in the City of Light
Sometimes when listening to music you feel like it’s being hardwired into your system.
Sometimes you hear a voice that’s so pure and beautiful, tears spring to your eyes before you realize – separate fr reason or thought – it’s just your body’s natural emotional response.
Get up early London Sunday morning last November, ready for Paris en route from Heathrow. Grab quick bite, bid farewell to friends, head to airport via Tube (having cleverly bought ticket night before with last 5 Euros).
Safely land @ Charles de Gaulle, figure out quickest Metro to hotel, set out on last 36 hours of journey to City of Light.
Now 4pm, dark and chilly winter Sunday evening, everything about to close. Streets surprisingly barren of people. What to do, what to do…
One of my absolute favorite projects that I’ve been working on for the upcoming show is called “The Candle” – an encaustic piece over a photograph, inspired by a meal I had in London last November on my ‘speed dating Europe’ trip. I found myself with 100,000 soon-to-expire frequent flyer miles and a raging case of wanderlust, so I booked my itinerary for a whirlwind 5 day tour of Chicago, London, and Paris. My plan was to sprint through London for just 1 full day, and I’d hoped to include the most spectacular meal I could get my hands on while there. I figured if I planned a lunch instead of dinner I could probably maximize my budget to be able to afford somewhere a bit nicer. So I google’d ‘Most amazing lunch in London’ and up popped Restaurant Story.
My lunch at Restaurant Story was a life altering meal, one of the most amazing culinary experiences I’ve ever had.
OK, I know – ‘food’s food, and even really fantastic food is still just food’ – but for anyone who proudly identifies with ‘lives to eat’ vs ‘eats to live’, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Food is not just food. Throughout the history of mankind, common to all cultures around the world, food is the glue that holds society together. It’s the fabric our social lives get pieced together from, the basis for how we come together when we come together to celebrate, mourn, discuss, debate, commiserate, nourish, or simply to meet our daily needs. It can be utterly simple or incredibly complex, both can be good; truly, both can be amazing… But as I tell my young daughter, the most important lesson in life (after be kind) is You are what you eat, and while when I say that I’m speaking in a more metaphorical sense, its truth begins in the literal sense.
Over the past year I’ve told anyone and everyone who would listen about my incredible meal (seriously, I’ve spent innumerable hours extolling the endless virtues of Restaurant Story), and so it was with overwhelming joy that I happened to catch this closing sentence the other day on PRI, “English chef Tom Sellers told his story to producer Alex Gallafent…” (quickly followed by my silently screamed nooooooooo…!) Whew, thank god for podcasts. Don’t you dare not listen!
As it turns out, Restaurant Story is the brainchild of 26 yr. old wunderkind chef Tom Sellers (acolyte of Thomas Keller at French Laundry & Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, to name two). In reading up on the place, it had mentioned bringing a book to leave for their collection. In my mind’s eye, I imagined a thumb-worn, dusty space with books everywhere. I was surprised to arrive and find the place a study in clean modernity, clever touches of the interesting & peculiar dotted about, but barely a book in sight. An old-fashioned candle was placed on the table upon arrival, before the procession of delectables began arriving. The 6 course lunch that followed (which in truth turned out to be more like 12) was an unbelievable 3 hour succession of the most ingenious culinary feats I’ve ever experienced. Not the least of which was the bread offering. It turns out the meal’s focal point evolved around a sleight of hand of sorts. Midway through the meal, the waiter placed a lovely wooden board with warm bread and a small bowl of relish on it. He explained that the seemingly innocuous candle that had been burning for the past half hour was in fact a candle made from rendered animal fat, meant to dip your bread into.
It’s difficult to describe the peculiar pleasure of being surprised by something that has been sitting right there in front of you, staring you in the face. When an ordinary object all of a sudden appears to transform into the extraordinary. Being able to achieve this using the most humble course in the meal makes it that much more effective.
I could happily go on for hours describing each surprising course; an airy cloud of riced potato floating atop a pool of coal (yes, edible coal oil); whole flash-crisped tiny shrimps; a savory Oreo with smoked eel mousse; grilled onions in gin; wrapped leeks & candied lovage twigs; almond ice cream with dill snow, which tasted like eating Winter itself… Sigh. And the stories, remarkable stories that they only told you if you happened to ask, ‘why are the forks upside down?’ which led to the tale of a cultivated Spanish princess marrying a brutish prince whose boorish table manners – even with the addition of utensils – still necessitated the tines only touch the table in order to mitigate the filth… the fabulous bee insignia on the knives… on & on.
I hope to capture the eternal appeal of an artist transforming the mundane into the sublime.