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Caroline Goodden, a photographer and dancer who was then Gordon Matta-Clark’s girlfriend, said the idea for the pioneering SoHo restaurant "Food" grew partly out of a floating dinner party scene that materialized in many of the cheap lofts inhabited, legally or not, by artists and performers in Lower Manhattan, including a group of Louisiana expatriates who played with Mr. Glass and cooked Cajun feasts for their friends.
At one of her parties, organized around a flower theme — edible flowers were served to guests who came dressed as flowers — Matta-Clark half-jokingly suggested that Ms. Goodden start a restaurant. She took him up on it, sinking substantial sums of her own money into it. Taking over the lease from a failed Puerto Rican restaurant, she, Matta-Clark and another downtown artist named Tina Girouard set about gutting and rebuilding the space in June 1971 with help from other friends including members of what would later become the collaborative group Anarchitecture – which also included Laurie Anderson, Tina Girouard, Suzanne Harris, Jene Highstein, Bernard Kirschenbaum and Richard Landry.
From the beginning, the idea was to establish not only a kind of perpetual dinner party but also a food-based philanthropy that would employ and support struggling artists, the whole endeavor conceived by Matta-Clark as a living, breathing, steaming, pot-clanging artwork.
The restaurant lasted not quite three years in its original incarnation, as the artists who cooked in it and who ran it, more as a utopian enterprise than a business, burned out or moved on. But many of the vaguely countercultural ideas fostered there — fresh and seasonal foods, a geographically catholic menu, a kitchen fully open to the dining room, cooking as a kind of performance — have now become so ingrained in restaurants in New York and other large cities that it is hard to remember a time when such a place would have seemed almost extraterrestrial.
The restaurant, for example, served sushi and sashimi at a time when they were still not widely seen in New York. (It was the idea of Hisachika Takahashi, assistant to the artist Robert Rauschenberg; one early menu simply described it as raw mackerel with wasabi sauce.) The same menu featured ceviche, borscht, rabbit stew with prunes, stuffed tongue Creole and a fig, garlic and anchovy salad. Big communal dishes of chopped parsley and fresh butter were kept on the counters. Bakers came down from the Mad Brook Farm commune in Vermont to make the bread. Two nights a week the cooks — modern dancers by trade — were vegetarians and so was the menu, a kind of flexibility that was Food’s trademark. At least once the owners opened one of the restaurant’s large windows onto the street and sold stalks of sugarcane to passers-by.
Artists were also invited weekly to serve as guest chefs, and the whole dinner was considered a performance art piece. One of the most fabled, costing $4, was Matta-Clark’s “bone dinner,” which featured oxtail soup, roasted marrow bones and frogs’ legs, among other bony entrees. After the plates were cleared, the bones were scrubbed and strung together so that diners could wear their leftovers home.
“It looked like an anthropological site,” said the artist Keith Sonnier, another guest chef and a member of the extended Food crowd, one that also included members of Philip Glass’s ensemble, dancers from Trisha Brown’s company and other artists like Robert Kushner and Donald Judd, who lived in SoHo before it was called SoHo.
But while it was ahead of its time as a restaurant, it was also a perfect expression of its scrappy, hippie era, when many young artists and creative people in New York and elsewhere had little money for good food — and few options adventurous enough for them anyway. The same year, 1971, Alice Waters founded Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., as “a simple little place where we could cook and talk politics,” sparking a fresh-and-seasonal-foods revolution in America. In 1973 a collective of artists and communal farmers founded the Moosewood Restaurant, the vegetarian standard-bearer, in Ithaca, N.Y.
In many ways, Food answered the question of what was to become of New York’s decaying industrial infrastructure. ‘Food’s Family Fiscal Facts’, published in Avalanche in Spring 1972, exemplifies the mix of industry, art and community that went into Food in its early years as a dining establishment. Alongside the accounting amounts (which included the assertion that no income was rendered through dues and subscriptions) are the more humorous yet dubious statistics on the restaurant’s day-to-day operations. For example, zero internal fights seems hard to imagine given that there are three reported ‘unfulfilled promises by good friends’. Meanwhile, the claim that ‘213 people needed to get it together and keep it together’ alongside the ‘3,082 free dinners given’ and the extensive list of names at the bottom of the flyer attest to the labour of an extensive community (albeit one that eventually ate away Goodden’s savings).
Beginning in the 1960s, partly for political reasons, food began playing a more prominent role in artists’ work. Allan Kaprow, the artist who coined the term “happenings,” frequently used food; in 1970 he built a wall of bread, with jelly for mortar, near the Berlin Wall. In 1971 Matta-Clark cooked a whole pig under the Brooklyn Bridge and served 500 pork sandwiches as part of a performance. In the 1990s Rirkrit Tiravanija’s performances famously turned New York galleries into kitchens, where the Thai curry was both art and dinner.
But food as medium and muse is not necessarily the same thing as food that needs to balance the books. Ms. Goodden and the founders of the restaurant had little experience with accounting and payroll, taxes and inventory, and less interest in running a conventional business. “I had the ridiculous idea of serving a glass of milk for 5 cents for pure nostalgic reasons,” Ms. Goodden recalled, in a memoir she is writing.
She added that on the occasions when the art overtook the food, art was usually allowed to carry the day, cash register notwithstanding. At one dinner performance, Matta-Clark served live brine shrimp swimming in broth in the middle of a halved, cooked egg white. “Some nonartist customers were furious and claimed there should be a law against us,” she wrote. “We told them guest chef days were no holds barred days and they could leave if they wished. So they did.”
About 60 artists are estimated to have worked at the restaurant as cooks, waiters and busboys over the first three years. Most came and went frequently, depending on their whims and artistic fortunes. Throughout those early days Matta-Clark was more of a guiding spirit than a full-time employee. “Gordon wasn’t a regular cook,” Ms. Girouard said, laughing. “We wouldn’t let him.”
“Though we consumed food, Food consumed us,” Ms. Goodden once wrote. “It was a free enterprise which gave food away much too freely.” But, she added, with all the enthusiasm of the times: “The joy is the idea. The idea, as an idea, worked. It was a beautiful, nourishing, vital, stimulating new concept, which was a living, pulsating hub of creative energy — and piles of fresh parsley.”
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