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Philly chefs' dishes good enough to paint

by SAMANTHA MELAMED The Philadelphia Inquirer on April 10, 2014 10:55 AM

PHILADELPHIA — Years before winning over diners with dishes like chowder-poached oysters and gnocchi with snails, Fitler Dining Room chef Robert Marzinsky had a different artistic vision: He and a group of fellow art-school graduates made site-specific installations using ceramics and other materials.

Since the works were temporary, he said, “We recognized that, to some extent, the real work was when you documented it. You’d come back with 500 slides, and spend $300 to process the film.”

Today, in his kitchen at 22nd and Spruce streets, Marzinsky is still making things that are ephemeral and beautiful — and he still acknowledges the impulse to document those creations.

That explains why, on a recent Saturday morning, Marzinsky found himself cooking up one of his elegant restaurant dishes — scallops atop a rectangle of black pudding, with celery root puree and a pear-celeriac rÔŅ©moulade — on an apartment-size electric stovetop in Kensington.

The stove in question belonged to Mike Geno, a master of fine arts-trained artist who teaches at the Tyler School of Art. He has spent the last few months working with some of Philadelphia’s top chefs to paint portraits of their most distinctive dishes. The paintings are on display through April at the James Beard House, a venerated “foodie” destination in Greenwich Village.

Geno, a gastronome who has long run an informal foodie club that holds prix fixe dinners at restaurants around the city, has previously painted images of bacon, cuts of meat, cheese and sushi.

He began contemplating works based on restaurant dishes after a dinner at the Farm and Fisherman last May. The revelation was chef Josh Lawler’s “bloody beet steak.”

“He gives you a steak-size beet, brilliantly translucent red — and it was just great. I don’t think he can ever stop serving it, because it’s something only he has,” Geno said. “I knew I wanted to paint that one day.”

Geno became friends with a sous chef at the restaurant, and learned from him that Lawler had the same idea.

He’d wanted a painting of his signature dish ever since he bought a new house in South Jersey: “His dad looked at (the house) and said, ‘That’s a lot of bloody beet steaks,’” Geno said. “So he wants it for his house. It represents his success.”

Lawler helped Geno navigate the logistics of working with the restaurant plates, which were more delicate and less shelf-stable than anything Geno had painted before.

Given the logistical challenges, Lawler offered to stop by and plate the dish himself.

Since then, Geno’s studio has hosted a who’s who of Philly’s culinary talent.

Steve Cook, half of the Cook & Solomonov team behind Zahav, Federal Donuts and Percy Street Barbecue, stopped by to dish out some of Zahav’s creamy hummus masabacha. Marcie Turney, of Lolita, Barbuzzo and Little Nonna’s, showed up in a snowstorm to plate burrata with roasted carrots, thin-sliced raw beets, green charmoula and almonds. The dish is a Barbuzzo favorite.

Kevin Sbraga, of the Fat Ham and Sbraga, challenged Geno to paint his rabbit golumpki, a cadmium-green envelope of cabbage on a magenta pool of borscht broth.

And Jose Garces selected one of his own personal favorite dishes from Amada, Madre e Hijo. He sent a chef over to plate the chicken breast topped with a fried egg with fingerling potatoes seasoned with mojama and truffles.

Geno requested some of the dishes, but mostly it was chef’s choice.

That meant ceding control to culinary artists who sometimes changed their minds at the last minute about what to dish up.

And, in some cases, it meant painting for 11 hours at a stretch, racing against running cheese, wilting microgreens and bleeding colors (the hummus, in particular, turned bright paprika-orange after eight hours or so).

Sbraga, for one, said he was skeptical when Geno first approached him, but he quickly came around to the idea.

“The fact that this guy wasn’t going to just take a picture but actually paint food — and that we would get the opportunity to plate the dish and put it together for him — I thought that was all really cool,” he said. “I definitely see it as an artistic collaboration.”

Sbraga said that he sees himself more as a craftsman than an artist, but that there is artistry in plating a dish.

Solomonov, meanwhile, has no pretensions about his hummus. “I don’t think of it as art. I think of it as pretty good food,” he said.

But he was flattered that anyone would want to paint it. “Painting is like writing a letter or a card. It’s much more involved than sending an email,” he said. “We’ve had very good photographs taken of our food, but this is definitely the first painting.”

Then, there’s the venue.

Sbraga, who has won Bravo’s Top Chef and made Esquire Magazine’s Best New Restaurants list, said having his dish featured at the Beard house is a different kind of honor.

“I’ve been there once to eat, but I’ve never cooked there,” he said. “I think it’s pretty cool to have a dish of mine featured there on the walls.”

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