When food became art – and surprisingly big business

From giant prawn pyramids to mountains of marshmallows and fruit-loop cereal earrings, playing with your food has become an industry unto itself. How did we get here?
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If you've been online recently, chances are you've come across images of meringue swans, pastry peacocks, bras made from oranges, translucent champagne jelly fish with flowers inside, giant butter sculptures, tattooed baby potatoes. 

The list goes on, but you get the idea. They're everywhere on social media – outrageous, brilliant, intricate creations made using food, all so perfect it's never clear whether you can eat them or not. 

Conventional wisdom tells us not to play with our food. Don't touch it. Don't move it around. Don't do anything other than eat it. Yet rules are made to be broken. And break them we do, in ever larger numbers. 

Because food has become an art rather than a craft, and playing with it has become an industry unto itself. Creative food styling has never been in higher demand, with luxury brands increasingly tapping chefs, food artists and set designers to turn the act of feeding a crowd into a multidimensional experience. Over-the-top banquets and menus for which the consumption of the food isn't really the point go viral almost every day. 

How did we get here? Part of the answer stems from the fact that, as the world's attention went digital over the past decade, social media became central to luxury brands' marketing strategies. Engaging new audiences with food, whimsy and visual storytelling, whether through a bread sofa or a Brussels sprout bracelet, has become big business.

Brands have long sponsored events in an attempt to attract attention, but when guests' smartphones and social media transform them into content creators, suddenly eye-catching, scroll-stopping visuals become all the more important. No one pulls out their phone to take a photograph of a chicken nugget. But a tower of shrimp? Baguette chandeliers suspended from the ceiling? Fendi logo pasta to mark the fashion brand's new show? Here was a way to turn catering – traditionally dull and utilitarian compared to the innovation that goes on in the best restaurant kitchens – into viral marketing. 

‘Magic around the dining table’

Cheap technology has made content creators of us all. It's never been easier to produce, reproduce, publish, republish, manipulate and edit images and videos online. The more your image is liked and shared, the more value generated for the platform it was posted on, for the advertiser and most likely for the influencer, too. Abundance over scarcity is the goal.

Laila Gohar was quick to take advantage of this. Born in Cairo, she moved to the US for university and has lived there ever since. Now in her mid-30s, she worked in restaurants while studying in Miami and, later, in New York, where she would also begin growing a catering business, Sunday Supper, on the side. Magazine parties and brand-sponsored events were plentiful but Laila didn't start moving in a more subversive, surrealist direction until about 2016. By then she'd ditched Sunday Supper and her creations were beginning to explode in scale and ingenuity, bringing the worlds of art, design, fashion and food closer together than ever before. 

Building momentum largely through her Instagram account, she frequently posts works such as the aforementioned giant prawn pyramids produced for fashion label Ganni, or the mountain of 5,000 marshmallows created for luxury jewelry brand Tiffany. At the events, like night follows day, guests post pictures on Instagram and tag the brands, as well as Laila. Everyone's a winner.

Today, with more than 260,000 Instagram followers, she remains one of the leading chef-artists in the world. According to a recent profile of her in The New Yorker, when Laila was a guest at a dinner hosted by Nike in 2020, Drake introduced her as the Björk of food. Later that year, she and her sister, Nadia, launched Gohar World, a tableware brand described as ‘a place where adults wear lace bibs, cauliflowers are candles, and every plate comes with beans’. 

Laila remains best known online but she recently stepped into traditional media, becoming a regular columnist for the Financial Times' luxury lifestyle magazine, HTSI. The opening to her first column neatly summarizes how she views her work: ‘I have always existed between two worlds. I am not a chef in a traditional sense, although I can cook. I am also not an artist who makes commercial work. My world lives somewhere in between both… For as long as I remember, I have been obsessed with creating moments of magic around the dining table.’

More than anyone else, she symbolizes the new wave of culinary-focused art brands that are blowing up on social media, as well as dominating art, fashion and design parties, gallery openings and events around the world. Big brands can't get enough of the collision between art and food, making it a potentially lucrative industry to jump into. The competition, however, is heating up. 

The era of food as high art

The relationship between food and art isn't exactly new. In the 17th century, Clara Peeters painted ‘Table with Cloth, Salt Cellar, Gilt Standing Cup, Pie, Jug, Porcelain Plate with Olives and Cooked Fowl’, as food newsletter Vittles recently pointed out in ‘Soon You Will Die: A History of the Culinary Selfie’. (The essay is part of a wider series about how the boundary between food and images of food has almost disappeared.)

Yet the history of food in art actually stretches back much further than that, while contemporary artists continue to reference food in fresh ways. Most notable today, though, is how our extremely online age has turned food into fetish across popular culture at large. Take television, where food used to offer little more than the opportunity to learn new recipes and techniques. Now such shows are the exception. ‘Looking back, the high point of high chef culture came in the mid-2010s, with the Netflix documentary series Chef's Table,’ writes Bryan Walsh in an essay about fine dining for news site Vox. ‘Created by David Gelb in the mold of his 2011 hit documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, each episode focused on a single chef with the same monomaniacal obsession, the same faultless art direction, that those chefs brought to the art of their food.’ 

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles has a similar vibe. The 2020 documentary follows chef Yotam Ottolenghi as he and a team attempt to modernize pastries from the Gilded Age for an event at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The same story is playing out in cinema, where the figure of the maverick chef has become as much of a cliche as the maverick detective. In 2022 film The Menu, a parody of the state of fine dining that anyone who's ever felt uncomfortable during a tasting menu will be able relate to, one of the diners says: ‘Honey, it's not food… it's art.’ Elsewhere in the movie, there are lingering closeups of shining tweezers, perfectly arrayed dots of food and bubbling emulsions, as well as classical music playing in the background. 

As Bryan adds in his Vox essay, ‘The 2000s and 2010s were a golden age for fine cuisine, a moment when food took a quantum leap in quality and creativity… Most important of all, knowledge of fine food became a clear mark of cultural status.’ Top chefs, he says, ‘are more than mere celebrities; they're cultural figures.’ 

The era of food as high art extends well beyond film and TV. Instagram's obsession with sourdough is baked into the artworks of Lexie Smith, while Alix Lacloche, a ‘cook and culinary scenographer’, sets tables with impractical cutlery that looks more like sculptor Alexander Calder's abstract pieces than it does simple knives and forks.

Fashion designer Jacquemus received a lot of attention in 2019 when, instead of a regular runway show, he invited guests to attend a ‘petit déjeuner’ with models sipping hot chocolate and eating buttery croissants. For a 2020 collection, Jacquemus even attached leather cutlery to men's suits, and turned food into fetish, almost literally, with a leather harness that carried a single dinner plate.

Artists working with food are also popping up across social media. Gab Bois, an artist in her mid-20s from Montreal, Canada, frequently uses food in unusual ways. The most striking pieces she has posted to her almost 700,000 Instagram followers include fruit-loop cereal earrings, blueberry jewelry, cotton-candy panties and a bra made out of eggs (sunny side up, of course), as well as furniture that's the literal representation of the term ‘comfort food’, like her pasta-dough sofa with ravioli pillows. From Glossier to Mercedes-Benz, her client list reveals the cross-industry appeal of her work. Elsewhere, Japanese artist Daisuke has a similarly whimsical aesthetic – bread Crocs, a popcorn tie, a miniature bedroom made from sushi – that has seen him work with the likes of Hermès, Prada and Puma among others. 

What Gab, Daisuke and countless others' work points to is the widely held acceptance that we no longer need Michelin-starred restaurants in order to have memorable experiences with food. If anything, we are moving away from these spaces, as more creatively minded individuals find new ways to play around with what is typically served on a plate. 

A blossoming market

All around the world, there are hundreds of culinary artists building successful brands. But back when Anastasia Finders started out, that wasn't the case. ‘I was one of the only ones, which comes with positives and negatives,’ she says. 

Based between Amsterdam, Paris and Arles, Anastasia started a catering business in 2015. Long before her food residency in Tulum, Mexico, or her ‘ephemeral restaurant’ in Paris, she cooked in showrooms during fashion weeks, catering for brand employees. ‘Simple things for clients and lunch boxes for staff, maybe 100 people at a time,’ she says. 

As her confidence grew, Anastasia started experimenting more. Whereas she used to produce static food scenes for photoshoots, she now prefers to create ‘eatable life, surreal displays, smells, views. You have to bring people into your sense of perception. You can't really “buy” my art, if that makes sense. You have to experience it, you have to remember it. 

‘I'm a chef but I'd also say I'm on my way to becoming an artist,’ she continues. ‘I always try to curate spaces in an emotional way, and food is one of my main tools.’ 

Despite big-name brand collaborations with a variety of clients including Spotify, Adidas, Marc Jacobs and Net-a-Porter, Anastasia says it's becoming more difficult to make a lucrative career out of culinary art. ‘Brands have started to understand how much content they can create through interesting food experiences, which is why everyone suddenly wants to get into it,’ she says. ‘There's a lot of competition and food costs are going up. The market has become more difficult. If you don't have a big social media following, often the client won't give you the job.’

Running food-art brands is also harder than the Instagram-friendly images might imply. ‘Normally I have four events a month,’ says Anastasia. ‘It's a lot: planning, tasting, cooking. Often you have to present to the client at their HQ. It can be very weird, very sterile. Some clients want technical 3D drawings of what you have planned. They want to see what the final scene and food will look like. Sometimes they want to taste it. And they always want huge jelly installations, even though jelly will never taste good. Sometimes you feel you have to turn up with your box of tricks and say: “See! It will look good on Instagram!”’

Another issue: copycats. When the global pandemic hit and the world was locking down, Lexie Park's jelly art started going viral. She had only just launched her brand, Eat Nunchi, yet she was already putting out collaborations with the likes of shapewear label Skims and Nike, for which she placed a Swoosh atop tiers of pastel pink and blue jelly. Eat Nunchi is still growing, but Lexie has talked about the downside of being a social media food brand, where trends don't last long and copycats appear all the time. 

According to Anastasia, the art and fashion scene was a lot more sterile 10 years ago. ‘But now things are much more free and the work can be deeper. While it sometimes feels like people in this space are only working for the picture, culinary art isn't just a passing trend. It's an entire industry now.’ 

A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 50. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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