Art + Food = Lucio

Review of the book 'The art of food at Lucio's' by Lucio Galletto and Timothy Fisher, introduction by Leo Schofield. Foreword by Robert Hughes Craftsman House 1999 Sydney RRP $65.

The love affair between artists and restaurateurs has been going on since the mists of time, but conspicuously since the latter began littering the French public's table in the eighteenth century; it is one of those forms of primal societal symbiosis that will never end. But what of its causality; what manner of Dionysian compulsion is at the root of the devouring entente?

While art and food lack correlation in most respects, diverging widely in matters of content, they share many obvious primary visual characteristics: colour, shape, volume, size, scale, proportion, contrast, tone, texture, and so on. Each demand consummate mastery of their discipline's behavioural quirks and eccentricities of matter (ingredients) and processes, and, to excel, the added possession of flair, conceptual scope and openness to new and more confronting conjunctions and configurations.

Eating is necessary. It is also our species' most cherished panacea and one which can be applied at any hour of the day; preferably soon after waking, then at the prescribed periods of lunchtime and dinner, thereby providing timely nutrition via ritual indulgence, salve to the day's tribulations. For artists all this has an added benefit, providing, as only well presented nosh can, a readily delectable subject for aesthetic transference. It is a matter of compatible projection – as in the studio, as in the kitchen – of shared orchestrational equivalence; on the one hand, visual, photopic, ochially perceptual substance, and on the other, natural base ingredients which, when appositely combined, elicit comparably complex responses from slightly lower down the corporeal system, via the consuming site of the palatal/olfactory receptors; fleshy little supra-lingual budlets uniquely specialised at detecting taste variance of the finest nuance.

By nature of their discrete creative disciplines, artists and chefs make decisions of crucial detail in their respective spheres of action, and it is inevitable that whenever opportunity arises they will each apply their own metier-determined appreciation to the other's product. Sadly, while I can only think of one example to the contrary, it has to be said that good chefs rarely make good artists, while artists are invariably handy in the kitchen, as anyone who has had the privilege to experience Akio Makigawa's pasta improvisations, John Olsen's paellas, Michael Johnson's bouillabaisse or Janet Laurence's "Japanesey seafoodey thing" will fondly affirm.
Further to this elemental summary of the symbiosis of artists and restaurateurs, it is fitting to note that they also enjoy relationships on the basis of more tangible mutual benefit: enter the contra. It is fairly common knowledge, among restaurateurs, that a visible bevy of chomping and glugging artists at your corner table is a sure lure for the fiscally better appointed members of the lunching confrerity; those of the world of matters that matter, the leaders of Business, the eminent, potentially imminent collectors: thus the symbiosis extends. The barter of a modest amount of art for a limitless amount of meals is a traditional means whereby the restaurant benefits tangibly from the presence of the otherwise undercatered class of artists while guaranteeing just the right tone of flaneur dishevelment to engage the culturally undernourished attention span of their other patrons – those who are able to pay for what they are about to receive. Meanwhile the lunching artist is offered the dual benefits of princely fodder plus the prospect of untold client-base expansion.

It follows that there are, yet few fully appreciate the extent to which there are, artists and there are lunch-time artists; two distinct breeds. The former tend to work, while the latter divide their time judiciously if unevenly between the activities of working, eating and drinking – though not necessarily in that order. They invariably live in places like Surry Hills and their munching and imbibing occurs usually, if not exclusively, in Paddington. They are easily identified in a crowd: corporeally overabundant – usually 95K plus – and further recognisable by the characteristic rose to carmine tincture in the area of their distinctively pronounced jowls.
They are the ones in the social columns always seen holding an empty glass at half-mast and they are exclusively male. However it would be erroneous to presume that the culinary font holds exclusive place among our creative ranks; indeed there are many who altogether shun the temples of artful provender in preference to a spartan regimen. One, of whom we shall hear little more, recently expressed the view that:

...while clearly the disciplines intersect each other's sphere of delectative inclination, the plain truth is that food and art have little mutual bearing beyond nutrition's expedient capacity to mitigate the creative individual's often exacerbated rate of encroaching mortality.

Do you believe that? Neither do I, but what does one conclude? Only that there is no reliable consensus; that opinion is perennially divided on the subject. It is either a matter of such sublime fatuity as to be of no consequence; of such esoteric indulgence as to be beyond the concerted interest of all but a few jaded epicureans, or of the essence of life itself. I must err on the side of the latter.
The fact that so much verbiage has been so expended in attempting to enumerate connections between the over-fetishised products of two of the species' primary sense perceptors (three if, as you should, you include the closely attendant nasal appurtenance) should have a reason, and it does; which, one only appears to have forgotten. It is attributable to the brazen action by one of our nation's leading art book publishers – no less than Craftsman House – of breaking tradition and producing a book about a Sydney restaurateur, Lucio: an art book about food.

As every indulgent Sydneysider knows, Lucio's is pre-eminent among the shimmering seaside city's booming swell of good restaurants, and his tavola is very artful in the way its dishes combine and extend the myriad interrelations of savour and sight, obtaining an exceptional balance of flavours, refined placement and colour. His prices are not exactly bargain basement but they are affordable and anyway, the food defies superlatives; worth the bit extra. But so, you might say, is the food at Beppi's, Tetsuya and Buon Ricordo; and you might be right. So what else distinguishes Lucio?

The answer is not a simple one, but, firstly, the instigator, there is Lucio, an attentive, deceptively unassuming host; a delightful, generous man who extends a genuine welcome to all his clients and their friends, providing a seasonally varied and wide spectrum of utterly gratifying nosh.

In his foreword to the book The Art of Food at Lucio's, Leo Schofield throws added light on the subject, waxing lucid on the importance of the site of Lucio's restaurant at 47 Windsor Street; its past as the former Hungry Horse gallery and restaurant in the 1960s (a formative episode in the recent history of Sydney's art world) and how its aura carries, permeating its present reincarnation as Lucio's.

John Olsen has also contributed an affectionate salute, 'The Horse Bolted', in which he sensuously extols the delight of Lucio's exquisite pastas and seafoods. He identifies the artist in Lucio, exemplified in the following observation of the final deft touches of Lucio undressing his famous Pesce al Sale:

Still all remains in silence. With an artist's sense of abstraction, Lucio judiciously drizzles the finest olive oil over the portions, adding a squeeze of lemon juice, a pinch of parsley, a turn of black pepper and tiny chopped, seeded tomatoes.
Ecco – it is done! Spontaneously everyone claps: how's that for a one-man exhibition?

Olsen has had a love affair with the restaurant since it began, even from the time of its first incarnation as the Hungry Horse restaurant and gallery where he was one of the now influential original stable. He enjoys Lucio's friendship and Lucio enjoys his and many good examples of his work grace the restaurant's ochred walls.

Even our home-grown doyen, the now known to be indestructible Hughes – the first Hungry Horse exhibiting artist and a Lucio's regular when back home – has succumbed to the siren culinary call, contributing the introduction. He paints a rambling, gloriously evocative reminiscence of Sydney and Paddington then and now, the virtues of Italian vernacular cuisine, our debt to post-war immigrants and their transformation of our culinary standards in Sydney over the past thirty five years, from the time when "Food was still largely regarded by Australians as fuel: lumpy, charred and undistinguished – in sum, colonial English" to its glorious consuming present.

There is also an informative biographical interview with Lucio by David Dale and a number of short screeds by a number of other, lesser art and food world luminaries, including yours truly. I asked to be put at the end so they stuck me in where I duly deserve but suffer most, with the puddings.

The Art of Food at Lucio's is a must for all we undiscovered chefs célèbres who always wanted to know but didn't like to ask about the secret ingredient in the Pesce al Sale. It is an homage and a book; along with its array of odes to Lucio and his food it is also copiously provided with recipes and illustrated with mouth-watering images of core repertoire dishes, as well as pictures of many of Lucio's artist friends and their works. I have added my copy, already well thumbed, along with Elizabeth David, Alice B Toklas, Francatelli to the many other dog-eared and oil-bespattered volumes that constitute our kitchen library.
See you at Lucio's!