This week we’re interviewing Kathryn Smith, together with her husband Ike Udechuku, they are starting up a ‘living gallery’ space in Brussels: Ampersand House and Gallery. The gallery will be a point of departure for a dialogue between collectors, designers and other creative people to get creative juices flowing. Kathryn is a great lover of food, art and design, a wonderful combination!
Hi Kathryn, can you tell us a bit about your professional background and how you ended up in Brussels?
My background is in art and law – but my heart belongs to the creative world. I started early in creative endeavours with my own fashion design business when I was a teenager – hand dyeing silk and antique lace and creating Vionnet-inspired delicate slips and camisoles. I detoured into serious academic study with art history and law degrees and ended up with a PhD from Cambridge. I had many food-related jobs as a student – from waitress to sous-chef, learning invaluable techniques from some wonderful cooks. I had a small sideline in baking that supplemented my study funds. After working as a lawyer and an academic in London, we moved to San Francisco where I came full circle and returned to art. I studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute where there are the fantastic Diego Rivera murals and worked with a contemporary art gallery. When we returned to London and I worked on a variety of wonderful art projects with photographers, architects and designers. Another move came, to Luxembourg this time, and from there to Brussels nearly one year ago. Now, with my husband, Ike Udechuku, we have established a gallery of art and design that brings together many of the artists and designers whose work we have both long-admired.
How would you describe your relationship to food?
Food is intimately connected to love – it is an expression of generosity, abundance, tenderness, indulgence and pleasure offered to others. It is a very personal expression, in a way like serving yourself up on a plate (metaphorically!). Food is also a creative outlet for me. I love to create a scenario or tableau vivant with food, flowers, settings and music so that all the senses are stimulated and memorable experiences are made. My “tableau” are very much informed by art and literature – both places where memories reside and resonate.
Where are your roots in food?
Growing up in Australia I have a deeply ingrained love of eating outdoors, barbeques and a very particular spread called Vegemite – something that one can tolerate only if introduced very early in life. It is a black, sticky, salty spread for toast – I know it sounds hideous, but I still carry back a jar each time I go to to Australia!
Australian food is truly international and strongly influenced by the abundance of fresh ingredients and Asian flavourings – perhaps its defining quality is its very diversity. When I think of Australian food I think of David Thompson’s eponymous and meticulous Thai food at one end of the spectrum and traditional Victoria sponge cake at the other, both equally representative of the culinary culture.
Is food important to you?
Food is the perfect combination of necessity and indulgent pleasure and as far as possible the latter should inform the former. Even if sustenance is as simple as a slice of toast, it should be a chance to appreciate delicious bread, a perfect salty butter and confiture to reflect one’s mood. There are day’s when the bitter-sweet stickiness of marmalade is desired, others when the ripe fragrance and gleaming jewel-like redness of fraises de bois calls to me. I always search for perfection, or at least optimisation, in even the smallest of things.
Do you see a link with art, design and food?
Oh yes – absolutely! I have a very visual relationship with food – from the colour and form of a single ingredient to the harmony and juxtapositions of a combination and the “still life” presentation. Creating food is like creating a painting or a sculptural installation – I always start with an image in my mind of the presentation and the story I want the food to tell.
Do you cook often?
It varies – when my daughter is home from boarding school I cook a great deal … food and nurturing. We love to go to the Flagey or Chatelain markets together, and often end up with very idiosyncratic combinations of ingredients chosen more for their colour or form than for their practicality. We can’t resist the African food stall at Flagey where we can buy plantain and spectacular fire engine red chillies. For everyday cooking I like either to make a platter of small delicious tastes, or to do a long, slow cook in my heavy Le Creuset casserole. There is something so satisfying about the transformation of raw ingredients into a melting richness after 7 hours in the oven.
Where did you learn to cook?
My mother was and is a great cook, well ahead of the culinary curve in Australia where I grew up. Somehow my mother managed to run her art gallery as well as cook creatively for five children every day and always seemed to be baking for fundraising and charities. I became a very keen cook when I was about 8 years old and received my first cookbook. Hungry brothers were a perfect appreciative audience for my early cooking experiments – after all, creating food is really a form of performance art. I became quite a confident cook at a young age and liked to make rather complicated recipes. My brothers still talk about the Martha Stewart phase when I created a huge paper bag of chocolate by painting a brown paper bag with several layers of melted chocolate (a very messy task) then, when set, peeling the paper away to leave a perfect chocolate paper bag form that I filled to overflowing with strawberries.
Do you use family recipes?
My mother is a positive encyclopaedia of recipes and techniques, so the phone line between Brussels and Australia provides a ready connection to the family kitchen. My mother’s banana cake recipe is unbeatable.
What’s your strong point in cooking?
Favourite cook book?
Arabella Boxer and Tessa Traeger’s “A Visual Feast” has the most inspiring photographs and transporting words. I have leafed through the book so often that I have perfect recall of every image! Perhaps more an “art” book than a “cook” book – but as an intuitive cook I look more to visual inspiration than precise recipes. For sheer madness and a wonderful artistic joke, The Futurist Cookbook by the Italian Futurist Filippo Tomasso Marinetti is a treasure. The manifesto to revitalise Italian culture by changing the way Italians ate was published in the 1930’s. Food is Marinetti’s raw material for avant garde experiments, such as the “Aerosculptural dinner in the cockpit” where “the diners toss in the air and devour masses of fluffy whipped egg white just as the wind outside plays with the white cirrus and cumulus clouds”.
Which famous person would you like to have dinner with?
Someone who makes me laugh – P.G. Wodehouse would be a strong candidate.
What’s your ‘best’ recipe?
My “go to” recipe is Peter Gordon’s Sugar Club chicken with chilli and lemon – unfailingly fragrant and tender, with the surprising transformation of lemons into a sweetly sharp confit.
Your most important food ingredient you couldn’t live without?
Best food travel destination
Australia – nothing beats sitting on a terrace at the edge of Sydney Harbour, the light making diamonds of the water, boats in full sail, seafood and cool white wine. Perfection.
Best Brussels food place so far?
Le Variété on Place Sainte-Croix at Flagey is a favourite both for the food and the wonderful wood-panelled interior, as well as being perfectly located next to the arts centre. I am lucky to have several excellent food places walking distance from the Gallery: Mama Roma’s for the best pizza this side of Rome, and a super neighbourhood restaurant, La Forchetta, which is like eating at the home of a generous Italian family.
Best shop in Brussels
An amazing butchery, Carlos, on Rue Berckmans – the quality is extraordinary and there is always the pleasure of a discussion about how best to cook the meat.
Any food addiction
Does tea count? I can’t start the day without a large pot of English tea. Besides tea, I have a terrible reputation for raiding my husband’s muesli for the dried fruit and leaving behind a sadly depleted box of oats. Ike has discovered a diversionary tactic though – he buys a large bag of Chilean flame raisins from Chatelain market each week to satisfy my craving. There is still something deliciously illicit about rifling through the muesli to find the most delicious bits.
Last thing you cooked
An enormous tin of chocolate brownies for Easter gifts.
Best food place ever?
A very hard question – I am lucky to have had many special experiences. If I have to choose, though, it would be drinking pisco sours with my daughter and husband on the edge of a salt water crater in the Atacama desert in Chile while we watched the sun set in a blaze of orange and yellow.
Thanks a lot for the interview, and who will you be interviewing next month for Tasting and Living?