SARA TENTI ARTIST LIAISON FOR ARTIQ DISCUSSES COCINA SHOREDITCH – WHERE ART MEETS VEGANISM
Cocina Shoreditch is a Latin American-inspired, vegan supper club, run by chef Hernan de Majo together with his wife Renata Brenha. An intrinsically nomadic and collaborative project in both practice and inspiration, the supper club is hosted primarily at the couple’s Hackney studio and home but is also taken on the road to restaurants, houses, galleries and shared spaces across the world.
The Spanish cocina, as with the French cuisine, means both kitchen and the style of cooking. The project name also carries within it the chef’s own concept of the kitchen as both a theatre or movie set and the centre of the house; a vital, vibrant and symbolic place – central to so many cultures and essential to Latin American and Mediterranean tradition – where stories of love and friendship are shared, arguments unfold and confessions are whispered.
Hernan and Renata’s approach to cooking and creating is all about connections to personal stories, cultural narratives, visual memories – and art. Art, with its eclectic expressive forms and inexhaustible sources of inspiration, has become one of the main vehicles for Hernan to find new ideas and stimulate his creativity. A recent Cocina supper club, for example, featured a collaboration with Colombian sculptor Oscar Angel, where the artist’s small sculptures, incorporating living plants, were brought to the tables, transforming the set-up throughout the evening, with each course matched to the menu. On another occasion, yogini Vaneeta Mahtani, within the setting of an indoor picnic laid out across the floor of Cocina’s studio, created a piece of performance art by introducing guests to the Sattvic tradition of energising food through chanting. Inspired by Hernan’s interest in the relationships between flavour and sight, the act of cooking as storytelling and of eating as a synesthetic experience, dinners at Cocina have also featured collaborations with musicians, including South Korean violinist Erica Yebyeol Lee.
Hernan was originally trained in food engineering, with a heavy focus on chemistry, science and the technical aspects of food production and consumption. The chef describes this period as an extremely creative moment in his formation: “Curiosity has always been the force driving me to new experiences, from science and chemistry to marketing strategies, art and cookery.”
In his travels across South America, Europe and Asia, with the opportunity to taste food from different cultures, Hernan found he connected each experience with visual memories and particular narratives: “I was often more interested in the stories behind a dish than its taste, more excited by the interior design of a restaurant, rather than its menu,” he explained. Part of Hernan’s process began to involve the collection of photos of restaurants as a starting point for reinterpreting each memory through flavour.
The connections between art and food also emerge from Hernan’s personal interests. Passionate about contemporary art, the chef’s creative process is influenced by the technique of collage and its focus on colour and composition: “I sometimes play with collage-making, just as a vehicle to propel new ideas. I started at the very beginning of my career as a chef, using paper cut outs from vintage magazines collected by my family back in Argentina. My way of cooking is deeply connected to storytelling through sight and taste. I love everything that is nostalgic and somehow kitsch and I started to notice how this is reflected in Cocina’s menu: as much as I know the properties of each ingredient and plan every dish, my process is also intuitive and it’s about adding and removing, trial and error so the final result is always different. Not only the plating of a dish but also the choice of ingredients comes primarily from visual ideas: colour is for me as important as flavour.”
For Hernan, visiting art exhibitions is as stimulating as discovering new restaurants in London and across the world. Everything related to Latin American culture also motivates the couple’s choices regarding new dining experiences to explore and exhibitions to see: “Cocina’s cooking style is about inventing and revisiting existing recipes, creating and recreating flavours through the lens of our Argentinian and Brazilian backgrounds as well as by using vegan ingredients only. Our references however span across different cultures, every dish is an homage to places we visited, artists and friends we have worked with. London with its diversity is the perfect city to keep cultivating our knowledge in food while being able to see amazing art every week which is so vital to inspire new ideas. I loved for example Martin Parr’s exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I found incredible his ability to showcase how much completely different places and cultures have in common, the decadent aesthetic of the artist’s photographs is something that relates to what interests me the most, which is everyday life and ‘common people’s’ stories. My mentors are more often home cooks than Michelin star chefs. When travelling, Renata and I always explore the most remote places and try to experience what is truly local and authentic both when we walk around London and during long trips, such as our most recent ones to the South of France, Mexico and Patagonia.”
As the art scene becomes more socially and politically engaged, the chef’s menu and art partnerships evolve accordingly. The choice of consuming, cooking and serving only plant-based meals also acquires new, strengthened values, seeing the couple engage extensively in charity projects, such as preparing vegan meals for homeless people as well as running free cooking classes to help children learn how to cook and eat healthily.
When entering the spacious living room at Cocina Shoreditch’s studio, we have the impression of walking into a white canvas, ready to be transformed, with only an impressive array of plants visible, climbing luxuriantly through the windows and glass ceiling. The place has the same meaning and energy as its name; ready to embrace what is new and different, a space of exploration and creativity through food becoming art and art as the most freeing form of expression.