Chez Panisse Alum Cook Up Culinary Performance Art Evening

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Lunch Table at Montalvo. Photo: Niki Ford
An elegant table sets the scene for a simple lunch at Montalvo Arts Center. Photo: Niki Ford

The lunch couldn't have been simpler: A green salad, a fried egg, and some spiced basmati rice with carrot and beet condiments and crispy fried onions. The long wooden table was piled high with pappadams, decorated with deeply-hued anenomes, and included elegantly whimsical, hand-drawn menus, courtesy of the chef.

Welcome to Niki Ford's world. The Montalvo Arts Center culinary fellow invited a group of media guests to lunch as part of a meet-and-greet in her new role at the international artists residency program in Saratoga. Ford's approach to cooking -- an aesthetic honed from six years in the kitchen at Chez Panisse -- is anything but fussy and full of flavor.

Like many schooled in the Alice Waters approach to cooking, she allows the choicest ingredients with impeccable provenance to do the heavy lifting. That salad, for instance, included some 20 different kinds of greens grown by local gardener Eden Israel, who provides produce to the artists program. And the eggs from Soul Food Farm were fried by the farmer herself Alexis Koefoed. The meal wrapped up with orange and cardamom granita sweetened with honey from Montalvo's own bees.

The arts center, celebrating its centennial this year, is located in the woodsy Saratoga hills a short hop from the heart of Silicon Valley. It's set on 175 meandering acres and includes an impressive kitchen garden. A grand Mediterranean-style, historic villa houses an international artist residency program for painters, musicians, writers, and such. The culinary fellowship, now in its ninth year, offers cooks like Ford the opportunity to explore sustainable food practices relevant to cultural life. For the artists in residence, the culinary fellowship means they know most nights someone else is putting dinner on the table.


With degrees in both fine and culinary arts, Ford seems like an ideal fit for the arts center's resident chef. In addition to cooking professionally, she performs conceptual art pieces and spends time exploring visual media through photography, printmaking, and drawing. And she's done stints cooking for creative types at the American Academy in Rome.

Niki Ford and Tamar Adler. Photos: Courtesy of Montalvo Arts Center
Friends and fellow cooks, Niki Ford (left) and Tamar Adler (right) present "Coming of Age in the Kitchen." Photo: Niki Ford (L): Kate Farnady, Photo Tamar Adler (R): Courtesy of Tamar Adler.

Ford is mixing things up at Montalvo. Tonight, in the first of a series of culinary events she'll curate, she's cooking up an event with a fellow Chez alum, Tamar Adler, author of the widely acclaimed An Everlasting Meal. The two friends and former restaurant mates will blend food, performance, and personal memoir in an evening dubbed "Coming of Age in the Kitchen," which begins with a short story reading by author Adler from her childhood.

Adler has previously chronicled her adventures cooking with her brother -- Sibling Rivalry at the Stove -- in an award-winning story for Gilt Taste. Tonight's reading will be followed by a meal based on the story prepared by Ford -- and a surprise guest chef or two.

Here's how the evening came about:

"A few months ago, when we were having dinner in New York, Niki stopped me in the middle of my telling her a story and proposed we bring it to a more animated life than my telling could," Adler explains. "I loved her idea immediately: a sort of triple catharsis, for teller, listener, and eater of the meal around which the story revolves."

Cooking has always been considered a low art--there to support the high arts, like theater or music, adds Adler. "But Niki is actually challenging that by having the reading of the story be the background to the meal," says the Brooklyn-based writer, who is reading from her book this Saturday at Omnivore Books and teaching a class, "How to Boil Water," on Monday at 18 Reasons.

"High and low are reversed here, or at least smashed up together a little in a way I find exciting."

Niki Ford spoke with Bay Area Bites this week about food, art, and her developing empathy for slugs.

produce still life. Photo: Niki Ford
Culinary artist Niki Ford creates still life images from her farmers' market finds. Photo: Niki Ford

What does a typical day entail for you at Montalvo?

I'm responsible for making dinner for the artists here -- up to 15 people or so -- five nights a week. We're working through how I can make a meal for Friday -- maybe a soup cooked ahead -- so that that day is my own to explore and experiment with my art work. It's important to me that this fellowship allow that space.

That said, during the week I'm shopping, prepping, cooking, and serving the food at the table. I also sit with the artists at dinner and attempt to engage with them in a meaningful way about the program. But the truth is I'm often thinking things like: "How long has that lamb been in the oven?" So I'm constantly back and forth in the kitchen. I'm figuring out as I go along how to both make dinner and show up. I find the best conversations often happen after dinner over a glass of wine.

What kind of foods are you cooking for the fellows?

I'm relying on what I know, so there's a sense of ease and flow to most of the meals I'm making. I could just make dinner like a regular person, but I do enjoy a challenge and I have high standards. So it needs to be something that satisfies me creatively. So while my food is simple, there are often several components, and these take time to put together. I'm not sure I know how to make food like a regular person.

Recently I've made pasta e fagioli, chicken saltimbocca, and potato, cabbage, and chickpea soup. I'm proud of my Italian ancestry and learned a lot in my travels there about the foods born of Italian peasants that are such beautiful poems. They really do know how to take nothing and make it into something so satisfying and nurturing. There's just something that happens with that soup where the liquids from the potatoes and chickpeas exchange and then marry into something that is greater than the sum of their parts.

meal. Photo: Niki Ford
Ford favors simple, aesthetically-pleasing suppers with an emphasis on fresh produce. Photo: Niki Ford

Where do you find inspiration in the kitchen?

I can find it in the most unexpected places. I may try something new from cooking with things that people have left behind here. For instance, normally I wouldn't make Italian pasta with Thai red chilies -- I'm not a complete and utter purist but I do believe in traditions. But I mixed the two recently and I liked the greenness of the chilies -- not just the heat -- it was a lesson in not being rigid in the kitchen because it turned out kind of great.

Can you give us some context for tonight's event?

It happened very organically. The story will likely stir up emotions in the people who hear it and they'll take those feelings to the table and that will shape the way they connect to the food they're eating. I thought it would be interesting to explore that.

What creative projects are you working on?

I'm writing and illustrating a children's book about the soil nutrient cycle from the perspective of a slug. I'm growing my own plants here from seed and spending time in the garden. I'm watching the slugs eat things and I'm trying to have a compassionate attitude towards them. Slugs play an important function in nature --they tell us something about a plant's health. It's developing at it's own pace, which is to say a slug's pace, which I guess is apropo.

What's the story behind your Montalvo blog, mountains in my spoon?

The posts may serve as notes for a future cookbook. But more immediately the blog is a way for me to keep a record, and bare witness to what I'm doing here, and that inspires me in a different way in the kitchen. The notion of being seen beyond the people I make dinner for challenges me to be thoughtful about what I'm doing while I'm here every day.



"Coming of Age in the Kitchen"
Reading: Tamar Adler | Dinner: Niki Ford
The Historic Villa, Montalvo Arts Center
15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga
Thursday, April 12, 7pm
General: $65, Members: $50, Students with ID: $12
Tickets: Montalvo Box Office, 10 am-4 pm 408-961-5858