Food is the art of everyday life.” So said Andrea Blum over lunch at Montalvo Arts Center last month. This is not the kind of statement that can be proven empirically, but there are two reasons I believe her.
First, Blum has forgotten more about art than I’ll ever know. What makes her seem like the ideal new chef for Montalvo’s artist-in-residence program (technically, the “culinary fellow”) is that she is truly, madly cross-disciplinary. She learned fresco painting from a man who once served as the assistant to Diego Rivera. She was living in Italy then, also apprenticing to master cheesemakers. She worked as a decorative painter at the same time she created a cooking school in Tuscany. She graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism in 2003, focusing her reporting on food issues. Wherever she goes, whatever she’s doing, art and food are tightly intertwined.
The second reason I was inclined to believe her is that she had just served possibly the best matzo ball soup I’ve ever had in my life (active ingredient: cardamom). The degree to which this makes me more receptive to someone’s philosophical musings cannot be underestimated. If L. Ron Hubbard had ever served me a fantastic matzo ball soup, I might be a Scientologist right now.
Blum’s main job over the course of this fellowship is to keep Montalvo’s other artists in residence fed. If it sounds like one of the wilder ideas for an artistic residency you’ve ever heard, well, rest assured that, as a whole, there is nothing quite like the Montalvo artist-in-residency program. (Although that is changing, now that other groups are looking to Montalvo as a model for their own residency programs.)
Each year’s artists, who go through an intense selection process, live and work in a $10.5 million complex of live/work studios on Montalvo’s Saratoga property that opened in 2004 as the Sally and Don Lucas Artists Programs. This didn’t change the art center’s mission—it has been hosting artists in residence for over 70 years—but it did put its program on the cutting edge. The culinary residency developed not long after that, out of a “culinary curator” position. The first was Jessica Theroux, who this year had a big hit with her book Cooking With Italian Grandmothers.
Sally Lucas, the Montalvo trustee who was so instrumental in establishing the program that they named it after her, has had the opportunity to attend many of the dinners served by the culinary resident to the other artists, and she calls them “the best dinners you could ever have.” It’s not just the food, of course, but also the dinner conversation that bubbles up when artists from across the spectrum of disciplines are gathered at one table.
Blum has also taken on some pet projects like restoring Montalvo’s orchard—one of many ways her NorCal “fresh, local and organic” bent shows itself. “It’s really important to know where my food comes from,” she says.
Blum will also host three Saturday workshops open to the public (10am–12:30pm; $55; $45 for members). On Feb. 5, she’ll tackle the topic of lemons (including a lemon risotto recipe); on April 2, she’ll cover “The Art of Pizza”; and on Sept. 17, homegrown tomatoes.