Lee Brian Schrager and Vik Muniz on the intersection of food and art

Lee Brian Schrager

Vik Muniz’s Last Supper (Pictures of Chocolate).

­­­As a longtime fan and collector of Vik Muniz’s work, it was a special moment when I learned—far too recently—about his interest and extensive ties to the culinary world. From that moment on, I knew we had to do something with him at the Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival and was thrilled when he agreed to host a dinner, alongside chefs Daniel Boulud and Claude Troisgros, at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. We recently discussed some of his most recognized projects, his social advocacy work and the intersection of food and art.

Where did your love of food originate from?

I have children, and I will never forget the first time each of them tried something solid for the first time—their eyes rolling in all directions trying to understand what had just happened. You can spend a career as an artist, focusing on one specific sense, but you can never develop any real knowledge if you don’t nourish your experience to encompass the entire spectrum of sensations. Taste is a complex sense that connects to all other senses simultaneously. It’s very subjective, very personal and very instinctive.

Do you often cook at home? If so, what are some of your signature dishes?

Yes, Malu and I love cooking together. We have a traditional “Pasta Sunday” that we practice with our next-door neighbors. I make the pasta from scratch and Malu and Alessandro, our Italian neighbor, make the sauce. My signature dish is Ravioli al Uovo with white truffles. I also have a fully equipped cocktail lab in my house, with Rotovaps, distillers, smokers and infusers. I may not be a great chef, but I know how to mix some really mean liquid concoctions.

What makes the perfect meal, in your mind?

Every time I had that feeling of a perfect meal, the word generosity keeps echoing in my mind. A perfect meal, no matter how expensive, is a result of a collective act of giving. Giving your best to promote even if momentarily, a sensation that is the best moment of your life. Generosity is the key quality that when carried on from the producer of the ingredients to the people conversing over a table, unlocks the magic capable of transforming a basic act of survival into a transcendental spiritual experience.

What qualities do you think chefs and artists have in common?

Great chefs have to be extremely free, daring and experimental in private, and very sober and consistent in public. I think all artists should be like that.

You’ve collaborated with some of the world’s best chefs. How would you describe how you work with them to demonstrate the intersection between food and art?

Chefs are artists who make things you must consume fast. Artists and chefs usually get along well because they think in very similar ways and love to party. As a visual artist, I envy two types of artists: musicians, because they can make things in which creation, execution and exhibition are entirely simultaneous, and chefs, because gastronomy is truly the only art that encompasses all the senses at once.

Can you elaborate on the concept for Last Supper that you created for Massimo Bottura’s gourmet soup kitchen Refettorio Gastromotiva in Rio de Janeiro; What inspired you to choose that scene?

It wasn’t an inspiration at all—it was a direct order from Massimo, who I had met some years ago while vacationing in Mexico. Massimo and his wife Lara are seasoned art lovers and collectors who are very precise when it comes to what they want. I thought it was a great idea for a project that was created around the concept of sharing.

Chef Daniel Boulud is quite vocal about your friendship—can you tell us a bit about how the artwork in his Bar Boulud came to fruition?

This project is good-humored commentary using wine stains to reexamine the minute details of decontextualization—the perceptive consequences of presenting things outside of their normal, expected setting. Toward this end, I ruminated over a subject that is heavily loaded with rules, structures and cultural significance: wine. I displaced this loaded symbol to an almost hostile context, viewing it in its most detestable role: the stain. In this work, using the best wines in the world, I proposed a kind of erudition of stains, postulating that the stain of an exceptional Bordeaux can be appreciated as much as its bouquet, its taste. All the wines in the series were consumed during two unforgettable dinners that Daniel prepared at my Brooklyn studio and together we drank, created the stains and photographed them.

You are joining us at the Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival this year, alongside Boulud and famed chef Claude Troisgros. What can diners expect from this collaboration?

Daniel and Claude have been my great friends for years, and we have collaborated at many events connecting art and gastronomy. My friendship with great chefs like them has helped me understand the value of an experience that transcend the boundaries of your professional practice. A great chef, and a great artist, is a curious seeker of new experiences, a person deeply involved with the world he lives in and the people he shares this world with.

In your Academy Award-nominated film Waste Land, we see you work with the catadores (garbage pickers) to create incredibly vibrant portraits out of materials sourced from the world’s largest garbage dump. Can you tell us a bit about how your work there affected their lives?

I went to Gramacho, the largest garbage dump in the world, which was about to close. There I met a group of people who worked as catadores and I invited them to work with me in the making of a series of self-portraits using the materials that they dealt with every day. This process was transformative for them and for me. With the proceeds of the auction and sales of the artworks, we helped the people who participated in the film directly—they managed to buy houses and change their lives considerably. The film also impacted the entire class of catadores not only because they organized themselves into larger associations, but they were also recognized as a working class.