Guerilla Smiles: The Food Art of Nick Jirasek

by Jeriah Hildwine

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I first heard about Studio 1020 back in February 2010, when I read Jason Foumberg's review of Doug Fogelson's "Salt Room" in New City. Not long thereafter I got an invitation to attend an exhibition of collaborative work by Tony Fitzpatrick, Matthew Hoffman, Meghan Lorenz, KS Rives, and "12 others." Unfortunately I was in California at the time and wasn't able to make it to that show, but I made it to the next one, and it quickly become one of my favorite art spaces in Chicago.

Studio 1020 is Claire Molek, Erin Florence, and Nick Jirasek.  Nick, who runs a catering business called "Guerilla Smiles," is a unique component of an art space, in that he creates food art responses to the work being displayed in the gallery space.  As one of the Art Talk features I was known for was the Snack Report, the Studio naturally and rightly thought I'd be thrilled with what Nick was up to, as well as with the artwork on the walls.

That show, Sunday April 18th, 2010, was a "little secret preview" of Matt Taber's work, which turned about to be a monumental woodcut, 60 feet long by 8 feet high.  I was absolutely blown away, Matt was a great guy to talk to, and I had my first taste of Nick Jirasek's food art.  For Taber's preview, Nick made a muffuleta.  It's been a while but if I remember correctly, there was maybe some sort of New Orleans connection with Matt and his work.  Whatever the connection, the muffuletta was awesome, as was Matt's work.

Later that month (Saturday, April 24th, 2010) was the opening of Scott Nadeau's "Darkwater Press," and Nick came up with "Darkwater Soup" to accompany the show.  Nick described the creative process in the essay, "On Caterting For The Studio and Distribution," available on Matt Taber's website:

Last year, when catering for Scott Nadeau's opening reception for Dark Water Soup, I asked my friend, and oft collaborator, Vanessa to create her rendition of a dark water soup to serve alongside mine. She navigated this challenge in a clever, smart, and thought-provoking manner. Her soup was a broth made of black tea leaves, ever so delicately seasoned. The flavor notes she picked out of the tea she materialized as accompaniments or salpicon to be added to the hot broth; a dark-chocolate pretzel, a fresh blackberry. My rendition was more of a hit you over the head with flavor and braised beef black soy broth. Both were delicious, and in many ways I thought she had easily outdone me.

These two different interpretations of the concept of "darkwater soup" couldn't have been more different, one light and refreshing, the other rich and hearty.  It's tempting in the post-game to draw ham-handed comparisons between Nadeau's prints and the food art which was created in response, so I'll limit myself to saying that they were both nuanced, awesome, and delicious.  Nick, though, is more specific in some of his reasons for the choices he and his collaborator made:

Vanessa's dark water soup was the inspiration for the blackberry tea jam. There isn't a whole lot of tea amongst the berries, but it's there. I wanted the journey to be similar to the veiled blackberry undertone she so poignantly picked out the tea, but reversed. Again, hopefully reinforcing Taber's ideas of recomposition and deception.

Nick knows well that food is only half of the ingestible portion of any art event.  A far cry from the cheap bottle of wine that most galleries set out for their openings (and with which most visitors are entirely satisfied, and for which we are quite grateful), Nick integrates the alcoholic beverages served into his response to the work in the gallery:

We wanted the theme of color as well as flavor to be balanced and even through out all of our offerings. It is of my opinion that when at a gallery opening, people in general just want a beer (perhaps that is just my projected desire). Black&Tans draw a clear comparison to Distribution's separated tones. We took the opportunity to reinforce this idea of good fortune introduced by the Fat Choy and selected a mild Slovakian pilsner: Golden Pheasant. The importer is located in Chicago which helped offset some of the cost, and decrease our carbon footprint. More importantly the honey tasting malt pairs well with the "Black" half of the pair (Guinness), and the blackberry jam.

Nick also catered the closing reception for Distribution, on Saturday, March 19, 2011.  Claire is a big fan of pate, so Nick made his first pate for the closing.  I've got to admit, I'm not normally a huge pate fan, but Nick's was a good one, especially when paired with the jam:  at the time I thought it was blueberry-something, but in hindsight I suspect this may be the blackberry-tea jam he mentioned.  You might think pate and jam would be a strange combination, but it actually worked really well.  Fruit + meat is a really underrated pairing:  just think pork chops and applesauce, or Hawaiian pizza, or Lord of the Flies.

The real star of the closing reception were these "shots" Nick made, starting with a charred chicken liver, topped with micro-greens and a simple vinaigrette dressing.  Chicken liver is another thing I'd never go out of my way to try on my own, but when Nick prepares it, I'll try just about anything.  These little delicacies were served in little shot glasses and were sort of tossed back like a shot, but with more chewing.  They were delicious, far superior to my one attempt at preparing liver, a beef liver which I had Steph bread and fry with onions.  Working with challenging, difficult, or unusual ingredients is one of the trademarks of Nick's creative cooking.  The beverage component at Matt's closing was a gin and tonic with cucumber and rosemary; I'm an easy sell on a gin and tonic but Steph is usually skeptical of anything with gin in it, and even she had to love this one.

The Studio at 1020 has recently closed its space at 1020 N. Marshfield, "going nomad" for a while (okay, so I've been watching a fair bit of Sons of Anarchy).  They'll hopefully end up running another space together, but meanwhile, Tony Fitzpatrick's Firecat Projects is going strong.  Nick caters the private parties Tony throws for the artist after each opening at Firecat.

I think my first taste of Nick's catering for Tony was on January 21st, 2011, at the after-party for the opening reception of Jenny Scobel's show at Firecat Projects.  While Nick's involvement at Studio 1020 centers on experimentation, Tony's tastes run towards the more traditional.  This creates a sort of dynamic tension, a pressure against which Nick can work.  

For Scobel's opening, Tony asked for Italian Beef.  Nick of course used this contraint as an opportunity to try something new.  For his version of "Italian Beef," Nick used paleron, a cut of beef also called "chicken steak," top blade roast, or upper blade roast.  It's the cut used in beef bourguignon.

Three Floyds Brewery sponsors Tony Fitzpatrick's openings at Firecat, and Nick braised the paleron in one of their beers, Gumballhead.  It was then served on a section of baguette along with cilantro, red cabbage, and mushrooms.

More recently, at the party after the opening of Jared Joslin's "Stop, Look, and Glisten" at Firecat, Nick cooked up something I've always wanted to see him do:  his take on Mexican food, what he jokingly referred to as his "homage to Taco Bell."  Another guest overheard Nick call it this and suggested that he should have found something more deserving of an homage than Taco Bell, but this misses the point.  In one sense, of course, taking an element of lowest-common-denominator popular culture like Taco Bell and transforming its basic concept into an expertly prepared meal is a form of redemption, of taking the debased form of a national cuisine (what M.C. Paul Barman would call "a travesty of a culture, like the Choco-Taco") and restoring it beyond even its rightful place, making it into something new, and great.

In this sense, the kind of "low food" concepts Nick often starts with when catering Tony's events could be seen as ironic appropriation, of the type that's been en vogue ever since the first stoner rocked a D.A.R.E. T-shirt, but it's more than this.  Nick has a genuine and sincere appreciation for America's popular foods:

American low-cuisine unfairly gets a bad rap. Regardless of its processing, our new classics are based on big flavors, balanced. A Chicago hot dog has acidic vinegary mustard, sweet atomic relish, citrus tomato slice, savory beef, bright crunchy dill, spicy white onions. The argument against ketchup in this mix is a rational, valid one. There is plenty of sweetness in the fresh tomato, atomic green relish, and the hot link itself (4th ingredient is Corn Syrup). The great visionary Catalan Chef, Ferran Adria, is noted in a similar observation. Paraphrased: Big salty burger with creamy accents of cheese and sauce, crunchy lettuce, savory fries, all washed down with carbonated sugar beverage. That is a balanced dish.

This lack of pretense manifests itself in everything Nick Jirasek does, from his unique takes on simple fare at Tony's parties, to his concept-driven experiments at Studio 1020's openings.  The Studio may have closed its space but the group goes on, so Nick's food art will continue to play a role in Chicago's art scene in a variety of other art spaces.  I've talked to Nick about some of his wilder ideas for meals, and without giving away any surprises, I can say with confidence that Nick has got some really wild plans for the future.

Jeriah is an artist, educator, writer, and snack enthusiast.  You can see his work at www.jeriahhildwine.com, and read his columns at Art Talk Chicago and Chicago Art Magazine.  Jeriah lives and works in Chicago, with his wife Stephanie Burke.

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