Interview with chef and artist Alane Spinney by Alix Anne Shaw
I’d like to begin with some questions about art and food.
You are an illustrator and photographer and as well as a chef. What connections do you see between being a being an artist? Is being a chef a practice in the same way that being an artist is?
Yes, they are absolutely one and the same. It’s about making things. It is part of the ethic that was instilled in us at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] that we craft things with our hands. This is what makes us different as artists. The beauty and tragedy of cooking is that what you craft disappears. The workmanlike part is the same—the idea that you get up, pick up your tools and go to work—wherever that work might be. At the end of the day, what you’re looking for is the same, too: engage the person who’s looking at your work or eating your food. Hopefully, you both charm and challenge them.
On the other side of the question, do your interests in food manifest themselves in your artistic work? If they don’t, why not?
That’s something I’m struggling with right now—how to make the artistic work I make mesh more seamlessly with the food I make. I think there’s going to be a confluence, but I’m just not sure how that’s going to look. You know, the way you can feel something about to break in your work, but you’re just not sure where the fault line is? I find myself pouring over images I’ve taken of vegetables, trying to make a new sense out of them. There’s more than just a tomato or greens. I also don’t know how it’s going to manifest in future work; I just know it’s going to.
William Deresiewicz has written forcefully that being a foodie has replaced knowledge of high culture. According to him, “A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.” Do you agree that being a foodie is replacing our knowledge of music and art? Is this a problem?
Yes, I find the whole idea of the foodie problematic. I hate the way that it’s become an upper-middle class conceit. I hate the trophy kitchens it’s spawned, because no one cooks in them. And I hate the way that real food meant for real people has become a spectacle and consumption…in no small part because I go to the butcher shop and I’m supposed to pay $9.99 lb for a lamb shank—that’s peasant food, dammit! [Laughs.]
Somehow being a foodie is acceptable in certain circles—people can still be “just folks” and foodies. I grew up with a classical music playing in my house, but for many people now, knowing anything about classical music or painting is considered pretentious. That’s a problem, because music and art weren’t created to be pretentious.
In our present historical moment, do you see a connection between our relationship to food and our relationship to art—as viewers or consumers?
The consumption of fast food and the consumption of advertising seem analogous. The vast amount of food that Americans eat is, well, dreck. Whether they have the trophy kitchen or a subscription to Food & Wine, when you look at what they had for lunch, it’s Subway or a Big Mac. In the same vein, sometimes advertising is the closest thing people get to art. It may very well be the only time they hear classical music—that, and at a movie.
Now for some questions about food.
Describe what kinds of work you do as a chef. (You can construe “work” as openly or specifically as you like here.)
I have been a volunteer chef at a soup kitchen in Providence for the past 5 years, and I recently started working at a new upscale bakery / cafe in town. So my current culinary work can be defined like this: fine dining and soup kitchens. No mushy middle. That’s fine by me. The soup kitchen is really a meal site [called City Meal Site], where we serve a sit-down, 3-course meal for anywhere from 150 to 275 people each week. We operate out of a church hall that’s in smack in between the state’s largest homeless shelter and the Providence Police Department headquarters. We do a brisk trade, and we’re a very motivated bunch of cooks. Most meal sites think it’s fine to just open a can of Chef Boyardee, but I think that everybody deserves a good, delicious meal. Obviously, the menu will be different [than at a fine restaurant], but that doesn’t make the culinary effort different. Every week, we work with what we have and with the budget we have to try to make the best meal we can. And I think we do a pretty damn good job.
Tell me what got you into this food justice work.
Unemployment. I graduated from culinary school just as the economy tanked. I found that the meal site was in need of cooks, I called the Director, showed up with my knives, and that was five years ago. I’ve been volunteering ever since. I’ve been very grateful: I did find full-time employment and my employers have been accommodating, not only in giving me time off each week, but in giving donations. Without them, I couldn’t have kept doing it. Some Tuesdays it’s hard, but when I get to the kitchen each week and start cooking with the guys, it’s all worth it.
Tell me about one of your earliest vivid experiences with food. How has this shaped the way that you engage with food now?
There are two, actually. One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother. I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 and we were eating a stir-fry she had made. It was very exotic. It was a summer night in the Adirondacks and we were sitting on a big old porch and the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling was on the record player. It was one of those moments in childhood that you remember with vivid clarity—the music, the sun on the mountains, the food—and liking it—loving it all. I wanted to replicate that. As a chef, I’ve been chasing that moment, and sometimes finding it—either cooking myself or with someone else.
Later on, I was at Apsara [an Asian restaurant in Providence] and I wasn’t very hungry. I ordered egg drop soup. What they served was the simplest and most perfect of foods. The stock was clear and beautiful and the egg couldn’t have been more than a day old. Chicken stock with an egg in it and a little sesame oil on top: it was a miracle. That’s what food should be.
What so you see as most lacking or necessary today in our relationship to food?
The communal. We spend too much time eating in cars. We spend too much time eating alone. We spend too much time eating in front of the television. That sounds like scolding, but I think that to divorce food from the communal act of eating together is to turn it into fuel. It’s supposed to be more, to nourish the soul. Does that mean every meal has to be some sort of high communion? Of course not. But by not eating together, we’re really losing something. I’m going to go back to the Meal Site here. We have many guests who could probably afford to feed themselves, but they come every week to have somebody to sit down and eat dinner with. They have friends that they meet. These are very poor people, and it’s gratifying to watch them eat with a friend, linger over coffee, and leave renewed. This is probably the most gratifying part of the Meal Site work. It’s something that folks with the trophy kitchen should look for.
What do you see as the most pressing food issue that we are facing today—locally, nationally, or globally?
Wages. American wages have been stagnant since 1970. People don’t have enough buying power and they go to Wal-Mart because they have to. If you go to Wal-Mart you end up with crappy processed food. Yes, I know they sell organic, but can you afford organic food on $7.25 an hour? If you don’t make enough, you end up buying crappy food, or you work two jobs and you don’t have time to sit down and eat the food. If you eat crap food, you have health issues. If you track most of the problems Americans have with their food, I think you can put it right back to stagnant wages. Type II diabetes is not a health concern for the top 1%, nor is obesity. But when all you have is $7.25 an hour, it’s not surprising that you start to have problems, both social and medical.
What’s your ideal vision of the way a community would grow, consume, and relate to food?
I hope we haven’t lost the chance to get to some kind of new ideal. I hope for a future in which we can all afford access to healthy local food. I’m gratified by the growth of farmer’s markets and gratified by the fact that in Rhode Island you can use food stamps at farmer’s markets. That’s great. And in my own little personal utopia, we would have outreach workers and teachers—cooks and chefs—showing people how to make tasty, healthy, food, pretty food, food anybody can make.
What is the most important thing you know about food? About art?
Food has the power to transform the way you look at the world. Food is the gateway to different cultures, different worlds, and different communities. It’s also the easiest and most accessible way to access a culture that’s not your own.
Would you say the same of art?
Do you see yourself as a radical? If so, in what way?
Yes, inasmuch as a radical is a person who wants to address issues at the root and not the surface, I am an unapologetic radical.
Do you support / shop at Whole Foods? Why or why not?
I do shop there. [Sighs heavily.] Put down that I sighed! I am conflicted, because I can purchase food there that I cannot purchase anywhere else….for instance, grass-fed beef that’s reasonably local. I could get into a CSA that supports beef, chicken, and eggs, but right now I don’t have the income to do that. The owner’s politics are absolutely appalling–he’s an Ayn Rand libertarian, and that’s anathema to me, but my sister works there. I know personally that Whole Foods is very good about wages and health insurance for their employees. They’re very proactive in making sure that they have a healthy workforce that has access to healthy food. In Providence, there’s no food coop—so it’s either Whole Foods or pink-in-plastic [factory farmed meat]….so what are you going to do?
What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do to improve or alter their relationship with food?
There are two things. First, sit down with somebody and share a meal. Try something you haven’t tried before. The second, and perhaps even more important, is go meat free at least one day a week.
I’m surprised to hear you say that.
I loves me a steak, but from everything I’ve been reading, if people really want to reduce global warming and climate change, the best way is to reduce consumption of factory-farmed protein. Just one day a week! It’s one small thing that would have a huge impact globally. It’s an opportunity to introduce new food into your diet and it would affect real change right now. Sit down, have a nice curry dal, and greens! And chickpeas!
What else would you like to say about food, or art?
I would just tell people to go make something. Make a sketch, make an omelet—just make something. It’s not grand or glorious, but you’ll feel much better for having made something with your own two hands.