A Chef’s Passion: Beyond the Kitchen
Words and Images by Brian Samuels
For many chefs, the plate is a canvas that can be used to display any number of creations. Towers are built, plates are garnished elaborately. Food has become more than something to be consumed, but also an art form. It is not surprising, then, that many local chefs paint, sculpt, and photograph when not working in the kitchen.
Dave Becker - Sweet Basil, Needham
A restaurant is often judged by the food or the service, but rarely do people take note of the dinnerware. A multi-course meal at a Michelin-starred establishment requires white linen and crystal glasses, but a mom-and-pop shop must maintain a rusticity that makes guests feel as if they’re eating in their own homes.
This is what Dave Becker, the executive chef and owner of Sweet Basil in Needham, accomplishes with his hand-crafted plates and bowls. Two years ago, Dave began dabbling in pottery as a way to deal with the stress of running a restaurant. He found a haven in a Brookline studio where he’d spend hours each week huddled over a potter’s wheel.
Art has always played a role in Dave’s life; the work of his grandfather, Fred Becker, a well-known printmaker who passed away in 2004, hangs on the restaurant walls. Dave knew he wanted to do something with his hands and pottery seemed like the most logical option.
“I put the radio on, maybe crack open a bottle of wine, and then I just get into it. It requires intense focus. You stop worrying about everything else going on your life and pay attention to the clay, but there’s not a lot at stake—if you mess up you can always start over.”
He included his plates and bowls into Sweet Basil’s rotation of dinnerware and, to his delight, they fit in nicely with the restaurant’s aesthetic.
“It’s special eating off of something that was obviously made with love by someone's hands, and not just mass-produced in a factory, loaded on a big barge, then dropped off in an 18-wheel truck. It makes a difference. It's one more stitch in the fabric of giving a fuck. About all of it.”
From start to finish, the process of making a set of dishes takes three weeks: approximately 5-10 minutes to form the plate and then it must dry for a week, before being trimmed (getting the shape perfected), glazed, and fired. On average, Dave “throws” (a term used to describe the act of forming a piece of pottery on a wheel) two to three times a week. He also has a wheel in his backyard where he throws the plates, at which point he lets them dry on his back porch, before shipping them off to the studio.
Since taking up pottery, Dave has crafted hundreds of pieces, many of which can be seen on the tables of Sweet Basil. They are also featured prominently in his newly released cookbook, Stewed.
Jeff Fournier - 51 Lincoln, Newton Highlands & Waban Kitchen, Newton
Art has been a part of Jeff Fournier’s life since he was a child. In his youth, the chef and owner of 51 Lincoln and Waban Kitchen started by drawing, and, once in high school, he picked up painting and printmaking. By the age of 16, Jeff was selling his work at art shows near his home in Amesbury.
After dropping out of Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Jeff packed his bags and headed for Los Angeles.
“Amesbury is a rural farming town and as a young, artistically-motivated person I could not wait to leave behind the small town perspective and find some adventure. I had two bags, $1,200, and an ambitious sensibility that I needed to make something of my life.”
Looking for a way to survive in a big city, Jeff spent less time painting and more time training in restaurants. During his 20s, Jeff gave up art to focus on his culinary skills. It took years to transition to, what he calls, “a real chef.”
“I always kept painting and looked to sell work, but the demanding hours of the kitchen as a young cook got in the way. The more I cooked the less time and energy I had to paint.”
Since moving back to the East Coast, Jeff has become a successful restaurateur, but he hasn’t lost sight of his original love of the arts. In the dining rooms of his establishments hang the results of his passion: large-scale, abstract, acrylic murals.
To produce these works, Jeff uses a combination of under-painting (the foundation layer of paint for which additional applications are placed on top) and drawing techniques. From there, he extrudes paint from pastry bags with which he can create dense, yet thin, lines.
Diners occasionally purchase Jeff’s paintings right off the wall, but his main goal is to enhance the experience of eating at his restaurants and he finds that his art bridges the connection between cook and patron.
“The guests are very excited to find out that I am a painter and a chef. In an age of overspecialization I think that it’s refreshing for people. “
Due to his already tight schedule, Jeff will often paint at night between midnight and 3:00 am, which he currently does in the dining room of his Newton apartment.
“I have to transform it every time I want to do a project. Each painting takes about a week off and on to complete, but sometimes they go faster than that. It really depends on the size and style I am working in. As I move into my new house in Newton I will be able to create a much better studio that will allow me more space to have multiple projects going.”
Unlike Dave’s time spent on the potter’s wheel, Jeff doesn’t always find painting a way to relieve stress.
“While it is relaxing sometimes to paint, if I am working on something that is really challenging me to make choices about the direction of my process, then it feels like work. My general feeling about any creative effort is that it is work, even if it is enjoyable work. Everything that I do as a chef and entrepreneur has a creative part to it, that is just how I approach the world.”
Erwin Ramos - Olé, Cambridge
Displayed around Olé, the Inman Square-based Mexican restaurant, are photographs exhibiting the colors, aromas, and flavors of Mexico: an elderly woman preparing fresh tortillas, a father and son donning sombreros riding on horseback, tourists wandering through Mayan ruins.
“I always think that my restaurants are a reflection of my travels. As a chef, the way I create my dishes starts from a visual, many times captured in my memories and photographs. I like to share the colors and experiences that I bring back from my trips to Mexico with my guests.”
Erwin Ramos was introduced to photography by his father when he was a child living in the Philippines. Before he left to become an exchange student in New Mexico, his father gave him a Pentax K1000 to take with him. At the age of 17, while studying in the United States, Erwin has an opportunity to travel to Mexico City and Mérida, where he explored the ruins at Chichen Itza. “It was breathtaking. I took out my camera and starting shooting every angle, every detail, every moment.”
It was during this time that Erwin also fell in love with the food of the region. Ever since he was young, Erwin has been surrounded by food, and he knew early on that that was something he wanted to pursue as a career.
“My parents own a restaurant and I was always fascinated by how each dish was made and presented to our guests. As some parents do, I was discouraged to pursue the family business, and instead I was trained to be an accountant. But, I was always drawn to the kitchen and the first thing that came to my mind when I decided to open the restaurant was my love for Mexican cuisine and the beauty of that country that I experienced when I was younger.”
Despite diverging away from doing photography professionally, Erwin has always found ways to incorporate it into his life. He’s worked on album covers, shot the weddings of his friends, and he brings his camera along on all of his travels.
“I always make it a habit to travel to Mexico at least two times a year. For many years I travelled by myself, but now I do so with friends and other chefs to absorb and learn authentic Mexican dishes and bring it back to integrate into my restaurants. When I travel with different chefs I have become the designated photographer, but it can also be to their detriment because I often stray from the group to capture a unique moment, or even to just wait for the light to change.”
If cooking and photography wasn’t enough, Erwin also enjoys mixing music using vinyl records (aka “spinning”), which he learned during the time his parents owned a discotheque. He only does this at Olé once a year, on New Year’s Eve, but when he’s spinning, Erwin says that he is invigorated by the energy it gives people.
“Cooking, photography, and spinning have many things in common. They combine different senses, and they allow me to connect to people by sharing what I consider beautiful things in the world. It’s the harmonious combination of all these things—colors, smells, and sounds—that create unforgettable moments.”
Brian Samuels is a Boston-based event and food photographer and writer. He is the creator of the food blog A Thought For Food (www.athoughtforfood.net), a collection of recipes, personal anecdotes, and historical information pertaining to cooking. His work has been featured in Saveur, Improper Bostonian, Edible Boston, and TheKitchn. Brian can be reached at email@example.com.