Throughout the month of February, the dining hall has been the home for Open Space’s I Have Eaten It project – a collaborative and creative culinary project curated by Huma Kabakci, a volunteer at the Centre and founder of Open Space, and practising artist Laura Wilson. Bringing together nine international artists whose work explore the many meanings and implications of food systems, eating, production and consumption, hosting I Have Eaten It at Refettorio Felix has been a hugely engaging and eye-opening experience, provoking us to think about our lunch service and charitable mission through a fresh new lens.
Laura and Huma’s journey curating this project has taken many twists and turns over the three years (!) it’s taken to finally see their ideas in reality. We’re so grateful for that in many ways because it means that what was once meant to be a more conventional exhibition has become a collective, evolutionary project that’s fused deeply with daily life at the Centre this month. Amongst so much else, the pandemic has raised the alarm about some of our society’s most glaring issues – topics like food poverty, sustainability, supply chains and waste which for us, running a community kitchen for vulnerable people using surplus food, have always been a lived reality. That’s why the central part of the project became the weekly Tuesday kitchen takeovers hosted by Laura and Huma, joined by our resident chefs Clio and Nassim, whose dedication and conscientiousness to the act of cooking have been truly inspiring.
Each artist involved in the project donated a specific ingredient or recipe to be used during these kitchen takeovers – something that’s meaningful to their identity or practice. For Hannah Lees, that was charcoal – an ingredient introduced to them through Ayurveda, that has ‘enthralled [them] because of the finiteness of it; like eating burnt remains or ash, there is something morbid but also cyclical to consuming it.’ Or Malaysian chicken curry for Caroline Wong, a souvenir of weekend meals growing up and an embodied symbol of communal eating experiences in Malaysian culture. Nora Silva donated a huge bag of lentils – she writes that ‘with an almost violent intention, I will nurture and accompany 5kg of lentils during the month previous to its cooking at Refettorio Felix, restlessly trying to embed the dry pulses with feeling.’ We can see this happening ourselves in her film, Flock and Shepherd, which shows a bag of lentils being stroked, indulged and fretted over by the artist. It’s an absurd and whimsical notion, but also connects deeply to what we do here – the idea that behind the labour of cooking, behind what can seem rudimentary and mundane, there’s a hope that we’re able to communicate care and compassion through to those who eat the products of our work.
That’s not to romanticise the charity and our lunch service, and it’s safe to say that we don’t usually get so sentimental when every day we’re confronted with the immediate material hardship that is experienced by so many in our society. But a really refreshing part of hosting I Have Eaten It has been the opportunity to take a step back and allow ourselves and our guests to get absorbed in the multitude of different relationships we can have with food and eating; to show appreciation for the unexpected and subtle flavours that food imparts beyond the mere matter of taste. Seeing our guests’ artistic and written contributions to the project has also been an invaluable and heartwarming experience, reinforcing the strength and love of the community that gathers around our tables each day, as well as the intentions of I Have Eaten It to be an immersive, reciprocal and engaging project for our guests.
Forging new connections and finding unanticipated sympathies has been a brilliant consequence of I Have Eaten It, not least because of the programme of free public events included in the project. A bread-making workshop, led by Laura and Sondos Azzam, had twenty-five participants, new to the Centre and our work, come down and get their hands messy on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Titled ‘Memory Foam’, the workshop was a meditative yet creative experience – each loaf of Irish soda bread, served with a Jordanian hummus and tomato salad, uniquely shaped and flavoured by different ratios of flour (kindly donated by the wonderful Refettorio supporter, Addy, at Wildfarmed), each peppered with the earthy browns and greens of za’atar and nigella seeds.
Whilst Storm Eunice was brewing in the skies, an intimate group also gathered in the evening for a film screening of works by artists participating in the project. A favourite from the screening was Laura’s own film, titled The Bakers, which shows a dialogue between a bakery and a brick factory, both creating their respective products by hand. Combining footage from both sites, it’s a captivating piece portraying a peculiar, delightful symmetry between the work that goes into the production of bread and bricks. The way the workers knead tantalisingly pliable mounds of dough or clay, their bodies moving in a dance-like rhythm in tune with their materials, is portrayed with sincere attention to these easily overlooked details of production – the skill and knowledge that goes into each brick or loaf; the little pause a worker takes to measure the force needed to slap the clay into a brick mould. There’s a vital mischievousness about these materials too, something playful and animated in the way they ooze around surfaces, escaping the limits of a work table like strange, supple creatures. Through these two essential, ancient products, brick and bread, Laura’s film documents what’s organic and living within these building blocks of life, illuminating the unassuming creativity and enduring dynamism that exists in these factories, even in our supposedly automated age of production. It’s this celebration of idiosyncrasy within production systems that speaks to us and our little operation here at St Cuthbert’s Centre – the fact that encoded into the routines of feeding and caring for 100 people each day, there’s the vital joy of each moment being unique; that within the repetition and continuity of the food system we nurture here, that’s existed in some form for over 30 years now, there’s endless variance, growth and spontaneity.
To culminate the whole project, Open Space generously hosted a fundraising dinner in our hall to raise money and awareness for the charity. Tying into the themes of sustainability and food that have been central to I Have Eaten It, Chef Ramael Scully of Scully at St James’s (formerly of Ottolenghi and Nopi) designed a bespoke 24 hour menu with the ingredients we’d received from the Felix Project the day before, just as we do our own normal lunch service. We’re so grateful to Chefs Scully, Serena, Mark and Marlon who put on a delicious five-course feast, with special mention to the ceremonial green matcha swiss roll with black tahini ganache and dehydrated yoghurt dessert that’s been on our minds ever since the night! An auction of works by the collaborating artists was another highlight of the event, animating the hall with great drama and excitement, and 60% of sales have very kindly been donated to Refettorio Felix.
I Have Eaten It wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity of some amazing partners and sponsors who we’d like to thank – their support has allowed this project to become a stimulating and fascinating month at Refettorio Felix, giving us plenty to think about and develop for our future as well. Our sincere appreciation to:
Good Produce Ltd.
Sam Nightingale – for photography throughout the project.
Refettorio Felix volunteers – for helping with service during February and for the fundraiser
Company Drinks – for supplying soft drinks to accompany the kitchen takeover meals.
Wildfarmed – for donating flour for the workshop, made through regenerative farming practices.
Scully Restaurant and Chef Ramael Scully – for designing a bespoke menu and leading the kitchen for a spectacular fundraising meal.
yhangry and Chef Mark – for supporting in the kitchen during the fundraiser.
Weino Bib – for supplying wine for the fundraiser.
Biddy Mulligan’s Chilled Irish Coffee – for donating after-dinner drinks for the fundraiser.
Elizabeth Marsh Floral Design – for donating surplus flowers to decorate the hall this month.
Participating artists were:
Moza Almatrooshi, Sondos Azzam, Lauren Godfrey, Charles Harrison, Hannah Lees, Raju Rage, Nora Silva, Laura Wilson & Caroline Wong.
Finally, a huge thank you and congratulations to Huma and Laura for curating and leading such a wonderful project, and to Lara Monro at Open Space for all your support.