RA Magazine Summer 2004
Issue Number: 83
Sarah Greenberg meets David Hockney RA and Allen Jones RA for a long lunch in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen at Claridge’s. Photography by Juergen Teller.
‘Let’s raise our glasses to a surreal event,’ jokes Allen Jones as he proposes a toast to our unusual lunch-time gathering. He and his fellow Academician David Hockney – the curators of this year’s Summer Exhibition – are huddled around the kitchen table of Gordon Ramsay’s eponymous restaurant in Claridge’s, a short walk from the RA. The award-winning photographer Juergen Teller has put his lucrative fashion shoots on hold for a chance to chat with them about art, and snap the event. But the chef, who is preparing a special menu – including a bright orange pumpkin soup inspired by the hues of Allen’s tango dancers and Yorkshire spring lamb in homage to David’s birthplace- is nowhere to be seen. Glasses clink, tummies rumble, dishes speed past to lucky diners elsewhere. Thank heaven for champagne.
The idea had seemed so simple. Bring together three people with genuine passion for their chosen art: two top painters and Britain’s most famous three-star chef. Sit them at the ‘chef’s table’, an enclosure in the middle of the restaurant kitchen, where Gordon and his team create original, one-off meals for the whole table based on the interests and tastes of the diners. Is hanging the RA’s gargantuan show comparable to preparing a feast? How do they think about colour, creativity, presentation, impressing their audience, pleasure? Serve food, pour wine, discuss.
Left to right: Gordon Ramsay, David Hockney RA and Allen Jones RA at the chef's table. Photographed by Juergen Teller.
But one hour after arriving there is no food, no chef and the artists are getting hungry. As we battle for crusts of baguette to mop up remains of a tiny bowl of truffled foie gras, we talk about art. David and Allen have joined forces to present the Summer Exhibition this year and in order to make the sprawling annual event more coherent and connected to contemporary ideas, they have organised it around the theme of drawing – a topic about which both artists feel passionately.
‘There are still paintings and sculptures and works by amateurs who have sent in pictures, but we see drawing as a leitmotif through the exhibition,’ says Allen. ‘We’re also using the idea of drawing to bring in work from artists who might not otherwise participate, like Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread, as well as non-artists who draw, such as the film director Alan Parker and the Nobel prize-winning scientist Harry Kroto. We look at drawing as visual thinking and we want the work we’re showing to get as close as possible to that creative act, to that point where the eye, hand and heart meet.’
Allen sees drawing as a mode of thinking, a process of learning about the world around us: ‘Part of it is realising there’s no such thing as a mistake. There’s a concept when you’re learning early on that you’re correcting mistakes but inside that’s not what’s actually happening. When you realise that, you accept the reality of the marks you’ve made, rather than thinking it’s a false start.’ The best drawings, says David, are not those that are the most finished but those that are as absorbed as possible – physically and visually – in the moment they are depicting.
‘I used to say to people, "I have a reproduction of the best drawing ever made in my pocket” and I would pull it out and I would convince them, within a minute, that it was the best. It is a Rembrandt from the British Museum
of a little family teaching a little girl to walk. Everybody at home has a picture like that. The Rembrandt, for me, tells me about who you are. I’m looking at the marks and I can feel his arm. This wouldn’t be possible with a photograph – it would be a performance. Rembrandt was not intervening in any way, meaning it is the greatest work of art. You don’t see it at first. It is a virtuoso drawing but it doesn’t shout out.’
David, who is delivering a lecture on drawing during the Summer Exibition, believes it is an essential medium for our times and that it can express emotions and truths that photography cannot. ‘Prince Charles with his drawing school believes he’s preserving a traditional art that has to be kept going. But that’s not the case. The computer has brought us back to drawing. When you know a bit about drawing you know about putting objects into space and the more you know about drawing, the better you will be at manipulating images on screen.’
So in this age of digital manipulation, can photographs lie and drawings, which seem so much more subjective, present the truth? In a way, yes, argues David. ‘Once photography has lost its veracity which, as far as I can see, it does when it loses the chemicals, we don’t know what the effects will be. In my lecture, I’ll point out the painting by Goya, The Third of May, 1908. There are French soldiers shooting a prisoner and the guy is holding up his hand. Well Goya never saw the event. It was described to him and he painted it about two years after. Nevertheless, it contains obvious truths that a photographer couldn’t have caught because he would have had to be on the side of the officials. But the painter, with imagination, can recreate it, and that still applies today. But television won’t tell you that. They claim they’re showing you the war.’
‘Isn’t the subtitle of your talk “Why the twentieth century didn’t need an Academy”?’ asks Allen. ‘The nineteenth century did, the twentieth didn’t… And the twenty-first will!’ declares David. ‘Because of what’s happening to photography It’s going more towards painting and I assume it will go even more. The argument is that photography is a documentary thing, which it can be – but if it is photographing something that is three-dimensional, it has to have a point of view.’
It seems appropriate that Juergen has brought nothing but his old-fashioned 35mm to the table. No fancy lenses or light filters. The idea is to capture the raw experience of the kitchen. We look around and smell the aromas, growing ever more curious about the whirl of activity surrounding us. ‘What happens in this kitchen?’ asks Allen, ‘I quite like the idea that we sit here and watch all this, although I don’t know if it’s good for one’s digestion.’
As if on cue, Gordon bursts in with an expression of nervous tension that television never quite captures, as if the formidable chef may be just a bit awed by the artists. ‘Good, everybody’s here. Are you happy? Every customer’s a critic – I suppose pretty much like your work. What I’m finding difficult, now at the age of 37, is trying to keep everyone happy. Somebody asked me last week on the radio what I love, and I said: ‘criticism’. I never want to believe that I’ve got it, and everything is perfect. You’ve got to take criticism on board and ten years ago I couldn’t but now, at 37, I can.’
Reality TV seems to intrude on real life as he quickly launches into another manic monologue about filming two television series, managing his one-star restaurant here and his three-star restaurant in Chelsea. ‘Well anyway, I’m very impressed with both your work,’ he says, addressing Allen and David. ‘I’m not yet in the position to buy them but maybe one day I may be able to.’
In all of his cookbooks and media appearances, Gordon talks about the importance of pleasure – of impressing people but also making them happy with food . ‘Both cooking and painting bring pleasure to their audiences,’ says Gordon, but for him, the visual comes last. ‘Before anything happens, we need the high concentration of flavours. So all the kitchen staff put on blindfolds and taste things. I want a mind-blowing experience of the palate. Food can look beautiful, but if it doesn’t taste stunning it’s an anti-climax. We’ve got to be very careful about finding that balance.’
As a young chef arrives bearing dainty bowls of roast pumpkin soup, Gordon explains how the dish was prepared to concentrate the flavour. The only possible response is to nod and slurp happily as he continues. ‘Living in France for three years was crucial for me to develop as a chef. I got inside every ounce of ingredient. To get inside a celeriac, to understand what the artichoke is, to understand what purple basil meant and how it should be cooked and what it gave me back – that respect and love for food was so natural there.’ As he speaks, he watches us like an interrogator, checking to make sure we are savouring every nuance of flavour, which of course we are.
But neither David nor Allen belong to the generation of British men brought up to express such enthusiasm, so they murmur ‘Mmm’ and clear their plates without much fuss.
One senses this is not what Gordon wants for a response, but he continues, ‘Another way the world of art is compatible with the world of cooking,’ he says, ‘is that we never have the same day. Whether it’s an insight, a flashback, a memory or something explosive you’re dying to do.’
What does he think about the fact that his creations get gobbled up every day? Does he see his art as ephemeral?
‘Most art is ephemeral,’ notes David, ‘It’s a good job, or we’d be up to our neck in it.’
But does David ever think back at a painting that he’s sold and want to look at it again?
‘No. To be honest, I’ve never quite understood art collecting. I can understand putting pictures on a wall but beyond that I don’t get it.’
‘I suppose collecting is about possession,’ says Allen. ‘The first time I went to a major collector’s house it was Ted Powers’ place in Grosvenor Square. There were wonderful pictures on the wall like we’d have library books. He’d open another bedroom door and you’d think, ‘What do you do, change them monthly?’ But the act of possession is actually it.’
For Gordon, possession isn’t an issue. He watches his creations disappear every day. ‘It’s weird because when we have Japanese clients the first thing they’ll do is take a picture of their food. They want to hold their memory. To me it’s the flavour that captures the memory, that can be held for years, whereas the visual impact might last for only 30 seconds.’
Gordon is preaching his mantra of flavour on his current TV show, Gordon Ramsays’s Kitchen Nightmares, in which he descends upon failing restaurants and tries to turn them round. The biggest challenge he faces is chefs who literally over-egg the pudding with complicated concoctions. ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing – it can become lethal.’
‘It’s not unlike dealing with the submissions to the Summer Exhibition,’ Allen comments. ‘We’ve just spent four days looking at 10,000 works entered for it. They come through like fire buckets – the students stand in a line and pass this stuff through. You have a second to look at each work and nothing escapes that is worth looking at.’
‘How quickly can you spot talent? Is it instant?’ asks Gordon.
‘Yes. It’s nothing to do with personal taste, just to do with someone who is speaking intelligently in the language they’ve chosen to use.’
Just as a dialogue starts to develop, Gordon announces abruptly that he has to leave. As Juergen gets up from the table to take a group portrait before he goes something in Gordon snaps. Suddenly he turns on the photographer, obviously annoyed that he hasn’t been taking more pictures. His colourful character (and language) come to the fore and he concludes his outburst by saying, ‘I know you’re busy eating lunch but you’re the only photographer I’ve ever known who sits down for six courses.’
Oh no. We are witnessing our very own ‘Gordon Ramsay Kitchen Nightmare’. The redoubtable chef is living up to his reputation as a bully, which may be amusing on TV but can be terrifying in real life. A nasty scene might have ensued but Juergen handles it coolly. After all, he’s used to working with supermodels. Fortunately marinated tuna loins arrive in the nick of time. ‘Mmm, delicious,’ intone David and Allen nervously .
‘Just look at me,’ says Juergen, focusing the camera.
‘Please. You’re welcome,’ retorts Gordon, as the shutter snaps.
‘Thank you,’ says Juergen, and the chef exits stage right.
‘He’s a total enthusiast isn’t he?’ smiles David.
If the group portrait here looks as though the chef wants to punch the photographer, it has captured the moment. Once Gordon’s gone, we all relax and pass the family-style dishes round the table. Juergen practically inhales the truffle-infused mashed potatoes, appetite unimpaired by the recent tantrum. David quizzes him about photography, Allen asks about his upcoming show of nude self-portraits with Charlotte Rampling. Puddings are devoured amid a flurry of spoons darting back and forth across the table.
Do I worry that Gordon might ban me from his restaurants for revealing the truth of his tantrums, as he has banned certain irreverent food critics? Notionally, yes. Despite his moment of moodiness, he arranged for his tireless staff to prepare us a delicious, one-of-a-kind lunch. His use of truffles makes you understand why men forage with pigs to find them, and his ‘chef’s table’ creates edible performance art. But his menu lacked the vital ingredient essential to any great meal – good humour. Luckily David and Allen possess more than enough to make up for it. When I run into them as they hang the Summer Exhibition a few weeks later, they are still chuckling about our lunch. David quips ‘Too many chefs…’ and Allen chimes in ‘…on television.’
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