When Marije Vogelzang throws one of her high-concept dinner parties, guests never know quite what to expect—except that she’ll come up with a radical approach that is certain to challenge accepted ideas about food and social interaction. She might attach all the wineglasses in the room together in one giant web, or "tattoo" pieces of food with provocative words like "energy" and "good for memory," or host a formal banquet in a field amid cows and wildflowers. Since Vogelzang launched her restaurant Proef in Rotterdam three years ago (with a new branch in Amsterdam last fall), the 29-year-old self-described "food designer" has won a cult following. Vogelzang, a graduate of the Netherlands’s prestigious Design Academy Eindhoven, says her goal is to "tell stories about food, so I use design as a tool." She has an impressive coterie of collaborators, including influential Dutch designers like Marcel Wanders, Hella Jongerius and Jurgen Bey.
Some of Vogelzang’s ideas are starkly literal. For instance, she once crafted guns out of sugar "to make visual what sugar can do to you." Other concepts are highly abstract, like the ones employed in the now-legendary holiday dinner she threw for the famous Dutch design collective Droog in 2005. For that party, Vogelzang riffed on the idea of sharing—in a way that dispensed with holiday cliché. She hung a tablecloth from the ceiling and poked holes in it for guests to stick their heads and arms through—"to connect everyone," she says. Vogelzang, a passionate supporter of local farmers, served different main courses to her guests: Some got roasted pork, others wild mushrooms with spring-onion gravy, and others a broiled pumpkin stuffed with seasoned nuts or sautéed potatoes with fresh herb cream. "Immediately, people started cutting up their food and sharing it and trying different things," says Vogelzang. By being forced to trade some of their food with others in order to compose a meal, guests paid closer attention to the ingredients on their plates—all sustainably raised from local farms.
Guests were encouraged to cut away the tablecloth with scissors as they ate. "Most of the guests didn’t know each other when they arrived," Vogelzang said, "but soon they bonded over the rebellious experience of cutting up the cloth."
Vogelzang got her professional start in the restaurant business when she opened Proef in Rotterdam, in partnership with Piet Hekker, owner of that city’s revered De Bakkerswinkel bakeries. She had first captured Hekker’s attention at the renowned Rotterdam-based designer Jurgen Bey’s wedding, where she served a cake made of fruit-filled soesjes (round Dutch puff pastries) that she covered with melted sugar, red berries and edible flowers so that it resembled a lush field. The Amsterdam branch of Proef is in the Westergasfabriek, a historic factory. Vogelzang uses the space as a lab for experimenting with food-design ideas and as a dinner-party venue, and on summer weekends, she turns it into a café that serves salads, soups, homemade breads and simple foods inspired by her latest projects. For instance, during the seemingly endless, gray days of this past winter, Proef Amsterdam served "light therapy" dishes, like a luscious ginger carrot cake, made with ingredients that grow in the dark. "The idea was, you don’t need light to get through the dark days," Vogelzang says. This summer she plans to prepare slow-cooked to-go meals for picnickers exploring the Westergasfabriek’s surrounding park: "I want to put numbers on some of the trees, so people can call us and tell us what tree they’re sitting under, and we’ll deliver a picnic to them."
For a recent dinner party, Vogelzang teamed up with Wanders, known for the iconic items he produced for Droog in the 1990s, like the Knotted Chair and the Sponge Vase, and also for more recent inventions like the Airborne Snotty Vase (a series of vases made from a mold that gets its abstract shape from a digital image of Wanders sneezing). Vogelzang and Wanders decided to build their party around a "one minute" theme, partly inspired by Wanders’s One Minute line, a collection of items like white gold-rimmed dishes reminiscent of the handprint plates kids make in kindergarten. Wanders only spends about 60 seconds on the prototype for each plate, in keeping with the theme.
On the day of the party, Wanders rapidly twisted bread dough into different shapes, some resembling animals—just like the one-minute sculptures he has made at home with his daughter. Vogelzang’s staff scattered sculptures around the table as decorations, put Wanders’s One Minute plates at each setting and used Snotty Vases as centerpieces.
Soon, the guests began to drift in: They included young designers from Wanders’s studio; Vogelzang’s business partner Hekker and his partner, Tony de Jong; and Liesbeth Jansen, the Westergasfabriek’s director. Wanders’s colleagues, fresh from a recent design conference, started discussing the invention they’d debuted there, called the Crochet Chair. It was made from hand-sewn crocheted flowers that had been stitched together, draped over a chair mold and coated with resin.
Wanders’s girlfriend, the Dutch choreographer Nanine Linning, soon arrived. Wanders started talking about one of the couple’s recent collaborations, "a stupid, crazy and beautiful idea" called the Happy Hour Chandelier, an enormous light fixture they’ve been bringing to parties around the world. Linning hangs from the chandelier, twisting around to offer guests Champagne and hors d’oeuvres.
The Proef staff started filing out of the kitchen with the starters Vogelzang had prepared: plates of grilled marinated "forgotten vegetables" (Jerusalem artichokes, black salsify and parsnips) from a Dutch farmer who only plants rare varieties; quail eggs cooked three ways—scrambled, fried and boiled whole with their tops cut off—and mixed with a crunchy combination of nuts, fresh herbs and fennel; and piping-hot french fries made from three different types of potatoes and served with homemade mayonnaise.
Vogelzang explained that she wanted the starters to look somewhat crude, to fit into the one-minute theme: "I chopped the vegetables roughly and unevenly to give them a variety of textures. Different textures create different tastes."
For the main course, Vogelzang more strictly interpreted the one-minute idea, cutting fresh tuna and salmon and earthy root vegetables and mushrooms into the same round shape, each of a thickness that cooked perfectly in 60 seconds. "I was thinking of Chinese stir-fry, where cooks chop up the ingredients to just the right thickness so that everything is done at the same time," Vogelzang said. She then arranged all of the ingredients into towering, colorful stacks. "I like it when an idea is visible in the food," Vogelzang added.
Some guests bit into their stacks one or two layers at a time; others tried to cut through the entire tower. Every bite—depending on how a guest grappled with the stack—yielded a different and often surprising flavor combination.
Said Wanders as he finished his stack, "Food can be a material, and you can use it as a way to project concepts. Food has always been at the frontier of creativity."
As guests said their good-byes and left—on bicycles, in typical Amsterdam style—Vogelzang summed up why food is, for her, the most exciting medium to work with. "I find it amazing to design something that people actually put into their bodies. You can’t get any closer to someone than you can with food."
Proef Amsterdam, Gosschalklaan 12; 011-31-20-682-2656. Proef Rotterdam, Mariniersweg 259; 011-31-10-280-7297. Marcel Wanders, marcelwanders.com.
Gisela Williams, F&W’s Europe correspondent, is a freelance writer based in Munich.