Food Meets Art
Betty Fussell - January/February 2005
In New York City's new MoMA, the restaurants create a humanistic refuge within soaring spaces.
Ezra Pound distinguished two ways of making art new: one was by breaking out; the other was by bringing together, by fusing what was traditionally kept apart. Sometimes fusion can be as revolutionary as rebellion, and the way in which New York City's newly reopened Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has fused art with food is revolutionary for museums and restaurants alike. Increasingly, museums such as the Tate Modern in London, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in Rome, the Getty in Los Angeles, and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, have made dining within their precincts part of the art lover's destination. But MoMA has taken a giant step and incorporated its dining spaces into the very life of the museum, just as it has woven art and architecture into the life of the city.
In its new design, MoMA has found a way to make the meaning of its past tangibly present. When Escoffier called the art of cooking "the constant expression of the present," he might have been speaking of modernist art, which early in the last century deconstructed narrative time into the present tense of spatial form. In the new MoMA, the unity of dining spaces and viewing spaces redefines the familiar dictum of modernism that form should follow function and suggests that the art of eating and the art of seeing are functions that are allied in our creative imagination.
Even more important for food lovers, the museum has embraced the idea that food can add human warmth to cultural austerity. When museum trustees sampled the city's best restaurants anonymously three years ago, they were looking for that quality. As a result, they awarded the prize of creating the museum's dining areas to Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) because in his many restaurants Meyer provided exactly what they wanted--a sense of hospitality. The challenge, says David Swinghamer (partner and director of the group's business development), was to introduce that feeling within a modernist space more famous for new-age cool than for old-master warmth. So, the first task of the group's architecture firm, Bentel and Bentel, was to infuse the soaring space of the museum's architect, Yoshio Taniguchi, with an ambience of intimacy. They had to blend the spare with the warm.
Fortunately, Taniguchi had already made the much loved oasis of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden central to his whole complex and had sited each of the three main dining areas toward the garden. The group asked for and got more and more space because it wanted maximum diversity and flexibility for handling crowds as large as 2,000 a day in one area and private parties as small as 32 in another. Its architectural solution was to make four dining spaces: a fine dining restaurant, two cafes, and a staff cafeteria. On the ground floor, The Modern, for fine dining, has its own street entrance, on 53rd Street, and its own hours. On the second floor, directly above, Cafe 2 can serve large numbers casually. Terrace 5, a smaller cafe, on the fifth floor at the western end of the garden, offers elegant nibblings, like chocolates, desserts, and wine. MoMA employee dining (for a staff of 350) in the kitchen cafeteria is one of the keys, says Swinghamer, to building synergy between the MoMA staff and the USHG team. Keeper of the keys for all the dining spaces is managing director Ana Marie Mormando, who has helped develop the project from its inception.
Because The Modern occupies what was formerly the museum's lobby, the group's main concern, Swinghamer maintains, was to preserve the context, to bridge the different architectural styles of the buildings designed by Goodwin and Stone in 1939, Philip Johnson in 1951 and 1964, and Taniguchi in 2004. The revolving glass doors of the original lobby made an egalitarian statement, and the group wanted the street entrance of The Modern to be similarly welcoming. Bentel and Bentel therefore devised a frosted-glass wall that leads into a curved luminescent wall in order to draw diners toward the climactic sweep of a 46 foot curved bar of Tuscan marble three inches thick. Echoing the floating effect of Taniguchi's massive buildings, the bar seems to hover above a lighted-glass base in front of a freestanding wine rack of bronze glass, large enough to hold 210 bottles and their glasses.
The Bar Room of The Modern leads in turn to a wall of sunlit green woodlands laminated between glass sheets. It's a photographic collage called Clearing, by Berlin artist Thomas Demand, and it beckons the eye toward the live trees and plants, not to mention the artworks, of the Sculpture Garden. Swinghamer is alluding to this effect when he says, "We wanted to make everything flow." The Bar Room, which seats 100 and takes no reservations, is separated only by a glass wall from the main dining room, which seats 85 and extends onto a seasonal terrace for 45. Sharing the garden view of this area is a pair of private dining rooms, which can be opened into one (to seat 64) when the retractable wall ingeniously disappears into the ceiling.
For an increase in flow, the entrance to the restaurant in the new museum lobby is an open corridor, flagged by Sol Lewitt's wall-length canvas of bright rectangles. The corridor runs behind the glass wine rack, so anyone queuing up can see through to the bar and the rooms beyond. The eastern wall of the dining areas affords a view of the adjoining kitchen through an open passageway: chefs can see diners and diners chefs. The passage walls are lined with perforated stainless steel and angled exactly seven degrees at the far end to muffle kitchen sounds. A forest view to the west and a kitchen view to the east furnish guests with the kind of juxtaposed visuals found everywhere in the cross-angled views and openings supplied by Taniguchi within the museum--a perspective that yokes Lachaise's sculptured nude at the eastern end of the garden to the bright red 1946 GT sports car on the third floor at the western end.
In the dining areas, every element of design, large and small, has been precision-tooled for fusing the old MoMA with the new. The museum's familiar color palette of black, white, and red is repeated in the familiar range of materials--terrazzo and marble, fritted glass, chrome, leather, polished steel. A flooring of black terrazzo, with white marble on the terrace, frames the wooden flooring used on the interior dining rooms to give warmth and springiness. The boards rest on actual springs, just as in the galleries, to soothe footsore visitors. The restaurants' furniture and tableware, much of which is represented in MoMA's permanent collection, is from Danish modernist masters such as Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, Sidse Werner, Paul Kjaerholm, and others. Diners will find comforting memories of earlier modern lines in the black metal chairs and the elongated horseshoe-shaped black leather banquettes.
The group faced head-on the task of melding the aesthetic and the pragmatic. The acoustic underpinning of materials was as important as the surface skin. The Bentels covered the ceiling of the bar and dining areas with rectangular white-lacquered sheets of PVC called Newmat, which not only reflect the shimmering candlelight of the tables but also absorb the sounds of voices. Swinghamer's remark that they wanted the ceiling "to look as if it were glistening and disappearing" mirrors Taniguchi's expressed wish that his entire building disappear. Acoustic materials line all the stainless-steel skins of passageways and columns and are present as well in the kitchen.
"No doors; everything open and accessible between kitchen and dining room," Swinghamer explains, "to help connect our guests with the activities of the kitchen and also to symbolize the unity of our dining room and kitchen staffs." It was very important to executive chef Gabriel Kreuther that there be a separate kitchen for each distinct dining area of the restaurant. In fact, the dish station is in the center of the main floor kitchen.
For the interior island of The Modern's kitchen, designer Michael Egan, of Clevenger Frable LaValle, chose a European-style cooking suite to cover the needs of its main dining room. Along one wall is a small line for the private dining rooms and a small pastry area. Each area glistens with stainless-steel surfaces and hanging copper pots. In front of the dish station, Egan has installed a long, elegant storage cupboard and a service counter, also visible to guests, which provide a coffee station with a grinder (for the restaurant's special blend) right next to the espresso machines. The kitchen area for the Bar Room is equipped with a rotisserie, a fryer, a convection oven, and a pizza oven for the tart flambé.
On the lower level is a multifaceted kitchen serving Cafe 2, Terrace 5, and pastry, as well as prep and storage. Since the cafes have limited exhaust capabilities, the cooking for Cafe 2 and Terrace 5 is done in the lower level, while final preparation is done in the cafes. In addition to its own cooking ranges, pizza ovens, panini grills, and pasta cooker, the lower level kitchen includes a spacious prep area, a large pastry area, storage and coolers, and a lift that connects to the main floor and Cafe 2 above. The lower level kitchen will also enable USHG to cook the food for catering and private events. After opening The Modern in January, the group will cater events in the museum as well as off-site.
Swinghamer believes that the restaurant, energized by the fusion of food and art, is the one place in the museum where "you can experience art with all your senses and can experience the entire process of art, as if from studio to canvas." That attitude puts eating at the center of the action and makes the restaurant like a 1960s happening, where audience participation was part of the process. According to Swinghamer, Meyer's group, aware of audience desires, has always tried to come up with options inside options, assigning different spaces to different menus. For the Bar Room, Kreuther (formerly of Atelier at The Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park and Jean Georges) has drawn on his native Alsace to produce a menu of large plates and small ones, such as spaetzle and lentil ragoût with quail. In the more formal dining room, he will serve an à la carte lunch and a prix-fixe dinner, with dishes like Chatham cod with chorizo and Niman Ranch bacon with salsify and black truffles en cocotte.
Cafe 2, under executive chef Marc Alvarez (formerly of Crispo and Covecastles Resort), who also heads up Terrace 5, has the casualness of a Roman rosticceria, and in fact the group did on-site research in Florence and Rome because the members felt that Italian food--"It's about the ingredients"--represented the best mix. In Cafe 2, a wall slate posts the daily menu, and a wooden counter and red bar chairs line the window wall overlooking the garden. But the focus is on the food--prepared foods like panini and tramezzini, salads, pastas, cheeses, and pizzas, and antipasti displayed like art in a glass jewel case nearly as long as the room. The floating effect noted in the Bar Room is here achieved by the way the case is placed above first a strip of beaded steel and then a darker strip, of black linoleum flooring that runs half a foot up the base. Behind the case, a giant walk-in cooler with a glass front frames the prosciutto, salumi, and mozzarella hanging within, as artfully as in a still life.
Again, in Cafe 2, the link connecting food and art is hospitality. "What do people want?" Swinghamer asks rhetorically. "To get off their feet and be served delicious food quickly." Although guests will place their orders at the counter, they will then sit to be served. The group has tried to arrange space so that even where volume is high, there are never more than three tables without some small division, "so that everybody feels special, everybody feels good." Waiters wear black-and-white checked aprons custom-designed by Yeohlee. On the cafe walls hangs framed black-and-white artwork by Bryce Marden. A coffee corner at one end of the counter provides a separate place for ordering additional food. Eventually, the room will extend window to window, from the one now overlooking the garden to one overlooking 53rd Street.
The Terrace 5 cafe has an entirely different character, just as it has an entirely different view, to me the most exciting one of the whole museum. Taniguchi designed the narrow strip of room and terrace (which seats 100 in total) in order that the viewer might take in a stunning vertical cityscape: the garden, backed by modernist steel and glass, juxtaposed with the historical brick and stone facades of Manhattan's 54th Street. It's like a continuation of Rousseau's 1910 painting The Dream, which hangs on the Terrace wall facing the fifth floor galleries and invites visitors to enter this space and recharge. The counter has a dream display of chef Marc Aumont's pastries, chocolates, exotic tea sandwiches, cocktails, wine, coffee, and hot chocolate. Rolling carts make everything accessible. The place condenses in miniature the museum's triumph in fusing the city itself with the pleasures offered by painting, sculpture, architecture, and food.
The delight of seeing old friends in new surroundings derives as much from MoMA's restaurants as from its art. The rediscovery of individual paintings and sculptures in startling perspective--a Matisse here, a Picasso there--regenerates some of the "shock of the new" that made the old MoMA a happy hunting ground for so many of us half a century ago. Now, for all the grand sweep of the atrium, individual artworks remain up close and personal, as personal as food. The food in the new eateries, by contrast, satisfies our hunger for a richer and more imaginative context for dining than that of fast-food pit stops. In the new MoMA, formal art is integrated not only into each of the dining spaces but even into the kitchens. The very dishwashers have modern designs etched into their stainless-steel surfaces. At last, we might say, the evolution of postmodernism has extended the modernist aesthetic of form and function to both cooking and eating. "At last," as Food Arts founding editor/publisher Ariane Batterberry puts it, "there is recognition that the art of the 21st century is food."
Cellar Level Main Kitchen
Cooking ranges Garland
Convection ovens Garland
Stock kettles/Braising pan Cleveland Range
Pizza oven Baker's Pride
Refrigeration Kol-Pak, Delfield
Gelato machine Carpigiani
Bench sheeter Rondo
Egg separator Custom by Matfer
Cooking suite U.S. Range
Induction ranges Garland
Finishing ovens Sodir
Bar Room Kitchen
Convection oven Blodgett
Pizza oven Baker's Pride
Reconditioned 1932 slicer Berkel
Cook and hold cabinet Alto Shaam
Pizza oven Baker's Pride
Panini grills Cadco
Pasta cooker Desco
Glass walk-in cooler Kol-Pak
Coffee brewer Fetco
Espresso La Spaziale