I wasn't planning to write about a re-invented avant-garde. Not now. I wasn't planning to write anything this year. My only plan was to grab a cab and go to a dinner in East Village with no other intention than to eat and enjoy.
But now that some time has passed - as well as several articles and films about that very dinner - well, things have changed. I haven't been able to stop thinking about what it was all about. Even though the dinner was cooked by an abundance of the best chefs in the world, it clearly wasn't only about food (not that the food was bad, on the contrary). The thing was rather that the dinner actually did happen and the way in which it was realized.
Food may have been declared as the new black since years now, but this dinner seemed to suggest that food is more than the new black: that food is what art, cinema, poetry and music once was. Don't get me wrong - neither the organizers nor the chefs did anything to point that out. But it goes without saying: if Time Magazine would have chosen cultural icons for the cover in the late 1950's it would have been the likes of Jackson Pollock, Truman Capote or Bob Dylan. Today the cover boys are René Redzeppi, Alex Atala and David Chang (all present this evening...). OK, there is Beyoncé as well, but that is another story.
Food hasn't yet really made it into the cultural pages. It is not yet seen as a tool to understand us humans and the way behave. But we're getting there, because food is simply everywhere. Food is in our stomachs and food is in our brains. Food is what we stand in line to be served at the restaurant of the moment - and food is the most photographed item on social media. Food is what we think, depict and what tells the story of our daily lives.
The case might be that the writings on food still mostly deal with what is on the plate, just like art writing used to be on what was on the canvas, even though that was a long time ago. And this is precisely my point. This is why food is the re-invented avant-garde. And this is why that dinner at WD-50 in fact was everything but a dinner: it was the great escape to bring food to another level.
For me it started when I received a cryptic text message from my friend Magnus Nilsson asking if I wanted to come for a dinner at WD-50 in the East Village. Since it was Magnus asking and since I happened to be in New York for other meetings on that very day, I replied: "of course". I cancelled the dinner with Dorothy Hamilton at the International Culinary Center, hoping she would understand (which, of course, she did...). Arriving it was evident the WD-50 dinner really was no ordinary special dinner, but rather the dinner.
The first person I meet is the always friendly photographer Wolfgang Wesener, who helped me document the Marcel Duchamp exhibition I curated for The Armory show last year. Now Wolfgang was here on commission from the evening's Master of Ceremony, Andrea Petrini, to document the entire event, whispering to me that he already spent 48 hours with the chefs. He whispered because everything was indeed very hush-hush. Of course it was! The dinner turned WD-50 into the very epicenter of the food world in a food crazy world.
Soon we were to be served dish after dish made by 28 of the most renowned chefs in the world. Together these chefs represent so many stars and top rankings on the World's 50 best list, that it is almost absurd to have them all in the same room. And the reason was, of course, silly enough to make everyone relaxed: that Wylie Dufresne's restaurant had its 11th anniversary, the task for the chefs was to re-mix three signature dishes of WD-50. Wylie didn't know anything about it, even though it had been prepared for several months. Being the subject and the victim this time, Wylie was among friends and part of the band. Because this is what they call themselves, a band, with Andrea Petrini at the road manager, and a band entitled GELINAZ!
This is of course spectacular in itself. But as I was sitting there tasting what was coming out of the common - giggling and dead serious - efforts from that very crowded kitchen a few meters away, I could not help but thinking. The energy and the accumulated expectations reminded me of temps perdu (that I have discussed during many dinners with Carsten Höller): that food really is the last avant-garde - or, even better, the re-invented avant-garde.
The WD-50-dinner was most of all like taking part of an early gathering with the surrealists in the 1920's. The situation is indeed similar. They had fun. Serious fun. The surrealists appeared right after Picasso, right after the canvas was turned inside out. They appeared when it felt like it was possible for art to expand outside of the traditional realms of art and develop society. The surrealists were already famous when they formed the group, and those that were not famous soon were to be. By being part of the group they sealed a common status.
The chefs gathered at WD-50 are the generation after elBulli and The Fat Duck (even though they probably do not like to hear about it) - they are the generation right after the first big leap, the first re-thinking of cooking, after Picasso, waiting for Duchamp. They are the generation of the explosion of a new food culture, at the time when food is re-structured, when food is asked for in other fields and need cross-fertilization - and when the role of the chef being re-defined, from handicraft to something more, just like that of an artist in the 1920's. So, now it has turned into a question about writing history: which ones of all these famous stars will make it into the history books? With that follows the need to sharpen ideas and reasoning.
The every day job of a star chef is to deliver a constant proof that they can handle all the tricks of cooking exquisite food on the highest level - kind of like the surrealists had proven they could paint cubist or abstract paintings - each individual as hell, but also very much variations on the same theme. They are simply ready for the leap.
But how? Back to WD-50.
They had fun there in the kitchen. It was obvious. It is understandable: the group allows for experiments. The group allows you to do something beyond the ordinary rules of reception and critique. The group goes beyond the dead serious normal delivery, but allows for another kind of serious - of having fun with a purpose.
The dishes served did play with content. The starting point was Cold Fried Chicken, Shrimp Noodles and Scrambled Egg Ravioli, to be re-mixed. There were those that played with this in a sort pop-like humorous touch, as the first dish by David Chang, Rosio Sanchez, Alex Stupak, Daniel Humm and Christina Tosi - a version of Kentucky Fried Chicken, with very large amounts of Russian Caviar. Or the dish presented by Inaki Aizpitarte, Kobe Desramaults and Bertrand Graimbaut, maybe an irony of the Russian bling-bling influence over gastronomy, through apples filled with chicken liver mousse and, again, Russian caviar. Agata Felluga and Magnus Nilsson introduced the perhaps most sophisticated dish of the evening: the ice plate required rapid eating to experience the confrontation between the opposites - cold and hot. Simple and refined, like a bicycle wheel. René Redzeppi's and Ben Shewry's story of constant trial and failure ended in something interesting: Rotten Chicken and Rotten Corn for Deadheads. And of course it is hilarious when 3-star Daniel Boulud marry Danny Bowien's street knowledge.
So, you see, the dinner really was a display that food is the re-invented avant-garde. But food has yet to see its urinal, the gesture the turns content and structure upside down so that there is no mental way to go back, neither for the chefs, nor for the audience.
Marcel Duchamp never saw himself as a surrealist (or anything else that would tie him to a group), but he was an important contributor the surrealist exhibitions and they meant a lot to him. Duchamp changed the art world because he refused to play the game. He refused being evaluated and a tool for the market or the media. When asked why he moved from Paris, where the art world was at the time, to a remote New York in 1915, Marcel Duchamp replied: "I felt Europe was going to be all about the market's competition between Picasso and Braque - and I didn't want to compete on such a low level."
And maybe, just maybe, that is what the chefs searched for at WD-50, while we, as spectators, stood there with a glass of champagne in our hands, like under the coal sacks that Marcel Duchamp hung in the ceiling in the 1938 Surrealist Exhibition in Paris - so that the fancy dresses of the bourgeoisie would become a bit dusty.
One of the first things Magnus Nilsson told me when I arrived was that his being there - and the other chefs, and mine and all the guests - came from the chefs' own pockets. That was the ritual that threw this evening out from the ordinary. No one could buy a ticket to get in. It was not a corporate event. This was about the chefs, if only for one night, buying themselves out of their own secluded and controlled kitchens to do something of their own, where they could not be judged. This was outside of the normal systems of evaluation.
Just think about the reality for a top chef today. You have to be not one but many, to reference Deleuze. On the one hand you are media star, up there, amongst - or even beyond - the Hollywood bling. Some may resist, but it is difficult not to end up on TV, with books, a public figure. And you have to be a social and talkative person, making guests feel relaxed while maintaining respect. You have to be an entrepreneur as well as a preacher, as the chef is now being asked to save the planet and make it more sustainable, now that the global population is moving to cities. The future chef - after the avant-garde - is multi-task business: creator, innovator, business developer and potential preacher.
But first of all: you have to be on the list, the A-list. And this is really what makes the world of food the re-invented avant-garde. If there are two simple words that describe the very core driving force of the world of gastronomy they are: Americal Idol. Not the TV-show, but the phenomena.
The world of gastronomy is a world of top-of-the-pops, of getting recognized through the same kind of lists that used to structure the music industry, before Spotify and iTunes. That means that the life of a chef is a life of constant evaluation, to all the time be on your toes and not make any mistakes, because you are under surveillance. Either you are on, pushed forward by that list. Or you are off. That is why the life of a chef, on lists, is short. Or has been. The WD-50 dinner could be a starting point for a new direction of food - just like the surrealist exhibitions were.
Or maybe it is the other way around. And maybe that is why food is the re-invented avant-garde, because we love competition.
And this brings us back to the surrealists and all the other avant-gardes. For the artist at that time it was not enough to paint another painting. They saw something more, a new role in society. Malevitj wanted to use the streets as his canvas and the city square's as his palette. They sought after new meaning since the world was in motion. Industrial technology changed everything.
Now food is the most posted item in social media. Food has that presence of a NOW, that Duchamp and the others sought after - like in the ice plate served by Agata and Magnus. This is an evening of escape. The chefs have gathered to draw escape lines - not only from their respective daily creativity in the studio/kitchen, but to step beyond the notion of the chef and the art of gastronomy as we know it. That is the idea somehow, and it is of course, as everyone there understands, an idea that goes way beyond what is possible. Which is very much OK.
That is also why food is such a perfect tool to understand the world in which we live, since food is now, like art was then, at the very intersection of what contemporary society is built around: fame, social media, money, innovation, creativity, new global solutions, morals and politics.
The dinner might be a proof of the words of André Breton: "The imaginary is what tends to become real." But we better add the words of Duchamp: "I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste."