The city’s culinary community has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years, the results of new talent, experimentation and technology. In the spring of 2013 three Chicago chefs won James Beard Foundation awards, the culinary world’s Oscar. Culinary arts have become a major influence in Chicago, especially on the visual arts. As Chicago Artists Coalition, the parent organization of Chicago Artists Resource, prepares for its third-annual Starving Artist fundraiser, CAR correspondent Jourdan Fairchild interviewed participants Bill Kim, chef and restaurateur, and multi-media artist Sabina Ott on another growing field in Chicago arts: interdisciplinary collaborations.
It’s lunchtime at Belly Q, Bill Kim’s popular restaurant in the West Loop. While tables fill with hungry patrons, Kim and artist Sabina Ott are tucked away in a private dining room discussing exotic spices and lamps made of bread. They are one of five chef-artist teams presenting an edible and aesthetic collaboration at Starving Artist, proceeds from which support programs like the Maker Grant. By the sound of it, these two plan to make a major statement at the fundraiser as they discussed their inspirations, the collaborative process and the importance of giving back to the art community.
CAR: What’s been inspiring both of you lately?
Kim: Wild leeks, purple asparagus, morel mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns are all happening right now, so that’s inspiring. India also excites me because it’s one destination that I eventually want to get to. Even fashion inspires me. It doesn’t have to be about food, but it always evolves back to food.
I woke up one day at 4:30 a.m. to write down an idea about tea-smoked duck salad with orange wonton skin and cold udon with a soy usadashi broth. I can’t sleep because I’ll keep on thinking about it. I like to dissect the idea and describe a clear picture of it for my staff, or I’ll cook it for them and say this is what I’m looking for.
Ott: [My process is] really different. I work until five in the morning. I make sketches, and I’ll find old ones of things I haven’t made yet on scraps of paper around the house. And I always assume—which is a good assumption—that I’m going to be able to make it. I tend to just jump in.
There’s something about Tiepolo and the early 20th century art I’m loving right now. I like playing off of art history, which is the way you, Bill, are playing with ingredients to make hybrids in your cooking.
There’s also something about going to an open-air market—about the hands-on aspect of trying to live mindfully—that I get really inspired by. I think that has to do with trying to make things that are fanciful and useful at the same time.
What have you two been discussing for your Starving Artist collaboration?
Bill Kim: We both want to focus on the senses. We’re two experts in what we do, so we just need to find a way to join forces and be able to execute what we’re good at.
Sabina Ott: That’s right. We’ve discussed using smell to create an environment, like filling the corners of a room with spices. I also want to make a lamp out of bread because people are always saying my work looks edible. We’re kind of all over the place right now.
Kim: What if we poured some olive oil in a pan underneath the lamp to poach fish? So the lamp would cook the fish and the aromas would be happening. And then we could serve it … or people could actually serve themselves.
Ott: I like that idea!
Kim: And we could put out a rasp so that people could shape the fish ever so slightly and shave zest or spices—whatever we’re using. I think the sense of smell really takes you back to childhood and food memories, and we want to incorporate that emotional factor into what we do.
Bill, you’re known for the imaginative dishes you serve at your restaurants. Would you consider yourself an artist?
Kim: I don’t feel like I’m an artist. But I do have all of these flavor profiles stored in my head. Without even making something, I know how it will taste. Like, mint and passion fruit go really well together. Sun-dried tomatoes and Chinese black beans sound weird, but they’re both very earthy and they’re almost a match made in heaven. To me that’s not being artistic; it’s about refining flavors. I’d call myself a craftsman, and I’m always working at my craft.
Have you ever collaborated with someone outside of the kitchen?
Kim: Yes, I collaborate with many different artists. My sister-in-law designed the interior of Belly Q. I told her what we were doing with the food and she visualized what the place was going to look like. She designed our website, the leather aprons the servers wear, the chairs and the check presenters. So she’s also a craftsman. And we have sections of moss along the wall in the private rooms designed by a friend. Oh, and I have another friend who makes caramels, so we collaborated on soy-and-balsamic caramels. If somebody is an expert at what they do, I always want to let them do it.
Sabina, what is your approach to food? Do you like to get in the kitchen and cook?
Ott: I like to cook a lot, but it’s not my form. In my work, I make a mess and then I clean it up. I depend a lot on making mistakes. In the kitchen, I’m a little safer. I actually have a public space in my front yard, and I cook a big spread for these openings I host every month. People are impressed because they don’t expect to come to an art opening and have food that I’ve made. For me, it’s more about the gesture of making it and the pleasure of feeding people.
Bill, I love listening to you describe the poetry of flavors. It feels like how I want people to react viewing my work. You’re talking about these innate qualities that are in these pairings and it’s such an exciting way to think of it. I could record you describing this and just play it on repeat.
What is the benefit of collaborating?
Kim: You need to have humility about what you do. Last month we had 20 chefs at Belly Q for a charity event. It wasn’t about someone else’s restaurant or my restaurant or competing to get customers. You’ve gotta share, you’ve gotta contribute to what is going on because if you’re just there to make a buck, it doesn’t mean anything.
Ott: It’s a quality-of-life issue. [Collaboration] becomes an act of hospitality and generosity. Having a space in my front yard gives artists opportunities to expand their practice and do something they’ve never done. There’s nothing in it for me. I think [collaboration] is an idea that what you do ultimately permeates everything that you are.
If creative differences come up, how will you handle them?
Kim: I can change and adapt to what is going on. This profession constantly changes: seasons change, menus change, people change. I change my mind a lot. If there’s a creative difference, we adapt.
How do you think art—and especially artistic collaboration—impacts the community?
Ott: I think that without artists the world dies. I really do. And I think that organizations like the Coalition make the power or the strength of an art community visible. Carolina, the director, networks and represents the weight of the artists in the city. Also, I think the Coalition tries to be a conduit for artists in areas like insurance and renting studio space.
Kim: I think we all, chefs included, become “starving artists.” If you’re hired as a chef, you get paid salary as an employee, but you’re not really learning about getting insurance, profit sharing, branding—everything that goes with running a business. [Starving Artist is] about providing exposure to the art community. And we are all in that same community: We’re creative, and we’re working with our hands.
Ott: I just know that it’s going to be good.
Bill Kim, Sabina Ott. Illustration by Nitewerk.