The Kitchen by Studio Olafur Eliasson is best described as a statement of an artistic-cum-social movement philosophy through the lens of its food ethos, rather than just a cookbook.
Since its founding in 1995 in Berlin, Studio Olafur Elisson has grown into a multidisciplinary space with over ninety members from across the globe (Eliasson himself is Icelandic-Danish). Most easily, perhaps, if not entirely accurately, it can be described as a modern day Bauhaus. Eliasson leads his team of architects, designer, archivists, metal workers, painters, art historians, and more, in developing works of art, building projects, and seminar programmes that look at how we use space, resources and other fundamental elements of life. A key part of all this is the daily meal.
Each lunchtime, all members of staff sit down together to share a meal created by the kitchen team, before taking it in turns to wash up after. Similar to the shared meal of staff in restaurants, it brings everyone together and helps to generate new ideas as members of the studio talk to those with different skill sets and insights. The Kitchen is a collection of one hundred vegetarian recipes (many with a range of ingredients lists for just a few people and for as many as sixty) that are favourites of, or have featured in, works by the studio. The dishes have been created by the team in the studio’s kitchen or by guest cooks, including the likes of René Redzepi and Alice Waters, who has written the foreword and has clearly influenced the kitchen team and Eliasson more than any other.
What is clear throughout is how the kitchen is not just a functionary of the studio but reflective of its philosophy and a daily reminder of it. The process of everyone joining in a communal meal is the ultimate social leveller. Helping to generate discourse, it’s like a miniature version of the art symposiums that the studio hosts, where the food and coffee breaks play a key role in generating ideas.
Unsurprisingly given its base in a studio where the art is as much a mental undertaking as a physical one, the kitchen is driven by the same philosophical ideas and social conscience of all involved. This sense of food activism and the studio’s philosophy is at the core of the way the book is laid out, with recipes divided not into sections based on ingredients or courses, but by what could be termed as their elemental or social role. Each of the eight sections – Studio, Body, Plants, Seeds, Microorganisms, DNA, Minerals, and Universe – is introduced by Asako Iwama and Lauren Maurer, the two most responsible for the direction the kitchen has taken since being reimagined by them in 2005. As such, they explain how each topic is central to the dishes to follow.
The importance of organic, bio-sustainability and ecology is loud and clear. Ideas that are usually only given lip service are here put into practical action by the kitchen, with organic food delivered straight to the studio to supplement its own rooftop garden. The recipes themselves are all quite simple, but packed full of flavour and influences from across the globe, brought to the studio by those who flock to work there. Each section is also accompanied by essays by those who have collaborated; through quotes that are central to the way the studio works and projects it has created, we get a further insight into the workings of the kitchen.
Many of the ideas in the book aren’t new. Indeed, Alice Waters was practicing and writing about them more than forty years ago. Issues of food ecology, supply and demand, and sustainability are now becoming increasingly central, from Massimo Bottura’s soup kitchen at the Milan Expo, to increased talk and experimentation in the West around insects and lab-grown meat to replace farmed produce. Certainly we should look increasingly at rooftop farms (and even subterranean farms, as some of London’s disused tunnels have become) and their use by schools – again something Alice Waters has worked on in the US since 1996).
Far from your standard cookbook, if you have any interest in the social role of food and issues of sustainability and food activism, you will be intrigued. As such, it may not be for everyone, but most will find it, as I did, truly fascinating.
The Kitchen by Studio Olafur Eliasson
Publisher: Phaidon Press