More and more often I find myself fumbling when asked innocent questions such as "Where do you work?" or "What do you do for a living?" Once upon a time, I could have answered with a restaurant name, or perhaps a job title, but those days are now a distant memory.
There are no longer any short answers to such questions.
In this world of labels and compartmentalization, I struggle with this fact that the way I spend my days may seem disorganized and uncategorizable, but the truth of the matter is that I love pretty much every moment of it. And the great thing is I'm not alone—I'm inspired daily as I witness my Bay Area friends, colleagues, and cohorts shift and squirm within the boundaries of what it means to work in the food business. Constantly contorting ourselves and our projects as we look for ways to make a living nourishing and inspiring, we are all simultaneously confounded in our search for the words to describe what the heck we're doing.
Last weekend I made my way up to Scribe Winery in Sonoma for an event dreamt up by my friends Sam White, vintner Andrew Mariani, and the folks at 18 Reasons, a San Francisco-based non-profit that puts on events that challenge and examine the line separating food and art. When friends asked me about the event at Scribe and why I was attending, I wasn't ever really sure how to reply. 18 Reasons named the event "A Midsummer Food and Art Curiosity" Between this whimsical name and my knowledge of Sam, a maitre d' at the Chez Panisse Café and a founder of OPEN Restaurant, I knew that strangely wonderful things were going to happen.
But I could have never have anticipated the wonderment I would be filled with. As I drove down a palm tree-lined dirt road I was intrigued by the event's venue, a dilapidated hacienda. What an odd place, simultaneously falling apart and yet beautiful—not despite its imperfections, but because of them. Sam really described it best: "This dead place was actually alive, it was supporting life, and the boundaries between the outside and the inside had blurred, creating an organic and pulsing whole." I could see what he meant; bats had taken over part of the house, bees had built a hive in another room, and the land around the house, completely untended, supported scores of wildflowers and untamable brambles through which feral turkeys and ducks wandered.
It quickly became apparent that the organizers of this event sought to mirror the energy they saw in this place. Each room of the hacienda was assigned to a different group of artists, cooks, or craftsmen. But all of these labels don't do justice to what these people were trying to do. In each space, they built an atmosphere, a mood, and ultimately, an experience. But as I moved from room to room, I recognized that the event was about the efforts of all of these artists (for lack of a better term) combining to make something much more beautiful than the sum of its parts. Just as the boundaries between dead house and land had blurred to create a thriving whole, so too did all of these individuals create a synergy.
Yet the matrix of this structure, this collective, was left open for the guests. As Sam described, "This was about breaking down the idea that a dining experience means sitting around a table set with a tablecloth, wine glasses, and fancy silverware and being served. This was a chance for diners to make their own choices, to take charge of their own experiences." And I felt just this; should I wander into the room of fragrances made from the plants surrounding the old house, or should I eat a soufflé baked in a wood oven first? Should I head to the converted barn for a subterranean wine tasting or should I paint with turmeric and grapeseed oil paint while smelling the turmeric chapatti being made outside the window? The circumstances had been created for me by a group of remarkable individuals, but I had to decide what kind of experience I would have.
If I was turned into a new kind of diner, however, it was because these cooks and artists were a little different as well. They had transcended the normal boundaries of their titles by coming together in a new way. The event tapped into my own frustration, my recurring feeling that simple titles would no longer convey the type of work I want to be doing. It opened my eyes to the fact that this is a much broader cultural phenomenon in the Bay Area, and not a problem, but rather a blessing.