I had the chance to dine at Momofuku Ko a couple of weeks ago, and I still can’t get the experience out of my head. It was a deliriously good time. You see, recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about food and its relation to design. I was first made aware of this connection years ago, when it seemed every other successful, interesting restaurant was run by a former architect. This was the case with such famous restaurants such as The Slanted Door in San Francisco (run by chef Charles Phan, with an architecture degree from UCBerkeley), Freeman’s in NYC (run by Taavo Somer, who did a stint at Steven Holl’s office), BarBao (run by former architect Michael Bao) in NYC, and several others.
I’ve also been reading about food almost exclusively lately, most recently Heat, by former New Yorker editor Bill Buford, and the life-changing book by Michael Pollan, the Omnivore’s Dilemma. I highly recommend both to anybody.
I don’t really know where to begin in talking about how interconnected I feel are the pursuits of food-making and architecture. I could talk about the work that is involved in making something so seemingly simple–in Bill Buford’s book, an entire lifetime isn’t enough to learn how to make pasta properly, and analagously, architects often lament/boast about the extended hours demanded by the profession (and rightly so). Ambitious chefs pay for expensive schooling, then intern in foreign locales for no pay, and then work 16 hour days for many years in the kitchens of famous chefs. Architects do almost exactly the same thing. But this isn’t exclusive to architecture and cooking; especially in New York City, it’s easy to see so many people who are working so hard for such varied passions, food and design among them.
There is also something incredibly holistic about both fields, if seen through the right lens. Michael Pollan, in the first few chapters of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, manages to directly link agri-business to the military-industrial complex (and all of its geopolitical machinations). And it’s not far-fetched once you go through the logic of his argument. In essence, it has to do with commercial fertilizer, because fertilizer is a petroleum product. So he can successfully argue that the culinary and gustatory choices we make have wide-ranging implications on the world around us. Alice Waters and others have argued similar ideas. And I totally back it.
Architecture, once you become attuned to the way in which it is connected to people and goverments and environments, operates in much a similar way. Design choices can take on the weight of a moral imperative, and I don’t mean this lightly or glibly, any more than saying that what you eat has political and philosophical ramifications. Architecture, at its most fundamental level, involves how we interact with our environment. It is a mediated interaction, and careful practitioners of architecture have argued beautifully for a wide-ranging spectrum of sociopolitical and philosophical imperatives, of which I believe they are fully justified in doing so.
But this is all much heavier than I wanted this discussion to turn out. I began by talking about the joy of eating at Momofuku, and I guess this moment would be a good time to talk about the real, fundamental reason why I think architects and food often go together: because both are just such wonderfully sensual endeavors. Both architecture and eating involve a multiplicity of sensual stimulation. The experience of space involves something, that to me, seems like more than the sum of our five senses could register. The experience of a human body in the environment is the medium of the architect. The inverse is the case with food–cuisine is about the feel of the environment within us. A well cooked meal or a sumptuously built space is as profound an experience as is available to human being, and that is enough said.
P.S.: The food images are courtesy of Tina, who runs a wonderful blog called The Wandering Eater. She graciously let me use her beautiful photos. Here is her post on her experience at Ko. Tina explains what exactly goes into a typical meal at Ko. Those ingredients, that preparation, and the execution: it is all so simple, yet carries so many ideas.
P.P.S.: At one point, I wanted to talk about David Chang, the chef at Momofuku, a Korean-American, and the vibrantly Asian-French-American food at Momofuku. In this way, it is tangentially related to my Film Architecture theme, “The Future is Asian.” The Momofuku restaurants are a phenomenon that seems an uncannily prescient sign of the times and the place (New York City). As one restaurant critic said about Momofuku, “only in America.”