"I wanted my art to capture motion, and my first thought was to paint ballet," says Jeff Martin. "Then I realized that chefs are like dancers, moving in a confined space to create something beautiful." After 18 years of cooking in some of Melbourne's top restaurants to fund his art, Martin began asking chefs if he could document the action in their kitchens.
He tries to be invisible, drawing details like a service bell and taking photos for color reference (and occasionally pausing to taste dishes). He relies on those sketchbooks when he creates a final oil painting. Martin is now visiting 25 of the world's best restaurants for a 2012 exhibition, "Back of the House." Why do top chefs give him so much access? "I'm not there to critique," Martin says. "I'm there to celebrate what chefs do." jeffmartin.com.au.
Jeff Martin: The Food Takeaway
"Some of my favorite dishes are staff meals. At Bras, in Laguiole, France, we had perfect roast chicken. It was lovely. No frills."
Paris's Le Chateaubriand: Jeff Martin's View
"Inaki Aizpitarte has the tiniest kitchen I've drawn. I sketched it as if I were hovering above and used shorthand to remember where the pots were."
Artwork and Photo © Jeff Martin.
Q&A with Jeff Martin
F&W's Jen Murphy talks to Jeff Martin to get some insights into his work:
Why were you so familiar with restaurant kitchens? Were you a chef?
I paid for my canvases and paints over the years by working in the restaurant industry. I worked in the front and back of the house. In 2007, I rang a man who was running the Pearl, one of Melbourne's famous restaurants of the '80s, and I said to him, "Look, I've got this crazy idea: Can I come in during service and keep a visual diary of a night in your restaurant kitchen?"
The staff didn't feel you were in the way or interfering with service?
Because I had worked so many restaurant jobs, I knew where to stand in a kitchen and how to get out of the way. I can tell the minute I arrive where the hot spot will be to observe the action. At the Press Club in Melbourne, the best place for me to stand was in front of the refrigerator. I would listen to the pass, and when I heard the call, I knew someone had to get into the fridge, so I would put my pen in my book and open the fridge door for them and then would go back to drawing. At the end of service, they joked that I had been an asset and that I had actually saved them time. I ended up sketching and painting 15 of Melbourne's best restaurants in 2007.
What is your creative process? Do you sketch and then paint?
I go into a restaurant with my pen and a notebook and fill the book with 20 to 30 sketches. I also snap some photos for color reference. I then create large-scale-1.5 meters by 1.8 meters-oil paintings from those sketches. I look at the machinations of the kitchen and how things physically work, and I try to convey the mood of each kitchen.
How many paintings do you create for each restaurant?
Just one. I paint on archival Belgian linen. All of my sketchbooks can be flicked through online. I always start each book with an illustration of the logo from the restaurant's business card and the date. And I always work in ink. I don't believe there is such a thing as a mistake, and ink is permanent. Sometimes I write notes in shorthand to remember where a copper pot is or where a stove is.
Is it hard to get access?
Just the other day a food critic asked me how I get access to the world's greatest restaurant kitchens, and I explained it's because I'm not a threat. I am not there to review or to critique but to celebrate what chefs do in the place where they spend all of their time with their extended family and friends.
What was it like walking into Noma in Copenhagen?
I briefed the staff on what I do, and I think in many ways what I do is similar to what cooks do. We're very creative people creating a form of art that is consumed, then critiqued. The main difference is that my art, my painting, hangs around longer.
I had to pass a test when I showed up at Noma. The staff passed me a little jar, and it was full of ice. It was one of those jars you see preserves in, and when I took off the rubber seal and opened it, a little prawn was sitting upside down on the ice, and when I reached to pick it up, it jumped. It was still alive. They had frozen the crustacean to kill it humanely so it was dead, but its nervous system was still working. My reaction was to say, "Wow!" And I simply grabbed it and dipped it in the sauce and popped it in my mouth, and the staff said, "Yeah, he's OK."
I noticed that the head chef isn't always the focal point of your paintings. How do you decide what to zoom in on?
I try to notice little quirky things that perhaps only the staff will recognize in the painting. There was one restaurant in Sydney where one of the cooks was a dwarf. She was so short that she had a box she would stand on and kick from counter to counter, and no one knows that box was there but the other staff, and I painted that in my painting. Sometimes the trinket is something as simple as a bell.
Have you eaten in every restaurant you have painted?
I have had the food from every restaurant. I don't always sit down for the meal. I usually don't have very much time, as I am traveling, and first and foremost I am there to observe the environment. But often the chefs want me to understand their food, so they will say "Taste this" and "What do you think of this?" and I get shown techniques. I more often sit down to a staff meal than sit down in the dining room for a meal.
What is one of your most memorable dishes or meals?
When I was in Italy at Le Calandre, just south of Venice, I painted service but went back the next day to interview the two brothers who run the restaurant. I stayed to have a degustation menu for lunch, and I had this dessert that was the 12 tastes of childhood. It started with a sealed deck of 12 cards that described each phase, and it started with being in the mother's belly, the birth, breast feeding, time spent with grandparents, the first time you smell smoke. It was fascinating. One dish was an Oral B toothbrush with strawberry mousse piped on it to signify brushing your teeth for the first time, and it was so funny to be in a fine dining restaurant brushing my teeth.
Also, I had a three-course staff meal at Le Chateaubriand in Paris. The mussels entrée was just beautiful. They were simply steamed but were absolutely perfect.
What has been the most challenging kitchen to capture?
Le Chateaubriand in Paris is one of the smallest kitchens I have ever seen. Seven or eight people are working shoulder to shoulder. The physical limitations made it challenging but also let me be imaginative. I painted the kitchen as if I were looking at it from above so that I could capture everything going on.
Which restaurants are you currently painting?
Right now I'm in the process of traveling the globe to paint 25 of the San Pellegrino World's Best 100 Restaurants. Not necessarily the top 25, but 25 of the 100. I just spent five weeks in Europe and painted five restaurants.