Olafur Eliasson (top of table) eating with staff at The Kitchen in his Berlin studio. Photograph: Thorsten Futh for the Guardian
On my way to lunch with Olafur Eliasson at his Berlin studio, I bump into him outside the lift. “Good to meet you,” he beams. “We only usually get strange art people here. It’s so exciting to meet someone from the real world.” Blimey, what kind of wonderland have I stumbled into where a food critic passes as coming from the real world?
This handsome, brick building – a former brewery and chocolate factory in the Prenzlauer Berg district – is indeed a wonderland: four storeys of fevered creativity. As the lift opens on each floor, it’s like curtains raising on to a series of vivid stages: glimpses of artworks and libraries and intent, happy-looking people – artists and film-makers, architects and archivists, more than 90 of them, doing who knows what mystical things. The archivists are silent and absorbed; up on the top floor, artists in a high-ceilinged room heady with paint fumes are friendly and larky.
In the UK, Eliasson is most famous for The Weather Project, or as we all knew it, “The Sun”. This fog-wreathed installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall entranced visitors so profoundly that we lay down and basked in its eerie glow, sensible art-lovers compelled to behave like tripped-out sunbathers. But his catalogue of work is huge – literally and figuratively: everything from staining rivers green with non-toxic dye to creating waterfalls in New York.
So why send a reclusive restaurant critic here? Because, in Eliasson’s studio, there is a kitchen that feeds his workforce on a daily basis. “Apart from Mondays. We get deliveries on Mondays and people go out to eat – there’s a very good pizza place along the road. We’re trying to gentrify, push the prices up.” He is so softly-spoken, so deadpan, I’m often not sure if he’s joking.
Eliasson has now produced a book, Studio Olafur Eliasson: The Kitchen, as part of an ongoing, multi-part artwork called Take Your Time. It’s a celebration of the intrinsic beauty of food, the fascination of eating. With recipes, metaphysical ponderings and haunting poetry, it could only have been created by artists: there are pages dedicated to the pleating in a dim sum dumpling and dishes called Rain After Cloud. The photography is black-and-white, with only the food (and one green dress) picked out in colour.
Over its 10 years, The Kitchen has welcomed many notable guests: Ai Weiwei is forever nipping over from his neighbouring studio, as are top chefs such as Noma’s René Redzepi and friends of The Kitchen’s mentor, American culinary legend Alice Waters – famous friends such as Meryl Streep. “I wasn’t here when she visited,” Eliasson says, looking slightly crestfallen. “I love Meryl Streep.” He is a man of immense presence, and has a curious mixture of stillness and warm volubility. Quietly handsome, slight, unobtrusively dressed, you’re still aware of Eliasson no matter where he is in the most crowded of rooms.
“The book grew out of the life of the studio over many years, when cooking became so involved in the routine of the day,” he explains. “The idea was to pay my team back – it’s a degree of respect.” We sit down at the head of a long table in a huge, bright room, hung with mirrored light fittings that feature Ethiopian basketwork he discovered during a show in Addis Ababa last year. The table is laid with dishes of salad, dips, homemade bread; staff can take any leftovers home, nothing is wasted. I have assembled pages of questions to lob at him, things I think suitable for the arty intellectual (“Do you see the plate as a mini-environment or installation? With the food as a kind of intervention?”). In the event, I hardly look at them: I burble one clumsy opener – “So both your father and sister are chefs?” – and he’s off on a reverie about life, the universe and grey sheep.
“My father and mother had me when they were only 19 or so. My father found it hard to get a job. He always wanted to be an artist or a musician – he had a studio and was very experimental. He had my sister a lot later.” (Victoria Eliasdóttir used to work at The Kitchen and now has her own wonderful restaurant, Dóttir, in Berlin Mitte.) “I was just applying to art school. When he had her, he also had a relatively robust breakdown, drinking a lot. They lost all their money, and my stepmother was left to pick up the pieces. I was 19 and looking after my baby sister.”
Danish-Icelandic, Eliasson splits his time between home in Copenhagen, where he lives with his art historian wife, Marianne Krogh Jensen, and the two children they adopted in Ethiopia, and the studio in Berlin. It’s a demanding routine, but to be left in charge of a small child at 19, as a new art student? That must have been life-altering. He’s more interested in talking about his late father. “After this, the only job he could get was on the fishing boats in Iceland, working five weeks on and five weeks off, just like people on oil rigs. The food is really horrible. All they do is sit there watching porn, saying to their wives they’re playing chess. He and I did some paintings – putting paint on paper and seeing what happened to it with the rocking of the boat. His great legacy in Iceland was getting sailors to eat fish – they don’t want fish. The way he explained it, he was moving the fish up the levels. First deep-frying, then pan-frying, then the type of meals where the fish is barely cooked – where you put the lemon juice on the fish. You know, ceviche.”
The food at the Kitchen is vibrant, brimming with colourful freshness. It’s organic and vegetarian, frequently vegan, sourced mostly within a 10km radius of Berlin. Today’s menu offers cauldrons of earthy, fuchsia-coloured beet soup for us to ladle into bowls and top with a dollop of horseradish cream. Ricotta laced with mushrooms. The bread is glorious wholemeal sourdough, dense and chewy. The cooking team is run by women; we’re lucky that artist and food activist Asako Iwama, one of The Kitchen’s originators, who has left to study film-making in Tokyo, is visiting today.
Does having an all-female kitchen alter the dynamic? “It’s more compassionate,” Eliasson says. “Alice [Waters] also has that compassionate element. There’s none of that yelling in the kitchen. The social atmosphere in the kitchen is changing. Stress in the kitchen can come through the food.” In the way they say a stressful death for an animal causes the meat to taste bad? “Yes! In Iceland, they have animal killing that’s certified organic, because they kill it in the sink. But they also piss in the sink.” I’m not sure where he’s going with this, but it’s a powerful image.
Waters is a massive influence on The Kitchen. (Her Berkeley, California, restaurant, Chez Panisse, remains hugely influential. Her Edible Schoolyard project inspired Jamie Oliver, and she sits on an obesity board with Michelle Obama.) “Asako and Lauren [Maurer, a fellow Kitchen chef] went to work for her for a few weeks,” Eliasson says. “And my sister, too. Actually, I wanted my sister to go to San Francisco, because she was lesbian now and I said, I know this woman who has a restaurant.” This, to the likes of me, is a bit like saying about Prince, I know this guy who plays the guitar.
Even The Kitchen’s Instagram account is a thing of beauty, absorbed with visuals as much as taste, cross-sections of radicchio and garlic, an alien-looking kombucha mother, bread swelling dramatically in an oven. The cooks play with ideas, staining foods improbable colours. “Yes, in winter they like to play with beets a lot – we had purple naan recently. There was that story about Anish Kapoor patenting a colour – black! That day, the kitchen used squid ink in the bread.”
How does he feel about the molecular movement popularised by Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal, where ingredients are tortured and denatured until they bear little resemblance to their origins? “I’m not big on molecular, but I understand it as an art form.” An art form? “We’re moving to a place where it becomes more likely that people appreciate it as art. The talent is becoming less client-dependent. For me, this is where art and commerce separate: suddenly you are not cooking for a client.”
I’m not sure, as a keen client, that I like the sound of this at all. “Oh, I don’t mind if it becomes so abstract that the client becomes part of the whole thing,” Eliasson says. “That the food, not the client, is the main protagonist. That’s what would make it an art form. It’s a bit like fashion. There are five or maybe 10 [designers] who are artists. They just happen to work for shitty companies. Like Raf Simons: he’s an artist who mismanaged his career by working for French companies. There are people out there in the cooking world who are expressing themselves with greater precision than a lot of artists.”
He means, you don’t get more involved with a piece of art than putting it into your body? “Yes! We touch the world with our insides. Normally, we touch the world with our outsides, but with eating, we turn ourselves inside out. The people eating it are very much a part of the artwork.”
The studio’s workers and a few invited visitors continue to line up at the counter and the clamour is incredible. It’s not only lunch that’s being shared, but ideas. With the sounding of a bell, it has gone from an almost empty, echo-ey room to the hottest place in town. “The studio, as much as we don’t like it, means working in your own little departments, compartmentalised. And there are hierarchies even though everyone’s a part of the democracy. The kitchen is a nice leveller.”
Is feeding his team his responsibility? “It’s all about hospitality as an employer. Now, this might sound wrong, but it’s also to prevent people from being sick all the time. Keeping them healthy. No, I’m serious! Getting vitamins in the immune system without being didactic. Nobody likes it when I say this, but if you eat here every day, you’re less likely to get the flu.” I believe him, just from colours on the plate. The ivory of pickled mooli topped with beige pearls of mustard seed. The butter whipped with vivid green coriander. The shimmering, oily orange of carrot mashed with ginger and honey. “In Germany, this kind of top-down thinking is not too popular – health and gymnastics were a very active part of national socialism. In England, you can talk about this, but here…” I see his point.
Eliasson tells me about the sheep he raised in Iceland. “In 2007, I decided to raise grey sheep, to try to save the Icelandic economy. Instead, it very quickly became an increased burden on the economy. The sheep are becoming extinct, because they look like rocks and people can’t see them; even the dogs can’t see them. Grey and brown sheep are very rare now.” His small, experimental studio is called Grey Sheep. “I might go back to sheeping. These ones are closer to goats: they live on herbs and blueberries, and the meat is low-fat, almost black.”
Eliasson becomes animated talking about a meal of wild boar. “Alice [Waters] was here with some famous chef from Buenos Aires and said: ‘We’re going to go boar hunting north of Berlin.’ I told them to come and eat it here. Alice arrived with a box of champagne, the Argentinian guy, his two assistants and a dead boar. The kitchen made fresh pitta bread, grilled huge chunks of the boar and stuffed it into the bread with olive oil. It was so delicious.”
It’s surprising to me that someone whose life is dictated by lofty, abstract ideas and creativity is so interested in food and particularly restaurants. “I do follow the food world. I’ve been going to Paris more frequently” – he has an exhibition at Versailles this summer – “and I’ve been trying to understand the sophistication and complexity of eating in the classical style. I met Alain Ducasse. He’s so sweet. He took me to his kitchen – truly amazing, and craft-oriented. It was like something straight out of the movies – this guy came in, in dirty overalls, with a box at 11 o’clock at night. He was an Italian who had driven from Italy with a box of truffles. Ducasse took a wad of money, €500 notes, peeled away a pile of them, off he goes and we go back to drinking champagne.”
We talk about how, on the other side of the coin from Michelin-style dining, the first thing that happens in refugee communities is the setting up of ad-hoc restaurants. “Absolutely. They become small parliaments, because this is where the informal rulings are settled, the fights and disputes. I’ve been working a lot with what makes public space public, and whether or not the private sector, to a bigger extent than we think, colonises and privatises what is normally seen as public – a sidewalk, for instance.”
There is no dessert. Perhaps it’s that health thing again. Everyone clears up after themselves and there’s a rota for washing up. Someone at the table remembers that when Eliasson’s sun was at Tate Modern, people had picnics under its light. “The Tate simply wasn’t prepared for the numbers who showed up. All the toilet paper kept running out at noon. People started sitting on the floor in other galleries, too. The whole behavioural approach was affected.”
We take the magic lift again, down to Eliasson’s private office, another vast, tiled room rammed with his art, giant squashy sofas, a strangely beautiful collection of lightbulbs.
He tells me about a project he’s working on. “So, 14 or 15 thousand years ago, there was the ice age. The edge, where the glaciers melted, was the so-called green belt – the Amazon and across the Congo, where the density of the fertilised earth is very high. The theory is that the melting glacier leaves mineral rock dust, a highly densified fertilising element. So now we have global warming and a group of scientists – one is a friend – are looking into the glacial moraine, a dust very close to cement. There are millions of tonnes of this stuff in Greenland. It could revitalise large ruined areas. You only need a tiny amount: with one container, you can do 200 square miles.”
It all sounds too good to be true. “I know. I am trying to talk Ducasse into using this fertiliser in the Versailles greenhouses. And it’s not really going very well. The gardener doesn’t believe it. But if Alain likes the idea of fertilising the Versailles greenhouses, I could rescue the Greenland economy. Even if I couldn’t rescue the Iceland economy with my sheep.”
This has all left me a bit dazzled. Thrilled at the idea that our globe isn’t simply hurtling to destruction, but somehow reinventing itself. Eliasson inspires complete belief: when you’re used to nothing but bad news about the environment, to hear something with so much hope attached to it is kind of breathtaking.
Now he has a meeting with Little Sun, a side project that produces a solar-powered lamp in aid of the 1.1 billion people worldwide without electricity. He’s going to talk about the new design, featuring not only a light but a mobile phone charger. We laugh at our inability to be parted from our phones. “Not only do you recharge the sun, but the sun recharges you. A head of salad is essentially a photo-cell. The sun goes on the salad leaves and turns them into a sort of battery, full of energy. And then you’re ingesting the light.”
So is The Kitchen like the battery that’s fuelling the whole machine of the studio? Fuel that’s translated into creative energy? “It can be, yes.”
I leave, shown out by Camilla Kragelund, who runs Eliasson’s communications team. “What is he like as a boss?” I ask. She looks briefly startled, then smiles. “Well, nobody ever leaves.”
• Studio Olafur Eliasson: The Kitchen is published by Phaidon on 25 April at £29.95. Order a copy for £23.96 from the guardian bookshop.
A book about Eliasson’s major art works, Studio Olafur Eliasson: Unspoken Spaces, is published by Thames & Hudson on 18 April at £60.00.
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