with the same care and dedication as a perfect cut of beef. So in a way it was simple, really: I lifted up my cauliflower, held it in front of me with both hands, and said ‚this is not a cauliflower’, this is the best, most delicious chicken ever.’ Did it work? … Yes, it fucking worked.
© Ditte Isager
This approach not only results in the creation of two beautiful dishes. Arguably even more rewarding is the way Redzepi’s initially spontaneous and (as many performance art can be ) potentially awkward/embarrassing approach enters his team’s toolbox and changes the way they see and work with ingredients. „Torsten barged into the changing room. ‚You’ve got to check this out, chef,’ he said proudly holding up a case of celeriac no bigger than apples, the moist soil still clinging to the roots, the tops lush. His eyes were tender, as if he was clutching a bunch of puppies. ‚ What do you think – aren’t they beautiful? I fucking love them.’ … ‚Me too, this celeriac is beautiful…’ ‚No, no, chef, it’s not celeriac, can’t you see? These are perfectly aged, exquisite côte de boeufs.’“ He goes on to create a dish combining the slowly braised root with a truffle sauce, giving it star treatment.
© Ditte Isager
This is art as food, in food, and food as art, transcending boundaries and opening up immensely deep wells of creativity through very simple (and yet rare) fresh ways of looking, tasting, listening, touching, feeling.
 https://www.facebook.com/events/570307263066252/?fref=ts acc. Feb 22, 2015.
 Weiss, Allen S. Feast and Folly: Cuisine, Intoxication, and the Poetics of the Sublime (NY: State University of NY, 2002), p. 35.
 Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara, Playing to the Senses: Food as Performance Medium, in: Performance Research 4, 1 (1999), p. 2.
 Sherman, Julia, Make a Salad. An interview with Alison Knowles. Lucky Peach magazine, Summer 2015, pp. 43-46.
 Quoted by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, op. cit.
 http://www.alicia-rios.com/en/food/performances.html acc. Aug. 19, 2015.
 Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Playing to the Senses, p. 7.
 Quoted in Genova, Judith, Wittgenstein, a Way of Seeing (NY: Routledge, 1995), p. 2.
 http://www.gastronomica.org/interview-ren-redzepi-noma-copenhagen/ acc. Aug. 24, 2015.
 Redzepi, René, Journal (London: Phaidon, 2013), p. 91.
 ibidem, p. 43.
 ibidem, p. 115.
 ibidem, p. 178/9.
 ibidem, pp 127-28.
 ibidem, p. 169.