Painting Palates

foodasart1

by Hannah Brinks • photography by Two Eagles Marcus

Food is part of the bare necessities of life; part of an everyday experience that for the average person, rarely involves creativity. Because of it’s vitality to routine, it can be easy to dismiss the idea of food as an art form. However, some people understand the ways in which food can tug at our emotions, much like the most expertly crafted piece of fine art; the feel, the presentation, the flavor combinations all evoke memories.

Ryan McClure, the head chef at Derby Station, enjoys food because it is an integral part to the human existence. “I actually hate the word ‘foodie’ because everyone likes food; that’s how you grow up,” McClure said. “It’s part of tradition, it’s part of culture. Food is a part of everything. All my favorite memories from growing up are food.”

McClure now designs the menu and specials at Derby Station, but his taste buds were not always highly evolved in the world of cuisine. He admits that his favorite food growing up was the charred hot dogs and scrambled eggs that his grandmother used to make. Though his palate was not refined at a young age, it is evident that he is passionate and experienced in his craft as he explains the veritable fête of culinary cuisine that represents the menu at Derby Station. Even a dish titled “peas and carrots,” can be fine dining.

As someone who originally studied art in college, McClure exemplifies what a creative mind can bring to the table. “All the work and creativity you can use with food is just as much as an art major. I feel like that’s why I’ve been in this for so long. I liked it way better than I did drawing,” McClure said. His animation as he discusses the menu clearly reveals that he is a man very enthusiastic about food, as well as one that believes in its beauty and artistry.

“So much time can be put into a painting or a sculpture but it can be appreciated for a long time,” McClure said. “Where with food, you can put just as much time into it and it’s only experienced for ten to fifteen minutes. So it’s a lot of time put into a very brief experience and I think you should appreciate it more because of that.”

Brevity breeds a more profound sense of appreciation, and a well-crafted dish can be as tantalizing to the senses as a master work of art simply by appealing to the tongue, rather than the eyes.

Judy Christian represents the other side of the culinary artistry: the consumer. She and her husband, who are avid local diners, belong to the collection of people who appreciate the work that creative chefs like McClure put into their dishes.

“It amazes me to see what a chef can create with some ingredients.” Christian said. “A good chef has the knowledge of what seasonings work well with different proteins, vegetables and starches to create an entrée that is pleasing to your palate. This is something that I wish I could do better.  It’s very fun to see what different chefs can create and I think that is one of the reasons that we enjoy going to different restaurants, so we can enjoy different ‘tastes.’”

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“… The whole process has art revolving around it, right down to going shopping for the best, freshest, most beautiful ingredients.” – Dan Gendler

The development of these particular skills in the art of creating with food, much like fine art, requires practice, study and an eye – or tongue – for all things gustatory. Dan Gendler is the owner of San Chez as well as the program director at Secchia Institute for Culinary Education. His career as program director is integral to honing the skills that make a talented and creative chef. Often his program represents significant crossover between the world of fine art and the world of culinary art, even having classes taught by members of the fine art faculty.

“It’s not just the art on the plate,” Gendler explained. “It’s the art as it’s being prepared too. You see people flipping the food and the knife cuts and the skill; it’s an artisan kind of job just like a steel smith hammering away on a piece of steel. You watch a chef cut and there’s artistry in that motion, too. The whole process has art revolving around it, right down to going shopping for the best, freshest, most beautiful ingredients.”

For the chefs at Maru Sushi and Grill, it’s just as much about the art as the culinary skill. Rick Devault, the general manager at Maru, said that they personally train each of the chefs to tailor to their tradition of an equally elegant and delicious cuisine. “We empower our staff to use their creative juices when making food,” he said. “We don’t accept anything less than beautiful.”

In terms of experiencing the art of food at home, both chefs agree that the creative process of food can also be brought to your own kitchen.

“Something important is to never think a recipe is so specific that you can’t change anything.” McClure said. “It’s a guideline, and you can change any recipe based on your personal preference. I think the best thing to do is to spend more time looking at ingredients you like and using really good, fresh ingredients and spending less time cooking.”

The talent demonstrated by professional chefs can be daunting when you consider attempting culinary art in your home. An amateur artist examining Botticelli’s’ Primavera may experience a similar sense of discouragement. However, like fine art, practice inspires significant improvement.

“I don’t think you want to be afraid to try new things,” Gendler encouraged. “The other thing that people really forget is just to look and taste. You want to make sure there’s tension throughout the dish. Mix it up, let there be a crunch, some mash. Mix up the texture, mix up the color. When you’re thinking about cooking, one of the most artistic things you can do is mixing up the color and shapes.”

Whether you’re an artist with a paintbrush or with a spatula, remembering to take risks and be passionate about what you do is always the creative solution.

Be a part of culinary art in Grand Rapids by taking a cooking class or visiting one of the local dining establishments throughout town. Think of your next dining experience as going to an art gallery; the slicing, grill marks, dressing, garnishes – everything on your plate is done with intent by a behind the scenes culinary master.


Hannah is currently interning at WLM as an editorial assistant and studies English at Hillsdale College. She enjoys wearing playful dresses, snacking on goldfish, running with her family and doing extraordinary InDesign tutorials in her spare time. 

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