Spring Travel: Part 1

Chef’s Play Date in San Francisco at Benu and In Situ at SFMOMA

Several culinary creatives banded together in San Francisco to play with the notion of art and food at two recent food events, one of them appropriately held at the SFMOMA. It appears to be a growing trend around the world for chefs to get together for collaborative ventures, sometimes in celebration of their restaurants anniversaries, or a guest chef series or theme-based dinner events, or around the many best of lists and other global award shindigs.

Of the two special dinner events, the first was an intimate affair at chef Corey Lee’s three Michelin starred Benu with chef Enrico Crippa of Piazza Duomo and the Ceretto Winery of Alba, Italy. The Ceretto Group partnered with Crippa in 2005 in their endeavor for the valorization of Italian cuisine and it’s history, coupled with their keen appreciation of art to present a unique collaboration celebrating the artistic form of cuisine.

The Ceretto Group has holdings of over 160 hectares in the Langhe, Roero, and the DOCG’s of Barolo and Barbaresco, making it one of the largest producers in the Piedmont. Since 2000 the vineyards have followed a bio-dynamic approach promoting sustainable oenology. The family-owned winery has also established a bonafide association with the art world through multiple art projects that include the restoration of The Chapel in Barolo with the works of artists Sol LeWitt and David Tremlett. It has been followed by the installation of the stunning glass structure aptly named The Cube in Castiglione Falletto (which has since become a symbol of the Barolo) as well as The Grape at the Monsardo Estate headquarters of the Ceretto Group. The last is a large oval bubble made to resemble a grape is a reflection of the innovative spirit of the Ceretto family and is the site of wine tastings and cultural events.

The three Michelin-starred Piazza Duomo restaurant is adorned with a fresco by Neapolitan artist Francesco Clemente while the casual La Piola restaurant with unique plates from renowned international artists.

The Artists House on the estate has welcomed resident artists like Kiki Smith, James Brown, and more while the annual autumn exhibitions opens the world of food and art to art lovers. The food-related projects extend to the Relanghe confectionary focusing on nougat and the delicious hazelnut cake made with IGP hazelnuts of the Piedmont. There is even a hazelnut sourdough on the menu at Crippa’s Piazza Duomo. The Arbiora cheese project promotes the quality Castelmagno goat cheese from Bubbio while preserving regional gastronomic traditions.

The first event at the sleek, minimalist Benu restaurant for a small group including wine and food journalists (some all the way from Italy) was a stellar experience with wine pairings to match by Master Sommelier and Wine Director Yoon Ha. The meal began with a potato cream and lapsing souchang dish, then the unforgettable seafood plateau with an especially stunning marinated mussel filled with glass noodles as one of the five tastes, it was followed by Crippa’s cod in red bath and sesame leaf rice by Corey Lee, with an array of condiments that felt akin to opening one delicious gift after another.

The piece de resistance was a perfectly barbecued quail first brought to the table whole and then carved and plated. Then a sumptuous array of deserts arrived including a flower pop, traditional Korean omija berry tea and olive oil which was a perfect palate cleanser, and the last a signature dolci from the Crippa’s menu in Alba, lemon cream “profiterole”.

Chef Corey Lee has realized a unique culinary concept at his In Situ restaurant at the SFMOMA where the menu showcases a collection of recipes by the World’s 50 Best List chefs. This gastrolibrary researched and curated by chef Corey Lee has earned a Michelin star, establishing it as an international culinary hub and was the location for the second event. For the unique one-time-only dinner Lee and Crippa were joined by Chef Brandon Rodgers of In Situ, Chef Blaine Wetzel of The Willows Inn, Chef Daniel Patterson of Coi, and pastry chef Belinda Leone of B. Patisserie.

Guests were invited to sample tray passed hors d’ouvres and excellent Ceretto wines before sitting down to a seven course dinner prepared by the six talented chefs.

Earlier in the afternoon while I watched the feverish prep in the kitchens with chefs and their teams, in the dining room Daniel Patterson’s plates were getting painstakingly adorned with a golden grid to serve his asparagus dish. The chefs had each picked an artist and their work to interpret on their plates and with the formidable talent around it resulted in an impressive array of courses. Patterson had chosen “Untitled” from On A Clear Day, 1973 by Agnes Martin picking up on the artist’s vision of “Art is adventurous, strenuous and joyful”. I had observed the “strenuous” part with the young cooks laboriously working on plates that afternoon, later all meticulously checked by Chef Patterson.

Crippa used his fingers to paint with edible colors each of the seventy plus bowls used to serve his Anchovies and Green Sauce, an interpretation of Francesco Clemente’s “Food from Fifty-one Days on Mt Abu”, 1995. I am still curious about what the vivid blue color was derived from. Needless to say it was one of the outstanding dishes of the evening both in taste and presentation. In all fairness Crippa had an advantage since he sees one of the works of the artist on the pink hued walls of his restaurant every day. The classic Piedmontese dish was certainly re invented by the culinary skill and plating art of the chef and his team and may be altered for ever.

The previous night Crippa had served a rice, calvisius, and lentisco dish at Benu and at In Situ, Corey Lee sent out a Abalone Grits dish inspired by “Thirty Watercolors from CVIII”, 1985. It was interesting to see the two chefs personal interpretation of the monochromatic artwork at the two events. Crippa’s dish that debuted at museum restaurant is slated to be included into the archives of In Situ and will appear on the rotating menu.

Blaine Wetzel served a Blu Fin Tuna- the bloodline, heart and skin with cabbage and wildflower spice, an interpretation of Cai Guo-Qiana’s “Inopportune: Stage Two”, 2004.Brandon Rodgers interpreted Tauba Auerbach’s Crumple II, 2008 in his Chicken Crepinette dish superbly executing his version of a classic preparation. It was paired with Cannubi San Lorenzo Barolo, 2008 from Ceretto and no doubt the wine was a hit. Pastry chef Belinda Leone stole some of the thunder with her two desserts, one a chocolate, almond, and coffee confection, her interpretation of one of my favorite installations at the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Speaking about edible vision of Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time, 2005 she said, “I was amazed by the sheer volume of the piece. The shapes seem to flow into each other, challenging my perception of where it begins and ends.”

Her second dessert was Citrus and Yogurt at the SFMOMA by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot, Clinamen v.3,2012. By now the food stupor a by product of the procession of dishes paired with the best from the Ceretto cellars had set in. Suddenly over the track playing in the back ground servers appeared with deep trays of clinking porcelain bowls. The white bowls floating in blue liquid contained the delicious creamy yogurt and citrus dessert. It was a beautiful way to end the evening with the poetic presentation of the floating bowls balanced with smaller bowls to keep them afloat. Chef Leong admitted it was the most challenging project she had taken on but it was definitely worth it and super successful.

The evening ended for the chefs, team members, and some of us going over for a private celebration to Chef Lee’s French bistro, Monsieur Benjamin. The arty atmosphere switched to camaraderie over oysters, confits, terrines, and bubbly for the famished and exhausted chefs and cooks. That is the most beautiful part of any gathering of industry folks allowing friendships and bonds to develop and strengthen.

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