Dine amid precious artwork in the new Chefs series from the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Peggy Grieve scanned the room at a dinner party recently, looking for faces she recognized. There were, of course, dining companions – her son and his fiancée sitting across from her. But far from the long candlelit table, she saw a man she thought she knew. He was wearing a blue suit and a red cloak. “Saint Michael, I think,” said a resident of Sunfish Lake.

She turned around in her chair and saw another figure behind her, with unmistakable curly locks flowing toward his shoulders. She said, “Christ, I know.”

“And there is Judith,” Matthew Welch, who was seated beside Greve at the table, noted, “holding the head of Holofernes.”

This dinner party didn’t have a time-traveling guest list, but it did have an unusual setting – in a rotunda at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, flanked by towering European Renaissance oil paintings.

Grieve attended a first-of-its-kind public dinner at a Mia showroom for a multi-course meal designed by two top local chefs and inspired by two stunning new fairs. (Welch, seated next to her, is Mia’s deputy director and chief curator.)

The Kaiseki Art and Dining Experience gallery brings together artwork from “Dressed by Nature: Textiles of Japan” and “Van Gogh and the Olive Groves,” two special exhibitions that seem to have little in common. But after tours of the galleries with curators, guests sat down to a delicate meal from chefs Shigeyuki Furukawa and Jamie Malone who explored surprising intersections between hand-stitched Japanese robes and thick brushstrokes depicting a view of Provence from a Van Gogh hospital window.

“I always say to people, ‘I work at the crossing point of food and art,'” said Furukawa, founder and co-owner of Kaiseki Restaurant Furukawa in Minneapolis.

While the museum has hosted donor receptions or rented areas of the classic 1915 building for private parties, this is one of the rare times when the public can purchase tickets for an inter-art meal, said Katie Lauber, the museum’s director and president of Mia. Even more surprising is that the food is inspired by the pieces themselves.

“It’s an experience. We wanted to experience something we hadn’t seen before,” said Lauber, who joined the museum in early 2020.

Luber came before COVID-19 closed the museum – and the on-site restaurant. While the museum is almost back to normal, the mezzanine restaurant, Agra Culture, has never reopened. (The Agra Culture Café downstairs is still operating.)

“We’re really intent on rebuilding our audience, because in the past we’ve had lots and lots of visitors, and we’re still working to get those people back,” she said. I thought food could be a medium.

Luber was thinking about how to redesign the restaurant into something that offers a more experience for the guests. In her previous job at the San Antonio Museum of Art, she oversaw chef’s pop-up nights, and wanted to try it out at Mia before the restaurant reopened. I started brainstorming with Malone, James Beard-nominated chef, how to cook to get guests excited about the two new shows.

Known for her French style, Malone has become increasingly interested in the intersection of French and Japanese cooking. At the same time, she was reading about Van Gogh, and learned that he had a keen interest in Japanese prints. While talking to Lauper, Malone wondered aloud, “What if Van Gogh went to Japan?”

“We were like, ‘Omigod, it’d be cool to explore,'” Lauber said.

Search for connections

Malone invited Furukawa to the conversation, and they settled on kaiseki, a traditional Japanese dinner inspired by the season and telling a story with each dish. All the courses at Mia’s dinner came with a scroll that revealed the conceptual framework the chefs used to connect art with food, and they asked a question.

Questions such as: “How was Japanese food different from French? Van Gogh avoided luxury; was he more drawn to Japanese culinary sensibilities?” and “Kisaten were the Japanese equivalent of French coffeehouses at the time. What nightly conversations did artists have about cigarettes in these places?”

Dishes alternated between classic Japanese and classic French cuisine, subtly turning to art, especially textiles, many of which were made with natural materials such as fish skin, banana leaves, nettles, and persimmon juice.

One course of Furukawa featured crab from one bite, crunchy as a potato chip, evoking the designs of marine life on a kimono in a textile show. Another, a vegetable and seafood stew, was served on a huge sheet reminiscent of Van Gogh’s sunflowers. One of the pairs of wine, selected by Bill Summerville, came from the area where Van Gogh was hospitalized.

“It was like ‘go and find contact’, so it wasn’t in your face,” said Andreas Marx, curator of the Japan Textile Fair. “For me, I thought the courses worked very harmoniously.”

The dinner series, which launched earlier this month, will run on select Wednesdays through September 7. Luber is considering hosting another dinner when the Botticelli Gallery opens this fall. Ultimately, she hopes to make exhibition-related dinners a regular event at the restaurant, using Mia’s extensive collection as inspiration.

Beyond red wine

The dinner presented a logistical challenge to the chefs, as they served many courses without traditional cuisine. With no permanent dining infrastructure in place, the events were costly for the museum. It’s also for guests at $375 a ticket.

But for those who were able to attend, the delights went beyond gastronomy and art. The relationship is an intimate one, limited to 45 guests at one long table. At the first dinner, to Lauper’s astonishment, attendees came from as far away as Finland.

There’s also the powerful, almost terrifying stillness of being in the museum after hours.

“It’s great to be in the museum when it’s not open to the public,” Malone said. “I feel like being around this artwork, a quiet moment that feels really powerful.”

The dinner events are held on the third rotunda floor, across the atrium from one of Van Gogh’s Olive Grove paintings. European oil paintings of biblical figures that Griff was recognizing hang high on the walls, out of reach of spills and stains.

“We didn’t feel that there was really that much of a risk, and everyone was very respectful and careful as well,” Lauber said.

Lauber hopes future dinners will be at other museum locations. However, one of the places they will not be is the galleries where textiles are displayed, as they are unidentified and vulnerable.

However, Marx was on the edge of his seat during the first dinner.

He said, “I was kind of like, ‘Thank God we’re not in my show.’” It’s kind of surreal, because we have these strict rules. We already say no food and drink. Red wine? It’s like switching to nuclear power.”

“Kaiseki, The Story of Van Gogh and Japan in 1880” tickets available over here.

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