AIGA's The Dinner Party: Food & Design by Dan Barber, AvroKo [events]

A tipster writes in with a report from last night's AIGA Dinner Party, "A Conversation on Food and Design," held at Cooper Union in Manhattan.

I was at the AIGA Dinner Party last night and it was really, seriously cool. A little disorganized, but in a good way -- everyone had so much to say, and all of it was so interesting, that everything wound up running way longer than it was supposed to. Because everyone ran so over time, there wasn't time for Q&A afterward, which made the setup sort of odd: the four panelists each did their twenty-minute shtick, and then that was it. Static. Information conveyed, but no real chance to interact on the various ideas that were raised. Still, the talks themselves were really interesting.

AvroKo

First up was AvroKo — all four of them — though one did pretty much all the talking. He led us through a beautiful slide show explaining the aesthetic and philosophical (no, really) origins of a number of AvroKo projects. Social House (in Las Vegas) is modeled on Kowloon's Walled City, an infamous Hong Kong slum that was demolished in 1993. It was 7 acres, but 50,000 residents lived in its virtually solid mass of buildings. The AvroKo team took inspiration from the visual cacophony of the slum, but also tried to recreate emotionally the idea of a place where everything you can imagine existed side-by-side. What was interesting -- and what I wish they'd gone into more detail on -- was the ways in which they indirectly translated the visual and emotional language of the source into the final restaurant, which more or less entirely failed to directly resemble the Walled City. They used words like "romanticize" and "idealize" a lot, but didn't actually connect the dots. They presented the same inspiration-result dichotomy for a few more of their projects (Public is based on WDA and bureaucracy, Double Crown is based on colonialist India), and it was cool but the guy next to me was nodding off.

Dan Barber (right) takes the podium

Dan Barber

Up next was Dan Barber. The guy is hilarious, great speaker. I'm not even kidding, if you close your eyes this guy has the exact same verbal inflection as Ira Glass. He told a story of how he went to Spain to visit a natural foie gras farmer, who allows his geese to feed on their own instead of using gavage. I was so into this -- I took pages of notes -- and then when I got home I googled it and it turns out that Barber's given this exact speech before, which kind of deflates the experience. But it doesn't change that I am now completely focused on tracking down this insane foie gras -- it doesn't get packed with salt or pepper, and you know why? The geese eat a diet that includes both pepper plants and highly salinated plants, so their liver is pre-seasoned. Insane.

the crowd attacks the food

Matteo Bologna

After Barber came Matteo Bologna, the renowned designer of all of Keith McNally's restaurants, plus a few others. Apparently a month ago Bologna was jumped by some kids on the street and they broke his jaw, so he delivered his speech with his jaw wired shut. Seriously. That plus the Italian accent made it phenomenal to listen to. He's a hilarious speaker, simultaneously self-deprecating and stunningly egotistical, and talked to us about the process of making a brand for a restaurant. Really fascinating was what he and McNally did for Pastis -- it doesn't actually have a visual brand. McNally wanted the restaurant to look like it had been in the neighborhood for years, so Bologna constructed this narrative of a family that had maintained the restaurant for a century, and each generation some element gets updated or redesigned, but without going for consistency or even style. The result is completely different-looking signage, awnings, menus, wine lists, checks... everything uses a different palette, type set, but its essential Frenchiness ties everything together. It's an anti-brand.

Will Goldfarb

The final speaker was Will Goldfarb, the former Room4Dessert pastry whiz who now lives in Bali ("it was cheaper to move to Bali than to send my daughter to private pre-school in Manhattan") and yet also runs restaurant kiosks in Battery Park. I wrote down "Goldfarb is kind of a dick" and then I dropped my pen and it rolled under the row in front of me and I couldn't take any more notes. He took us through five highly conceptual desserts that he designed for a photo shoot, showing us his scribbly plans and then the industrial designer's plans and then the final dessert project. Crazy shit like 14" meringues with words stenciled in cocoa powder, or a giant cookie with a map of Indonesia overlayed on it in sesame.

moderator Christine Muhlke browses the Treats Truck

Everyone just booked it out of the auditorium when the lecture was done (there were door prizes from West Elm -- weird) to hit up the free food. Street carts! There was literally gridlock outside the Calexico stand, but their pork tamales were almost worth the risk of trampling. Less mobbed, but still great, were the Treats Truck with like twelve different kinds of cookies and brownies, Rickshaw Dumpling with thai chicken dumplings, and the Dosa Man was outside doing his dosa thing. Plus there was a wine table, a vodka table, and a ginger liqueur table. Sponsorship galore! We were supposed to use tickets to get our food, but I paid through the nose for my ticket to the event and managed to finagle my money's worth in Mexican chocolate brownies, and stand really near Christine Muhlke, the panel's moderator, while she decided between ginger cookies and rice krispie treats.

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