Alice Waters helps museum meet the tastes of art lovers


LOS ANGELES – As The Hammer Museum comes out of closure from last year’s pandemic, it has assembled a range of big names who it hopes will draw crowds to its campus down the street from the l ‘University of California at Los Angeles: Cézanne, Manet, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec. And the Waters.

It would be Alice Waters, the restaurateur who founded Chez Panisse in Berkeley 50 years ago and who helped define modern California cuisine. She lends her name and reputation to Lulu, a new restaurant she helped open in the Cour du Marteau, the first time she has partnered so closely with a restaurant since the opening of Chez Panisse.

“This will bring people who might not be museum enthusiasts to the museum,” said Ann Philbin, executive director of Hammer, who recruited Ms. Waters for the project. “This is cross-pollination of audiences.”

The Hammer, which is affiliated with UCLA, is the latest in a long line of arts institutions that collaborate with top conductors in hopes of expanding their audiences. And Ms. Waters is the latest in a long line of famous restaurateurs (for the record, she hates the expression, preferring the French “restauratrice”) to lend her name to a cultural institution.

But while institutions like the Hammer face the challenges of trying to emerge from the pandemic, these types of partnerships, which were once a pleasure for patrons spending an afternoon in a museum or an evening in a concert hall. , take on a new urgency.

The past 20 months have shown that an opera, a play or an art exhibition can be enjoyed from a living room. Food, on the other hand, can’t be streamed, and museums see evidence of that in the lines of people claiming a table at their upscale restaurants.

“People told me they came because they heard about the restaurant, and when they walked through the museum lobby, they were excited by what they saw and came back,” said Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts. , Houston, which this year opened Le Jardinier, an ambitious and acclaimed French restaurant with a menu overseen by Alain Verzeroli, a Michelin-starred chef.

Gone are the days when museums outsourced restaurants to innocuous food companies that served bland food in the cafeteria – think tuna sandwiches on white, wrapped in plastic.

In New York, restaurateur Danny Meyer opened The Modern at the Museum of Modern Art more than 15 years ago, convinced that high culture and high gastronomy shared some of the same clientele and could function under the same roof.

“At best, we play a supporting actor role,” Meyer said in an interview. “But we hope to be a great version of a supporting actor.”

Restaurants and entertainment have always been in tacit competition for discretionary consumer spending. And if statistics are any guide, Americans love to eat more than they love a trip to a museum, opera, theater, or concert. The average household spent $ 3,526 in restaurants in 2019, the year before the pandemic, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, about $ 500 more than it spent on the broad category of entertainment .

So nowadays one of the first calls for any new museum or concert hall is for a big name conservator. Rembrandt is doing well; Michelin may be better.

At the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which recently opened in Los Angeles, one of the main draws was Fanny’s, the downstairs restaurant run by Bill Chait, one of the biggest names in fine dining in Los Angeles, which has helped create such popular dining venues. like République and Bestia. “It has been thrilled from the start,” said Bill Kramer, director of the museum.

The museum’s restaurants, once hidden away in basements or corners, now often have their own separate entrances, so they can operate even when the museum is closed. Modern in New York was a pioneer in this regard, Meyer said. “Before that,” he said, “the restaurant was always seen as a facility for museum enthusiasts.”

Before the pandemic, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco hired Deuki Hong, an experienced chef at Momofuku Noodle Bar and Jean-Georges in New York City, to work with the Boba Guys, a popular supplier of bubble milk tea from San Francisco, at the new restaurant on Sundays at the Museum.

“The Asian Art Museum could have chosen a cafeteria account,” said Andrew Chau, one of the founders of Boba Guys. “They wanted to try something different. Food is culture.

The lunch crowd doubled before the pandemic closed and is now slowly coming back.

“We started looking for a new chef for our cafe as part of our multi-year transformation project in 2017,” said Jay Xu, executive director of the Asian Art Museum. “Part of that, of course, was growing our audience. “

Similar collaborations are underway at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Music Center in Los Angeles, home to the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But few have garnered as much interest as Alice Waters at the Hammer.

For Ms. Waters, who is 77, the decision to venture out of Berkeley is a bit of a reinvention, and a bit of a risk. Despite all its praise, Chez Panisse came under fierce criticism in 2019 from Soleil Ho, the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, who argued that his approach had become obsolete. “Chez Panisse took the culinary conversation forward in this country, but seems to have stopped since then,” she wrote.

Ms Waters seems to be aware that her reputation is a double-edged sword.

“I don’t want people to have such expectations,” she said recently in front of a glass jar of mint tea in Lulu, named after the late Lulu Peyraud, a wine matriarch and Provencal cook. who had been his mentor. “I want them to know that they can always eat something simple, seasonal and delicious. “

Ms Waters designed the restaurant and recruited as chef David Tanis, a longtime Chez Panisse collaborator, who writes a monthly column for the Food section of the New York Times. She personally oversaw many details, until deciding what kind of wood (from a buna) should be used for the tables scattered around Lulu’s spacious terrace.

Mr Tanis said they expected most of their initial guests to be museum visitors. But he said he and Waters were convinced that the restaurant, given its aspirations and where it came from, would appeal to residents of Los Angeles, a city known for its vibrant and adventurous dining scene, as well as faculty, staff. and university students. , 10 minutes walk.

“The people who come here as a destination – and the people who visit the museum and want to have lunch,” he said. “We are not aiming for gastronomy. It’s not going to be fancy.

Its menu includes a $ 45, three-course prix fixe lunch menu that began, in a recent example, with a salad of fennel, radish, and arugula, followed by a cod, Dungeness crab and seafood stew. Japanese clams, and ended with olive oil with walnuts. pomegranate cake. Dinner service will begin next year.

The restaurant is part of an ambitious renovation project underway at the Hammer, which announced a $ 180 million fundraising campaign in 2018 to expand the gallery space and bolster its endowment. Ms Philbin, who ate regularly at Panisse, turned to Ms Waters for advice.

“I know you know chefs all over the country,” recalls Ms. Philbin. “She came up with two names and said, ‘I’ll contact them and talk to them.’ A few weeks later, I got an email from her saying, “I haven’t contacted them yet because I have another idea: I might be thinking of myself.” I could not believe it. I was like, are you kidding me?

Ms Waters had always said no when asked by other museums if she could open a restaurant. “It is about my will to lead a civilized life,” she said. “And it’s not on a plane flying to my restaurant in New York.”

It seemed different. Los Angeles isn’t that far from Berkeley, and she has a daughter who lives here.

These collaborations have not always been successful. An attempt to open an upscale restaurant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has been abandoned. A Meyer restaurant at Whitney in New York, Untitled, did not survive the pandemic and was turned into a cafe.

But they have also become a source of hope for the institutions.

The Los Angeles Music Center turned to Ray Garcia, the chef of the now-closed Broken Spanish, to open a restaurant at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. “A well-known conductor will bring more people to campus,” said Rachel Moore, President of the Music Center.

Mr Garcia said the collaboration would be a boon for the center – and the restaurant.

“A high tide lifts all the boats,” he said. “Anyone can gain exposure. “


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