Palette to Palate

BY Meghan Barnes

Always eager to provide a new and interesting dining experience for its patrons the Cameron Art Museum embraced Wrightsville Beach Magazine art director Shawn Best’s concept to create food as art and art as food. CAM Caf�’s Jessica Cabo a self-taught chef who has trained with world-class chefs on both the East and West Coasts created a selection of dishes based on artwork featured in the museum’s permanent collection.

Before coming to the CAM Cabo had not worked in a museum but often sought out paintings and different forms of artwork to provide inspiration for the visual representations of her dishes.

“Being at the art museum has helped create my brand of food ” Cabo explains. “It is very much about the visual presentation as well as how the food tastes and what ingredients go together. In pairing that with the abundance of local and organic products that are available in our area you are able to create dishes that are unique to the people and the Wilmington area.”

With staff at the CAM Cabo selected art from the museum’s permanent collection for inspiration. Cabo created her own edible and beautiful art for the museum patrons. Je Depew helped Cabo with the plating of the dishes acting as an assistant creative director or a sounding board for her ideas as she created them.

“This is the first time we have represented pieces from our current collection through dishes that visually represented them ” CAM executive director Anne Brennan says. “Opening this venue has shown us how we can make art visual in more senses than just with the eyes.”

This endeavor has inspired an entire tasting menu for the caf� based on artwork featured in the museum.

Cabo’s first dish “Physics ” was inspired by Claude Howell’s painting “Physics Still Life.” Howell is a Wilmington-born artist whose work is displayed in multiple local and national venues. His art is inspired mostly by his experiences growing up in a coastal community and the ever-changing climate of the Wilmington area so it is only fitting that Cabo relied on Feast Down East an eastern North Carolina-based company providing people with organic and farm-fresh vegetables grown within 150 miles of where they live to acquire all of her produce.

With the inspiration of Howell’s work in her mind Cabo began to create her dish using among other ingredients lotus root lychee nuts beet and turnip roots various heirloom carrots and baby corn to create a visual representation of his art. Cabo then crafted multiple purees and zests to accent the dish ensuring that it was not just beautiful and inspired but tasty as well.

“I first saw this piece of work at an exhibition with my nephew ” Cabo recalls. “He was fascinated by all of the moving parts and how they simulated robots so when I was presented with this project that was the first one I chose. Since this piece is so abstract it allowed me to create an imaginative inspiration for my food. I collected beautiful and seasonal local vegetables and used different methods to cut them which altered their shape and presentation.”

“I came to this piece ” Cabo explains “after developing a bit of an obsession with monochromatic pieces. When I view art like this I automatically begin to think in colors and textures.”

For her second dish Cabo drew inspiration from the late Sam Francis’ untitled ink-on-paper work. Francis an American-born artist focused on a wide variety of painting styles and printmaking. He holds international acclaim for his work and upon his death the Sam Francis Foundation was established to provide students the ability to create work that would perpetuate his legacy.

In looking at the dish Cabo crafted using black garlic and multiple different local and imported mushrooms each cooked and sliced in a different representative way it is easy to see the inspiration she drew from his work.

“When I viewed this painting I immediately saw a mushroom dish and as I started to think about the colors I thought of black garlic and different ways to create spotting within the dish ” she says. “To create those I crafted a balsamic reduction and actually took a paintbrush and splattered it on.”

Since the balsamic is much thicker than paint Cabo had to be sure her movements were purposeful in order to create the dish she was viewing in her head.

“The circles and the roundness of the painting spoke to me ” she says. “I have always been drawn to circles within art — I view them as feminist and even though it had that feminist circle it also had that darkness to it.”

For her third dish Cabo crafted a salmon entr�e based on a woodblock print on paper titled “Wilderness III” by local artist and University of North Carolina Wilmington instructor Ann Conner.

In order to capture the essence of the print Cabo decided to approach her dish through simplistic means. Instead of using various different cutting and styling methods like she had previously used she decided to rely on the natural beauty of the Norwegian salmon belly.

“I had so many ideas of how to make this dish more complex but it had beauty in its simplicity — so I didn’t want to alter it ” Cabo explains.

In looking at the hard white lines that are created from the solid white plate it is easy to see how Cabo envisioned the salmon once swimming freely being represented in the same fashion on the plate.

“I think I was drawn to the fact that it looked like it was naturally occurring ” Cabo explains. “It is important to understand what translates well into different forms of art. This also goes for food when you think about the plating as an artistic expression.”

The fourth dish Cabo crafted was inspired by Caroline McCauley’s untitled work. McCauley an artist often recognized in the Wilmington area for her work in the community was the perfect pairing for Cabo’s “Ode to Wild Onion.”

“I was looking in the permanent collection and going through old books of the artwork from past exhibitions and then this piece struck me ” Cabo explains. “The moment I saw it I knew: this was it.”

“The color scheme spoke to me with the pale greens and I could see it as food. It automatically reminded me of leeks and green onions ” Cabo says. “I wanted to char them in different places so I could wrap the different vegetables around there so I did a very simple cream of potato soup and I burnt and wilted the greens to create different textures and shades.”