Reading through Studio Olafur Eliasson: The Kitchen makes my head hurt—but not in a bad way.
The ache is equal parts contortion and confusion—like exiting a college lecture with the dizzying sensation that your neurons are actively stretching, or viewing an art exhibit that’s just barely outside of your grasp: You have the potential to understand it but you don’t—not fully, not yet.
Olafur Eliasson is a Danish-Icelandic artist best known for his large-scale installations involving the natural elements: In 1998, he colored a Berlin river green; in 2003, he rose a sun inside Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern; in 2008, he created four manmade waterfalls in New York City; in 2014, he recreated a riverbed at the Danish Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. As Gabe Ulla puts it, his works "make you take note of your place in the physical world."
As does cooking. As does eating. Is there a reminder as poignant of our physicality as our place in an ecosystem? Or as hunger? With that in mind, it's not counterintuitive that a world-renowned art studio would put out a cookbook.
At Eliasson's Berlin studio, food is not isolated nor individualized; it's part of the ecosystem—just as when experiencing his art, so are we.
Their lunch—which is the source of many of the book's 100+ mostly vegetarian recipes—is the farthest from "sad desk" you can get: It's an hour-long break in which every one of the ninety employees sit around communal tables for, what Alice Waters writes in the foreword, "a simply, nourishing and emphatically delicious family-style meal" with dishes like Sri Lankan Cauliflower Sambal and Pasta e Ceci.
But what's all this other stuff—the text and images and diagrams and schematics—around the recipes? (And is it worth reading?)
As Eliasson explains, the kitchen is what feeds "this entire interwoven organism" of the studio and "literally supplies the energy that powers [their] daily activities." While other art book-cookbooks—like Questlove's somethingtofoodabout—are focused on individuals, positioning chefs as demigods who fashion masterpieces, here, cooking and eating is, refreshingly, founded in community and environment. For the kitchen's leaders, Asako Iwama and Lauren Maurer, working in the kitchen means having "awareness of being part of a larger whole"—what Eliasson's art philosophy looks like in food form.
So while Studio Olafur Eliasson: The Kitchen is, of course, about food, it makes a point to be about what comes from growing food, preparing food, and eating food together—it's about the conversations that follow. In an essay in the book entitled "A Sticky Recipe: My Contribution to a Saint Society," the "artist-writer-curator-publisher" Nico Dockx writes that:
in this communal act of cooking and eating together, I hope it is possible to cross some of our physical and imaginary boundaries and produce new conversations that have neither an ostensible target nor purpose, but are just listening.
(I don't know about you, but I'm feeling that neuron stretch.)
Just as food is woven into studio life and into the interactions of the people who work there, it's entangled with art and activism; the book itself, as is apparent from the quote from Dockx, is full of essays and poetry, diagrams and sketches, photographs of the studio and of the recipes. There's writing about macrobiotic practices, about preserving seed biodiversity, about microorganisms.
There are recipes, and all around them, there's interpretation of these recipes—why they're there, what they mean, what conversations they've sparked. It's a bit like a book of poetry where the poems are indistinguishable from the poetic theory. What can you make sense of? In what order? This porousness is likely Eliasson's intention—but to make sense of it all you might need a professor (and some Advil).
At points in the book, I wanted Eliasson to laugh at himself, just a little—to make the concession that this is not how most of us live and eat: Even in environments where food is the focal point (my very workplace, for one), this vision of food (and of lunchtime) is utopic. Not just on the intellectual level (though, at times, you may have that same desire to roll your eyes as you do when reading a very obscure theoretical interpretation of a very obscure piece of art), but at the nuts and bolts of the cooking, too.
Many of the recipes can be made to serve 6 or 60, without any indication of how you might scale up potato croquettes for five dozen people without losing your cool (or destroying your kitchen). Or what you might do with the 22 1/2 pounds of umeboshi you'll get by following the recipe, which instructs:
On a hot and dry summer day, with the weather outlook forecasting at least 4 consecutive sunny days, begin the following process in the morning.
Come on, Eliasson. You can't be serious here?
But he does not see his art projects—and I assume, he does not see his food philosophy—as wackadoo idealistic; as the Guardian put it, he has a “conviction that, far from being rarefied and utopian, the projects [his studio] turns out are deeply involved with the world in which they’re made."
So some of the recipes you won't be able to make at home—but that makes them even more of this (that is, his) world.
And for every recipe that does require six months (miso) or a bed of straw (natto) or wood sorrel and rose root (René Redzepi's contribution), there's a brilliant description (fry the croquettes till "fox-colored"), a quirky headnote (the original braided bread recipe instructs to “knead the dough until doing so produces a certain belching sound”), or a very good-sounding weeknight meal—many of which are from cookbooks we already love (like The New Moosewood Cookbook and The River Cafe Cook Book Two and The Vegetarian Table: India)—that can be part of our world, too.
I want to make the Tomato Soup with Cumin and Figs, the Lasagna with Eggplant and Chard, the Tuscan Kale Risotto with Mushrooms and Rosemary, the Massaman Curry. Tonight.
In his introduction, "Eat Art Work" (read that as "eat artwork," if you choose), Eliasson writes that he finds it "fascinating to do a book about something that everyone knows." But here, he (and his artist-activist-farmer-publisher-writer-acrobat collaborators) use the very fact that food is known—a connector of humans with our body, our physical world, and each other—to make it feel like something new.
So yes, you can buy the book if you are looking for an eclectic mix of (mostly pretty simple and appetizing) recipes. Start with the Baked Eggplant or Brown Rice with Kimchi. Yes, you can skip the chapter on "Microorganisms" and the essay titled "How Does It Feel to Eat Blue?"
But there are lots of recipes like this everywhere (and all over the internet).
The book is of real use to readers who delight in language, art, and philosophy; who will study the poems [like "Untitled (To Miso That Arrived Late)"]; or who dream of moving to Berlin, renting an apartment in Kreuzberg, and joining the Eliasson studio for "Rain After Cloud" (Beets, Kale, and Brown Rice with Crispy Onions), so named for the way the ingredient "pairings are surprisingly intuitive, like a gentle rain that follows a billowing thundercloud."