Museum feeds senses with art, food
Food is a cultural event, reasons Case Dighero. Dighero is the director of culinary programming and events at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where food is celebrated and connected to art by the creative minds of the culinary staff.
“What really sets us apart as a culinary entity is that inspiration abounds at every turn. It’s an exercise for us to kind of keep our creative chops in check,” Dighero says of the museum’s culinary programs CR(EAT)E, DISH and Wednesday Over Water, which all vary in style and theme. “People think about food in a way today that in the past they’ve thought about theater or film or music. So we’re constantly looking for the next thing that’s going to come along — what can we do that shows people there’s this intrinsic line between food and art.”
Besides the original programming, that intrinsic line is demonstrated at the museum restaurant, Eleven, with each new temporary exhibition that comes through. Head chef Bill Lyle’s baby in the form of Eleven’s Tasting Menu offers guests a peek at his interpretations of and inspirations from the exhibition (or acquisition, or architecture — whatever happens to be his muse).
“It’s the perfect well-rounded experience when they come in,” Lyle says of partaking in the special menus. “Even if they’re taking a break to have dinner, they’re not leaving the art experience anymore. They’re sitting in the beautiful dining room overlooking the galleries and the water, and they’re learning. The menus I write kind of go into even more detail about things I researched with the curator — how that artist inspired me.”
Though he may not know exactly what he’s looking at yet, Lyle begins by simply looking at images of the new works, getting a feel for their colors, shapes, textures. Then, after doing his own research — Where was the artist from? Where did he create the art? What were his/her inspirations? What time period was it? — Lyle meets with a curator to discuss themes and influences for the exhibition. This is where the menu starts to take shape.
“Usually [the curator] doesn’t even know that what they’re saying is hitting the right spot to get me triggered to write the perfect menu,” Lyle shares. “I just listen to their excitement and let them explain it all to me, then I take that back to my office and write a menu based off of that. I’ll meet with them again to see where I was on and where I was off with my inspirations and connections.”
Sometimes the concoctions lean more toward the literal, like the first course of the Chihuly menu: Lyle bridges the exhibition and the table with Chihuly’s “Fiori Boat” — a boat out of water filled with colorful spheres and batons — and a colorful chutney filling an oyster representing that out-of-water vessel. And sometimes his creations make more interpretive connections, as with the third course: a ruby red Ahi tuna dish inspired by the colors of Chihuly’s “Fire Orange Baskets” as the artist himself is inspired by the colors in nature.
“It tells a story and that’s the whole thing, right?” Dighero muses. A tasting menu is “forcing people to go through a process and to be learning through the plate. So that’s really special. They’re going to walk away and be thinking about that work or that artist in a completely new way, and your senses are awakened. Not just sight, but also taste and smell and texture. [Guests] are using their senses in a way they hadn’t previously [to connect with the art], so it has a profound effect on people.”
On the whole, the food at Eleven and Crystal Bridges is considered “High South” — high cuisine influenced by the traditions of Southern food. That in itself tells a story of the museum’s place in Ozark culture, with Southern preparation methods and materials sourced from local growers and farmers combining to offer the culinary team’s take on traditional favorites. Such is certainly the case with the new food truck located in the North Forest during “Chihuly: In The Forest.”
“High South on a Roll” — because “what’s more Southern than a hot buttered roll?” Dighero wonders — provides a savory experience slightly different from Eleven, getting back to Ozark roots. Specifically designed to avoid too long a wait, the truck will be used in all sorts of outdoor programming at the museum when the exhibition closes, and potentially at other community events.
With the collaborative nature of the institution, creativity can strike anyone at any time. Dighero says it is not uncommon for him to take a walk through the permanent collection and see a piece in a new light, suddenly inspired to create a dish or drink around it. A barista at the coffee bar could invent a new concoction with insight from a composition or installation. Even seasoned visitors can always find a new venture to excite and awaken their palette.
Head Chef Bill Lyle’s Chihuly Tasting Menu features a course with sesame-seed encrusted Ahi tuna inspired by Chihuly’s “Fire Orange Baskets.”