Down East 2013 ©
How do you define "art?" I often hear chefs, restaurateurs, and caterers referred to as "artists." Mostly I find this pretentious, but I also wonder if it's true. Do you have to be a painter, a dancer, or a sculptor to be called an "artist?" There's an art to creating really good food, but are chefs "artists?"
I found myself asking these questions once again last week at a dinner at the White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport. The dinner was part of a weekend of events called "Arts In the Inns - A Pairing of Palates with Palettes." The idea was that the chefs from four inns around town would cook a meal inspired by a painting by a Maine artist. (The proceeds from the dinner went to the Brick Store Museum, the Kennebunk Historical Society, and to fund an art scholarship for a Maine high school student.) It's an intriguing idea-using a painting as the inspiration for a meal-but also a bit of a stretch. Executive Chef Jonathan Cartwright, Chef Joseph Schafer, and Maitre D'Hotel Nicholas Squire created a six-course meal based on a landscape by artist Sally Caldwell Fisher. "Ledge Garden" is a gorgeous painting of a house Fisher lived in years ago that sits at the edge of Round Pond with views of the outlying islands and the granite ledge garden she planted in front of the house. It's a moody scene, late afternoon light, and, if you stare at it long enough, you'll swear you smell the ocean.
Cartwright, second from left, oversees the second evening of festivities associated with the Arts in the Inns event held in Kennebunkport in June. The event will become an annual celebration of fine food, art, and lodging in Kennebunkport.
A group of 15 of us were seated at two tables in the White Barn Inn's wine cellar-a small, elegant room lined with an impressive collection of bottles. But the most compelling sight in the room was Fisher's acrylic painting, hung over a collection of bottles that seemed all too happy to share space with another form of art.
The first course pulled most directly from the painting. Served on a white plate shaped like an artist's palette were paper thin slices of cucumbers encircling a salad made of lobster, scallops, crab, and shrimp in a light cumin-scented dressing. A pale lime foam on top - which looked like something a wave might have washed up on shore - added a refreshing citrus flavor to the dish. Next to the seafood salad were five tiny dots of pure color and flavor - purees of mango, apricot, strawberry, kiwi, and blueberry. An ode to the artist's paints.
Next we were served tuna tartar and local yellow fin tuna poached in olive oil with capers, smoked almonds, and a tomato gelee. The contrast of flavors and textures were just right. Each dish was matched with a wine (the very artistic labels were printed on our menus). The wine that accompanied the tuna course was a Leuwin Estate, Art Series Chardonnay, Margaret River 2001. An excellent choice to balance the rich flavors of the tuna.
Variations of Spring Rabbit came next (one could just imagine a rabbit hopping through Fisher's landscape). The rabbit was served three ways: the loin was bacon-wrapped and, unlike most rabbit served in restaurants, tender, moist and full of flavor. There was also a confit of rabbit stuffed into single large ravioli and a seared cutlet with English spring peas and a grainy mustard vinaigrette. (Adelsheim Elizabeth's Reserve Pinot Noir, Willamette, Valley 2005 accompanied this dish.)
Fisher talked a bit about the painting and her process as an artist. Rather than spend days standing outside with an easel, she explained that she prefers to work from photographs to capture the mood and light at a certain time of day so that the painting represents, "an emotional reaction to places I cherish."
To clear our palettes for the next course we had an incredibly refreshing orange-fennel sorbet with a light strawberry syrup poured on top.
A pesto-crusted cutlet and roast loin of spring lamb produced many ooo's and aaah's in the room. Was I tipsy from the wine and overly eager to find connections between the painting and the delicious lamb I was devouring or did the meat really remind me of the briny essence of the sea? The lamb was so tender you could cut it with a fork. Served with a potato gratin, crisp little haricot verts (thin French-style green beans), a rosemary sauce, and accompanied by L'Ecole No. 41 Merlot, Colombia Valley 2003 it was one of the best lamb dishes I can remember ever eating.
The mood inside the tiny cellar was festive. We started the evening as strangers but conversation flowed from subjects as diverse as Fisher's painting to favorite Maine restaurants to upcoming elections. Everyone had questions for the artist, who seemed overwhelmed with wine and happiness that her painting had inspired such a great meal. "I feel like I'm staring in `My Dinner with Andre," Fisher remarked, referring to the Wallace Shawn/ Andre Gregory film in which the writers stars in their own film and talks intensely about art as they eat.
Executive Chef Jonathan Cartwright came down to see how we were doing. "Doesn't food and art always go together?" he asked the crowd. "I always think of food when I paint," he joked. "Cooking is similar to panting," he went on. "You try not to do too much. You try to pay attention to the seasons and the colors and flavors around you. You don't taste with your eyes but you sure start there."
And with that a line of waiters arrived presenting each of us with an individual Roasted Banana Souffl`, with Double Chocolate Ice Cream. The waiter made a small hole in the center of my souffl` and poured a rich caramel sauce inside.
Was I convinced about the link between art and food? As I devoured the souffl` (who knew bananas could be so transcendent) I thought about the transitory nature of food. A chef creates a gorgeous masterpiece and within minutes it disappears; we're left with nothing but a memory. As I polished off the souffl`, with a Yalumba Muscat Rutherglen Museum Show Reserve dessert wine, I wondered: how can something that gives me so much pleasure not be considered art?
Art In the Inns: A Pairing of Palates with Palettes will take place again next June, 2008; for further information go to artsintheinns.com/  .
Many of the dishes described here are available on the menu at The White Barn Inn, 37 Beach Avenue Kennebunk, Maine 04043; 207.967.2321; www.whitebarninn.com . 
Kathy Gunst's website features many of her cookbooks: kathygunst.com/index.html