Food theatre: the evolution of gastronomic performance art

A pre-theatre dinner is nothing exceptional, but what about combining the two? Rosie Best traces the relationship between food and theatre and their growing overlaps in contemporary cooking.

There is a long and well-known history of the relationship between dining and entertainment: from as early as the Roman period, feasts were accompanied by overtures of lyres and flutes, pantomime performances or even performing animals. But, for many diners throughout history, a meal didn’t just accompany an evening’s entertainment, it became the entertainment – a theatrical spectacle in itself. Today this trend continues in eateries all over the world, where food, its presentation and preparation becomes a new form of theatre – gastronomic performance art, if you will.

For powerful Romans, the dining room was perhaps the most important area of the home – the ideal place to exhibit one’s wealth and status through the procurement and display of detailed mosaics, decorative artworks, lavish furniture and rare, portable luxury objects (as Katharine Raff describes in her short essay on the subject). These installations and objects created a space not unlike a theatre, with backdrops and props carefully curated to engender the appropriate sense of awe in visitors. The ostentatious settings were complimented, of course, by highly performative meals: as well as the odd play, gladiator fight or musical ensemble, cooks were said to sing as they served diners and between each course a new performer would arrive to entertain guests.

mosaic 1
‘The drinking contest of Dionysus and Heracles’ – an example of a dining room mosaic. Worcester Art Museum.

The dishes themselves were artworks too, and undeniably theatrical. Further evidence of a host’s worldliness and affluence, exotic delicacies were the thing to have in the Roman Empire and were certainly designed to entertain, as much as to satisfy. The most well-known description of such food is found in Gaius Petronius Arbiter’s ‘The Dinner of Trimalchio’ which, although a work of fiction, describes some absurdities surely inspired by (or at least satirizing) real life:

‘A tray follows […] upon which was served a wild boar of immense size, wearing a liberty cap upon its head, and from its tusks hung two little baskets of woven palm fibre, one of which contained Syrian dates, the other, Theban. Around it hung little suckling pigs made from pastry, signifying that this was a brood-sow with her pigs at suck. It turned out that these were souvenirs intended to be taken home. When it came to carving the boar, our old friend Carver, who had carved the capons, did not appear, but in his place a great bearded giant, with bands around his legs, and wearing a hunting cape in which a design was woven. Drawing his hunting knife, he plunged it fiercely into the boar’s side, and some thrushes flew out of the gash.’

The work also goes on to describe a cooked hare, with wings sewn on to it to resemble the mythical Pegasus. Indeed, such sculptural dishes were also common later at Medieval banquets, where marzipan and sugar paste were used to craft elaborate edible structures.

 

Jumping ahead several hundred years to the 17th century, and, in high society, the presentation of food is still as important as ever. In France, the development of haute cuisine placed a new focus on neat and immaculate presentation while cuisine classique fixed on standardisation (both of recipes and of presentation), leaving little room for artistic flair.

nouvelle
An example of nouvelle cuisine presentation. BBC.

However, by the 1960s a new ‘nouvelle cuisine’ had begun to distance itself from the strict, standardised models of the cuisines immediately preceding it. This style continues to permeate dishes in mainstream and high-end restaurants and prioritises minimalism, asymmetry and a casual layout, serving as an implicit reminder of the role and autonomy of the chef. Indeed, in recent years this approach has even seen a return to the theatricality of dining, placing chefs in the role of performer.

Perhaps the best example of this is ‘live plating’, in which chefs plate up a meal – typically a dessert – in front of diners, on a large shared surface. This can involve everything from smashing blown sugar globes to melting chocolate spheres, drizzling sauces across tables to caramelising crème brulees. While giving the illusion of spontaneity and disorganisation – in-keeping with the style of nouvelle cuisine – these platings are, of course, highly choreographed and performative.

With the continuing popularity of social media, these experiences – along with live cooking stations, as are commonly found in Japanese restaurants – are likely to see a surge in popularity as diners share the culinary performance art online. Still, it’s no Pegasus hare.

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