From Edible Wedding Dresses to Animal Ashes: Blurring the Line Between Food and Art in Amsterdam
De Culinaire Werkplaats is many things: a studio, testing grounds, restaurant, and gallery where Marjolein Wintjes and Eric Meursing push the boundaries of food and art.
All photos courtesy of De Culinaire Werkplaats.
Of all the over-the-top wedding dresses in the world, Marjolein Wintjes's might take the proverbial cake. What sets this sleek, form-fitting number apart isn't the high, ruffled neckline or the spirals of blossoms coiling around the skirt, but rather the material. In lieu of lace, silk, or several paychecks worth of pearl-encrusted embroidery, this pastel-pink garment is made entirely out of edible, dehydrated rhubarb paper.
"A lot of men made the joke about how you could eat the wedding dress at the end of the evening," says Wintjes, rolling her eyes. She's dressed head-to-toe in black, just as she always is, and seems severe until she breaks into a wry smile. "But in a way, it would be very nice if you could eat your dress at the end. I wanted to tell a story about food waste. I discovered in my own closet that I had a lot of fashion waste, especially my wedding dress. I only had it for one day and it's still hanging there, because I can't bear to get rid of it. And I've been married for almost 24 years—with that guy."
With a laugh, Wintjes gestures in the direction of her husband and creative partner in crime, Eric Meursing, who's at the stove in the middle of an experiment. Mostly out of sheer curiosity, I've come to De Culinaire Werkplaats, the couple's studio, testing grounds, restaurant, and, as of a couple months ago, art gallery, in Amsterdam's Westergasfabriek. The definition of what exactly constitutes a restaurant may be getting fuzzy these days, with more than a few avant-garde eateries trying out unusual approaches. Unlike many other elaborate dining concepts, though, Wintjes and Meursing have been pursuing their own peculiar blend of food and art for the better part of a decade. They've been commissioned to create everything from a large-scale installation for the Dutch Pavilion at the 2012 World Expo in Yeosu, South Korea to miniature hors d'oeuvres for the Van Gogh Museum mirroring the artist's works.
"We also work for fashion brands like Diesel, who have invited us to translate their new collections into 'food art.' Most of the time it's three or five small bites or experiences per person," Wintjes says, then adds dryly. "It's difficult to create food for people in the fashion industry, because everyone wants to stay skinny—journalists are the worst."
At the heart of it all is their restaurant, if you can even call it a restaurant in the conventional sense. The spartan space contains just a few tables wedged next to an enormous cooking station, where participants choose either the five-course or the seven-course "über-posh" set menu focused on a particular theme. "Dutch Masters," "Japan," and "Time" are on the agenda for the rest of this year. Dutch architecture is the main attraction during my visit, and the menu includes replicas of significant buildings such as a public swimming pool that snapped up the 2016 Amsterdam Architecture Prize.
"We've been doing this theme for about three weeks and we've already had eight or nine architects from different countries," Wintjes tells me. "We have fans who come by for every theme. They're not only Amsterdam-based; they're from London, New York as well."
The grand finale is a DIY "self-built house" dessert, in honor of the theme of this year's Amsterdam Architecture Day. The dish provides diners with a bunch of building blocks and almond-paste "mortar" to glue them all together, then turns them loose.
"Everybody has their own ideas. It brings back the child [in them]," Wintjes says. "I discovered that a lot of people like to become part of the whole process and to explore things."
That sense of playfulness extends to the gallery, which contains both large installations to explore and accompanying bites to be eaten in the process. In honor of the couple's first and longest-running theme, everything in the exhibit is black. For their initial collection in September 2008, the couple chose to create menus where every dish was made of naturally "black" items: from heirloom strains of barley and rice, to purple-ish tomatoes and bell peppers, to dried morels, edible flowers, and lightly fermented foods such as chou doufu (stinky tofu) and vanilla beans. The resulting plate contains a full spectrum of moody hues.
"We started with black, because when you think of food, you don't think of black unless it's in burnt things. Black is only a theoretical concept when you work with vegetable ingredients. You end up with a whole color scheme, but in a very darkened way," Wintjes tells me. "When we go to another city or country, we normally visit supermarkets and I go from shelf to shelf to see if I can find new things. We did a project, for instance, several years ago in Shanghai, where I discovered black millet."
As I walk in, I pass a life-size Little Black Dress, a sexed-up counterpart to the bridal number, made of dehydrated blackberry paper crimped and pleated into floral garnishes. To enhance my viewing experience, I'm giving a similar flower made of the same material, which tastes like a grown-up Fruit Roll-Up. At the end of the room, I encounter a pile of oyster shells filled with candied cubes of beets or carrots in front of a wall painted with dark chocolate—another loose interpretation of the color black. Wintjes hands me a scraper, which I use to chip off shavings to reveal a hidden image. I won't ruin the surprise, but suffice it to say, guests load up their oyster shell and knock the whole thing back like a bivalve. Utensils are available, but discouraged.
"I once did something similar about provoking questions about relationships in the 21st century. We were asked to create an edible piece of art. It was at the top of a ten-meter spiral staircase, like a huge conceptual wedding cake," she remembers. "It was nice, because people started to write in it and make drawings, to make their own graffiti. People would leave answers to questions in the chocolate. They created our piece of art."
Because of the color's cultural associations with funerals, two of the most striking works center around death. Mourning breads, commissioned by friends of Wintjes, are baked in various shapes to honor a specific individual's passing. A woman with Moroccan heritage, for instance, asked for the ras el hanout-scented loaf to be baked for her daughter, who only lived for 14 days. Standing next to another exhibit, I almost choke on my goat cheese covered in edible vegetable ash when Wintjes explains the underlying concept.
"This is a tribute, called Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust," she says, pointing to a vessel over the display of charred onion and thyme. "And these are the real ashes of our black cats."
If some of this sounds morbid, it's all done with a wicked sense of humor. For all of its high-minded aspirations, it's clear that Wintjes and Meursing are having fun.
"We like to play with words and create. We search for ways to give people a new experience. If you come here for a traditional restaurant dinner, you're at the wrong place."