Are the chefs of today the Picassos and Van Goghs of our time, or are they merely the men and women who prepare food to satisfy our hunger? Should an exquisitely-made dish be treated with the same reverence as a fine piece of art? Or, thanks to Instagram, is it already? Set inside the recently refurbished San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), these are the questions In Situ restaurant asks of its diners. And whatever side of the coin you may fall on, prepare to have your notions challenged.
In Situ’s concept is simple: much in the way a museum showcases influential artworks from the finest artists around the world, head chef Corey Lee, similarly presents iconic dishes created by some of the best and most ground-breaking chefs on the planet.
Make no mistake, these aren’t the original chefs making these dishes. However, in all cases, Lee and the kitchen team have had extensive consultations with the original chef. Together, they share the required knowledge and understanding to ensure the heart of the dish is upheld. “A lot of people are surprised that chefs are agreeing to let us replicate their dish,” says Lee. “If you’re a chef, you spend your whole life thinking about ideas and teaching other people how to produce them. So if there’s an opportunity to reach more people, then we want to be involved.”
To the average punter looking for a tasty meal, what does this all mean? In Situ's simple décor and inviting communal tables created out of huge slabs of wood make the lounge area feel very approachable. Simple pieces of art hang on the walls in the dining area, and a comfortable, light and airy space makes the restaurant feel relaxed, even low key. But no matter how casual the vibe may be, In Situ promises seriously high-end eating.
To write a review of, well, pretty much any restaurant, many would describe the food in relation to its ingredients; flavors, textures, and techniques. But for In Situ, that would be like going to a museum and discussing the type of paint da Vinci used for the Mona Lisa or the type of canvas Andy Warhol used for his Campbell’s Soup Cans. So for In Situ, in many ways, the food itself is less irrelevant – In Situ asks something more fundamental than that. It's art that asks for an opinion; it asks for a reaction.
Of course, the food is still of importance. If you’re spending a couple hundred bucks on a meal, you want it to be delicious. And these wouldn’t be arguably the greatest dishes of a generation if they weren’t also fundamentally worthwhile in some way. Just as Van Gogh’s entire repertoire may not be for you, but there’s no denying the impact his works like Sunflowers or The Starry Night had on the art world. And that’s the point of In Situ. Whether you understand the complexities and the techniques used in each dish or if you simply enjoy sitting down to a highly-Instagrammable and tasty-as-hell meal, it almost doesn’t matter. The food has already done its job. Your role is just to appreciate it. This is what we do with art.
So, what to know about what you’re dealing with when you dine. We could go into a lot of detail (we're that enthused), but we'll just focus on the higlights. Namely, a main of Umami Soup from Hisato Nakahigashi’s Miyamasou restaurant in Kyoto, Japan. Paper-thin slices of raw miso-marinated wagyu sit atop a bowl of flat Inaniwa udon noodles and asparagus. A kettle of hot dashi broth with a hint of yuzu is poured over, lightly cooking the meat. The yuzu is uplifting but by no means does it shy away from what it truly is, and in the precise manner that Japanese cuisine is famed for, the balance of umami and citrus, of sweet and salty, is impeccable.
Thomas Keller’s Liberty Duck Breast, a French dish from 1995 also stood out. It was pure perfection. The duck is paired with French green lentils, small cubes of apple, and a sauce of dark aged red wine vinegar that gives the dish a serious punch. If this were a painting, it’d be one of those classic renaissance paintings – exquisitely constructed but composed of nothing particularly surprising.
But, if it’s real ballsy flavors you’re after, then the Spicy Pork Sausage Rice Cakes from David Chang’s NYC Ssäm Bar is going to be your jam. The dish is insanely spicy, so if the numbing spice of Sichuan peppercorns don’t do it for you, then this could be a challenge. But if anything is likely to get you onboard, it’s this masterpiece of messy brilliance. This is punk rock in a bowl, the Banksy on the wall of a random back alley.
Lastly, dessert. A classic, as documented on the Netflix series Chef’s Table. 'Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart' from Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana restaurant in Italy is a playful take on a lemon tart that has been artfully dropped onto the plate like some abstract Jackson Pollock painting. Ultimately, however, this is just a really good version of a lemon tart. It’s smartly paired with eight dollaps of different savory flavors, which make each bite an intriguing, new experience.
With this concept of food as art going on, it’d be easy for the restaurant to get stuck in some kind of self-congratulatory circle jerk and give in to some elevated opinion of itself. Yet somehow, In Situ pulls back from this, with an evident self-awareness and mutual respect for the original chef as well as the diner. Each dish is lovingly recreated with a clear sense of pride coming from the kitchen, as though the chefs are honoring the heritage and legacy of their entire industry in a very personal way.
“In Situ will hopefully encourage dialogue about our relationships with food,” says chef Lee. “Not unlike the way SFMOMA curates and exhibits important works of art.”
So, when In Situ invites you to the table of the greatest chefs the modern world has seen and allows personal access to their individual masterpieces, does it matter if you think it’s any good? If food is art, what does that mean for the cultural landscape? Does it change the way we view chefs, whose fame and celebrity is already sought after by culture’s elite? Much like fine art, these philosophical questions are best pondered over a meal with friends, and paired with a decent red.