Culi­nary Con­nec­tions

Mu­seum feeds senses with art, food

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - WHAT'S UP - JO­CE­LYN MUR­PHY NWA Demo­crat-Gazette

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.”

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