Published on November 12, 2012 | by Elspeth Merry

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Dining like never before

Caroline Hobkinson says her career was not pre-meditated but evolved [Helen Hasse]

When you enter Caroline Hobkinson’s newly-opened restaurant House of Wolf, you are greeted by her latest experiment: a jungle of strings hanging from the ceiling, whilst dining tables are set up with blindfolds, earplugs and syringes.

This is not your archetypal, run-of-the-mill dinner party. “Look. Listen. Smell. Touch. Eat!” reads the menu, which Hobkinson says is more of an instruction manual to the evening.

As she looks up from the place setting, calm and self-assured, Hobkinson asks with enthusiasm whether I want to see the other instruments.

She comes back with a twig. “This is what the steaks are eaten with,” Hobkinson says.

Any other person might feel ridiculous, but Hobkinson knows exactly what she is doing: “I’m not campaigning for people not to eat with knives and forks, I just like the idea of reframing the everyday dining experience. I’m not creating new rituals. I just like to highlight what we do.”

Hobkinson’s artistic approach to food has positioned her in the vanguard of experimental dining, where art and food are no longer sitting at opposite ends of the table in the public spectrum.

Her research into the sensory effect of eating is genuinely fascinating, and this “interdisciplinary” way of thinking all started at Central Saint Martins – which the 33-year-old unashamedly comments was almost at the turn of the century.

“I studied fine art and it was frustrating at the time. You feel like you’re not learning anything vocational. The intersection between food and art is really clear to people who come from CSM, but I thought it didn’t prepare me for the real world. It’s a special thing where we really need to have a real life experience in order to grow with it, but now I look back and I think it prepared me incredibly,” she said.

Hobkinson suggests that this unorthodox way of thinking was what allowed her to see that food could indeed be art. She has always loved to cook and prepare food, which was a slight enigma at home in Germany – her mother and grandmother were both doctors who rarely cooked.

“The whole idea of cooking didn’t seem like something that was submissive and negative. It was always something special for them, so maybe I just felt like it was something I had to do,” she said.

Hobkinson insists that she never trained as a chef, instead gaining real life experience working as a theatre director at the Royal Court.

Performance practice was partly what informed Hobkinson’s experimental feasts: “I don’t see myself as a performance; I see the act of eating as a performance, so the food is really important for me in that way.”

“Since her time at the Royal Court, Hobkinson has created experimental banquets for the Royal Academy, Milan Design Week and the Barbican.

When asked what her most memorable piece of work was, Hobkinson looks amused as she explains the uproarious feast she constructed at the Grimmuseum in Berlin. “We invited 20 people to commit suicide over eating,” she says.

“While they were eating we had cameras film them up close. Then we left the entire banquet there, and for six weeks afterwards we were supposed to have the food rotting away while we had the projections of people eating.”

However, Hobkinson remembers that this installation took a slightly unexpected turn: “I underestimated the Berlin summer, so after 24 hours there were flies and maggots everywhere.” She grimaces but continues: “So we had to close it down after four weeks because it was too smelly.”

The juxtaposition between how your love for something can be totally skewed fascinates Hobkinson, as she recalls that: “People were fighting over tickets for the dinner because it was a great museum and cool gallery, but a day later it was the most disgusting thing.

“We all have this moment. I love macaroons, but if you give me a whole box and I eat them, I feel sick. This idea is my favourite thing in the world. Something we really love, treasure and fetishize can become disgusting.”

Hobkinson’s work is indeed a human trial, where she researches the public mindset through food.

Hobkinson states that she was approached by Alexa Perrin – the founder of the Experimental Food Society – after carrying out research at Oxford about multi-sensory dining with Professor Charles Spence, a collaborator of Heston Blumenthal.

She has positioned the House of Wolf as the ‘experimental pleasure palace’ which offers her the chance to explore human interaction with food.

Hobkinson explains that each course challenges a sense: first is the “Amuse Bouche” – the string hanging from the ceiling is where bread will be dangled in front of your eyes, as you put your earplugs in and eat without using your hands.

Second on the menu is the sight course, in which you are blindfolded and a plate of red peppers is positioned in front of you, with the smell of rosemary under your nose.

You are given a cracker with goat’s cheese, and then asked to eat the cracker. You can taste the red peppers even though you do not eat them.

Diners are treated to courses under headings such as sight and smell [Helen Hasse]

“I really like the idea of having a dish and not actually physically eating it. The taste manifests itself,” says Hobkinson. The use of the syringe is then explained by the smell course; the diner injects raw salmon with 10-year-old whiskey, making it taste of smoked salmon.

Finally, Hobkinson elaborates on the infamous twig: “It is just really interesting to eat something gamey and wild with something that comes from the wood.”

Hobkinson revels in the experiment, and it is magnetic to watch and hear. “Whether we see it as art or food, it’s a delicious meal so it works like great pieces of literature or art, people react with it on different levels.”

She assures me the food is just as important as the performance, as is the context in which we eat. “When you have birthday cake and it’s made by someone who’s really dear to you and you have the candle marking one year, it’s a spectacle. It’s the ritual of the birthday cake.

“In a blind tasting the cake wouldn’t be so special. It could be out of a box but it’s the ritual; the social context, the people and the sounds as well.”

By removing this context and by challenging the senses, Hobkinson is able to create an inimitable dining experience and study how the way we eat food can be transformed.

She has been invited back to the lab at Oxford as an artist in residence to look into the sense of touch. “It is incredibly under-researched as touch and eating is very awkward,” Hobkinson reveals.

“It was found recently that if you touch a wet sponge and then eat something dry, you would think that it is moist.” It is clear that Hobkinson is deeply excited by this, saying, “I think that it’s really interesting working with science because otherwise it’s a bit random.”

Hobkinson has found her niche but insists her growth into the role of an experimental food artist was by no means contrived. “I never sat down with a glass of wine and decided that this is what I was going to be doing. It feels very natural.” Hobkinson smiles, and it is clear that she seeks excitement in everything she does whilst knowing exactly what she is doing.

Gazing at the room of multi-sensory experiment she has created, she says, “I just love the spectacle of it all,” and it is hard not to be completely caught up in the show.

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