MEET JEN MONROE
In this dialogue, we talk with Jen, Chef and Artist, about literature that inspired an expected culinary career, how the intersection of art and technology creates a different form of art: a thoughtless and thoughtful one, and why she feels most connected to the 80s.
Tell us about a notable memory from your upbringing, relating to anything, maybe something that continues to shape the way you think today?
My sister and I grew up with a single mom who raised us without TV, and she curated the most amazing collection of VHS tapes for us--a lot of pretty out there animated films, and many of them in foreign languages, sometimes with dubs or subtitles but sometimes with nothing at all. I watched a good deal of anime with very little comprehension of what was going on, but I was always attracted to animations of food and eating, an interest that I’ve learned via Instagram is pretty widespread. I think the feeling of delight when being confronted by saturated, heavily stylized renderings of familiar and beloved things depicted in a way that make them look even better than real life, feeling a tactile recognition of a texture and a feeling being represented on-screen--is such a special thing, and it’s a feeling that I’ve sought out in working with food, both in an effort to experience it and to attempt to replicate it.
You began by hosting monochromatic meals in Brooklyn among friends, what inspired this and the move to grow it into a business?
I had been half-heartedly pursuing a career in food media, and at the time I wasn’t really seeing any clear avenues to thinking about food in ways that I felt excited about (though I will say that the food media landscape looks completely different now!). My sister and I were living together and were both big fans of a novel called A Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans, about an invalid eccentric aristocrat who decides to hole himself up in his mansion and spend all his money on absurd, hermetic aesthetic experiments. One of them was an all black funeral banquet for his lost libido, and the descriptions of the food and the setting are amazing. We hosted our own all-black meal at home, and from there wanted to try other colors. Initially they were just for our friends, but eventually I took them out of our apartment as ticketed events, and from there slowly gained the confidence to start playing with food in other ways. I’ve always felt unsure as to whether to approach the platform as a business, an art project, or both, but as a business it definitely still feels as if it’s in its infancy.
You like to rearrange norms when addressing food. How do you approach curating the sensorial experience of those participating in your meals?
Usually when I’m planning a dinner or a food installation, the first thing I think about is what I want the food and its context to feel like, texturally--is it marshmallowy or more angular, fluorescent or satiny, familiar or futuristic, playful or severe? I love working with food because it’s such a direct, confrontational way to make its recipient feel something, engage with something, but what I’ve always loved about dinner parties is that they allow you to worldbuild with so much more than just food. What the food looks like, what it’s served on, how it’s meant to be eaten, how it invites interaction, what it tastes like, what it reminds you of can all be means of telling a story, but I like to think of a table itself as prime real estate for an installation of sorts. I’m pretty inept at flower arranging, so for Yellow Meal I lined the table with big clusters of white beech mushrooms dusted with turmeric and big Buddha’s hand citruses, so it looked as if some kind of alien sporing event was underway. Of course sound is important too--I’m a DJ and a music curator, so I’ll make mixes for all my dinners, and I also love including short performances in between courses, to make it feel a little bit romantic dinner-theatery.
In your white meal, you used iPhones as a serving platter, but in a more general sense how do you perceive the intersection of technology, food, and art?
I’ve always been pretty perplexed by the ways in which food is openly used as a lifestyle signifier, and obviously Instagram culture has deepened those tendencies exponentially. A lot of my food practice is poking fun at the tendency to Instagram everything you eat by making food that’s so over-the-top sculptural that it’s absolutely in bad taste, but it insists that you photograph it anyway. The iPhone sushi was a pretty literal nod to that, and to ideas about wealth and luxury in food culture--a more extreme version of the ridiculous things we do to food to make it seem fancy, like putting gold leaf on desserts or putting truffles in places they shouldn’t be or waiting in line for four hours to take a picture of a cronut. If somebody serves you sushi on an iPhone, you’re contractually obligated to take a picture of it. I love the idea of a dinner table scattered with real and fake phones and real and fake food, with everyone whipping out their phones to take pictures of phones.
Food is a central component of community and of the familial structure; do you feel that the historical nature of food influences your artwork and art-making process?
Truthfully, not really, at least not for me--though I wish I had a more romantic answer to that question! Neither side of my family identified strongly with any particular cultures, so I didn’t grow up with much of a food identity. I will say that my family lived in Japan for a few years when I was a kid, so Japanese influences were pretty prevalent in our household. I’m still totally enamored with Japanese food sensibilities, so a lot of my food impulses are dictated by that. I do think that growing up without much of a cultural tie to any food heritage has enabled me to think about food in more explicitly futuristic or fantastical ways--whether that’s for better or for worse, I don’t know.
What is next in your pursuit of creation?
I’d love to make a book, and I hope to continue shaping Bad Taste into something more sustainable, both as a practice for me and in terms of its carbon footprint. My big project for this year is a dinner about Colony Collapse Disorder.
What is something you are yearning to experience or learn relating to anything?
So much! I haven’t been back to Japan since I was two, and I want to go so badly and to eat everything. If I were able to take as many classes as I wanted, I’d take dance classes, learn Spanish and Japanese, Ableton, how to cut hair, Persian cooking, deep tissue massage, and especially learn to make serious Japanese wagashi (sculptural candy and confectionary)--there are practically no in-depth instructional resources available in English, and I think it’s the most beautiful practice.
What decade or period of time do you most feel connected to, why?
The 80’s, hands down. Such a deeply generative time for art. I always come back to Paris is Burning, Tampopo, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Grace Jones, Cocteau Twins, Gaultier, Pina Bausch, The Clash--people took such deeply inventive, subversive leaps, under Reagan no less! From where I’m standing, it feels like such a saturated, irreverent decade. We’re so spoiled now, especially in our community--we have access to so much culture, and it’s a profound privilege, but I sometimes wonder if it makes the already fraught dream of originality that much less attainable.
Maimoun comes from the Persian language word meaning to welcome guests into your home. Who would you host?
Ooh, that’s a tough one. If I were feeling brave enough to uh, try to set aside some of our political differences, I’d love to cook and play with food and eat with Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti and Fillìa, the authors of The Futurist Cookbook. I’d also love to have dinner with Gordon Matta-Clark.