Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chefs on Exhibit

There’s nothing new about our local chefs showing up to help other organizations. They are the backbone of benefits, generous contributors to every kind of charity gig, and the reason that many are willing to purchase tickets and attend these events. But it’s the food rather than the inspired, conceptual thinking behind it that usually gets all the attention. But it was quite a different story last Saturday night in the galleries at the Palate/Palette fundraiser for MOCA Cleveland.

The artistry of five chefs was the centerpiece of the evening rather than the backdrop. Each had chosen one of the five senses to express and fashioned a unique presentation environment for their dishes. Instead of just grazing mindlessly, we encountered intentionally designed sensory worlds that awakened and heightened perceptions, challenged assumptions, and engaged the mind in the act of eating. All the chefs seemed thrilled with the opportunity and clearly had fun with it. “Creating experiences and stimulating the senses is what we do,” Brandt Evans told me. “It’s wonderful to see that being celebrated.”

I was totally taken with the idea and wowed by the execution. Here’s a brief chef by chef recap of their food-meets-art offerings.

Brandt Evans, Blue Canyon, Sight:
Knowing that we eat with our eyes first, Evans hung big food photos behind his table, cuing up anticipation by adding a word to each image: luminosity; lush: stimulating. Big glass vessels willed with asparagus, limes, and basil decorated he staging area. So we were primed and ready for his scallop ceviche with lime and ginger. There was a kind of visual trick to it- the burst of flavor, full of exciting unexpected elements, was so much more than the sum of what could be seen.

Karen Small, The Flying Fig, Smell:
We entered a small windowless dimly lit room with seating for 20, 25 people at tables arranged in a squared-off u-shape. Each place was set with two small cups: in one a ricotta dumpling with onions, chives, and scallions; in the other slivers of grass fed beef short ribs and mushrooms. As we watched, steaming broth was poured on top- smoked pork for the meat, something gingery for the dumpling. Small urges us to inhale deeply before we open our mouth or pick up a spoon. It is a revelation- so much information coming in through the nose.

Jonathon Sawyer, The Greenhouse Tavern, Touch:
We filed in eight at a time, sat down, removed our shoes, and stepped up to the bar, as instructed, positioning ourselves on a marble square. Heat flowed up through the soles of our feet as Sawyer passed us a bowl of warm miso based broth. We cupped it in our hands and drank. Then we moved to the other side and stood on icy cold stones to sip chilled ramp vichyssoise. For both, Sawyer told us to close our eyes. It was like kissing- blocking out visual impressions intensified what the body felt.

Sergio Abramof, Sergio’s and Sarava, Sound:
He’s got a passion for percussion, so Abramof brought some drumming pals in to create beats to back up his Brazilian shrimp and rice. But instead of their usual selection of instruments, these pros pounded out rhythms using kitchen equipment: whisks, spoons, pots, strainers, skillets. It was impossible to hold still. Sergio was swaying and sautéing, people waiting to snag a plate looked like an impromptu conga line. The dish had a mouth music of its own- together they made a dance party.

Doug Katz, fire food and drink, Taste:
His chocolate truffles were the good bye gift. Four were packed in a clear box divided into sections with a paper insert featuring a different photo to accompany the list of primary ingredients and character descriptions for each bite. It was fun, clever, inventive. Like what the best chefs do. The candies were equally original- bittersweet chocolate peppercorn; white chocolate tarragon; milk chocolate rhubarb; and my personal favorite unsweetened chocolate laced with sea salt.

The event looked like a financial success. There was a nice sized crowd that paid $250 per ticket and big bucks were bid for original artwork during the live auction. But staying true to its mission of exploring contemporary culture, looking beyond the conventional and acceptable, and showcasing originality, MOCA is to be commended for also using their fundraiser as a vehicle for raising awareness of the exceptional talent in our culinary community.

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