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Steven Greene On Turning Art Into Food

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Steven Greene is executive chef of Herons restaurants in North Carolina’s Umstead Hotel, where he also serves as culinary director. A four-time James Beard Award semifinalist, Greene’s specialty is the Art Tour, a tasting menu designed around the hotel’s collection of modern art.

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In a way, art is why I got into cooking. I always liked to draw, I always liked to paint. I played guitar for years, and wrote music. My artistic side was something I’d always wanted to have an outlet for.

The Umstead is based around art in nature, and I gained a new respect for that after I came here. When I first came on at Herons, I had just come from an Asian restaurant, and so here at Herons we did kaiseki—artful plating in that style of a Japanese tasting menu. But it didn’t seem right for us. So I was like, well, let’s do something in the same form, but taking inspiration from art. That’s what made me think of doing the Art Tour in synergy with the hotel’s collection.

Designing these dishes is extremely cerebral. Sometimes it can be like, I’m going to mimic the look of this pottery. That’s the inspiration for that piece. Or I could be like, unless you walk up to this painting you can’t see the texture of it, and it’s actually coming off the canvas. I’m going to take inspiration from this far right hand corner that makes me think of the sauce that I pour for this turbot dish. Or, what if I made a sauce that kind of broke like that and looked like a flowing stream? So it can be an artistic interpretation. I pull from a lot of different angles with these pieces.

Photo: Anagram Photo.

Then we take a picture of that piece of art. We print a small picture with the artist on the back, and that is set on an easel in front of the guest. The connection is made with the server when he drops the course. So there’s the visual. The server’s not trying to explain, “Well, he saw this red, and everything on your plate is red.”

For example, in the hotel spa, we have a piece that’s a bird’s nest with three robin’s eggs in it. What I wanted to do is get that feel of nature in the piece, and see what I could create out of it. So we start with quail eggs—we soft-poach them, peel them, and remove the yolk. Then I had to think of something that was playful or flavorful—something with bacon, eggs, and toast. We put a smoked bacon mousse inside of the quail egg after we dyed it with butterfly pea blossoms, which is a natural blue color. So it actually looks like a robin’s egg. For the crisp, we made individual nests out of a shredded phyllo kataifi and dusted it with mushroom and fennel seed. And it’s sitting on spruce that we harvest right here at the hotel. It just gives that nature feel.

That dish was directly created from the look of that art piece. For me, that was pretty significant because it is one of the first ones I did. It’s like, wow, we came up with something unique and cool. I mean, I’m sure people have done it before, but not that I remember seeing.

Photo: Bonjwing Lee.

Breakfast is my favorite meal, and I like doing little funny things. We have a miniature pheasant and truffle corndog on the menu. We like to do simple-sounding things that have a lot of flavor or cool presentations. That way it doesn’t scare away the guests too much. I want the menu to read as simply as it possibly can, so people don’t hesitate to buy it. Then it comes to the table and looks far different than they expected.

Having the artists whose work inspired the dishes come in has been one of the most rewarding parts. It was really fun for these world-class artists. Just seeing their reaction and how they’re humbled, and I’m like, wait a minute, your pieces sell for 20 grand. I can’t believe you’re humbled just because I’ve created a dish off your work. But it’s endearing, and it’s true, because they’re actually proud to see a different art form created from their vision.

The artist Lynn Boggess came in. I created a hamachi dish based off of one of his pieces. He saw the connection. He saw the feel of everything I was trying to do. His painting had a huge amount of green and natural color in it, but it was also set in nature. He always paints where he is. If it’s snowing, he’s actually out in the snow painting. He’s there onsite, whatever he is painting. And it was in front of a stream or pond or water, and had these trees on the edge of the bank coming up. So I created something that emulated water, but also nature and greenery—hamachi dusted in green pea. It had all these green colors and hues, and it came off the plate pretty 3-D. You could feel that in the picture.

I try to go to different pieces than I went before, but sometimes I can go to the same piece and have a totally different reaction or thought process with it. I don’t think the guests care that I’ve done a different dish based on the same art.

Photo: Bonjwing Lee.

For one piece, the color concept made me want to create a beet dish. It was actually yellow beets that I stained a little bit with red beets on the outside so it looked like a sunburst. Then I had another vision based off of a prior dish I did with a different fruit. I was doing a duckfat-roasted apple that I stuffed, once we cooled it down, with a foie gras mousse. I wanted to do something similar, and it came to me when I looked at this piece of art that I would hollow out a tangerine, poach the tangerine skin, and stuff that with the foie gras mousse. In this painting, there’s a half-spherical shape that reminded me of that citrus. Underneath is white, so we decided to do liquid-nitrogen-frozen crème fraîche that’s been sliced with tonka bean and looks like it’s floating on this white cloud.

The pandemic has changed everything, of course. When we met as a leadership team for the hotel, nobody had done mandatory shutdowns for restaurants near us yet. But we decided we had to see what it looks like to go ahead and shut the restaurant down ahead of time, because we knew it was coming. That took a little while just with the lawyers, because we were going to have to furlough some staff, and we were trying to see if we could pay for their insurance, and keep them on and for how long, and how much of a payout we could get. So within three days of us doing that, we decided to go ahead and shut the whole hotel down. Why are we going to shut it down for the safety of the guests, when we need to be protecting our people as well? So we were on the forefront, and one of the first hotels in this area to shut down that quick. We decided just to drop all operations all at once.

It was like two weeks ago on a Wednesday we decided to just pull the plug. All of the hourly staff were furloughed. They got paid out for that next pay period in full. We let them take any of their PTO. Obviously it was extremely emotional, and one of the hardest days of my life as far as having to talk to the staff and the team. But we’re in a very fortunate situation. It lined up so the following Friday, the staff got paid, and then two weeks after that is going to be April 10th, where they’re going to get a month’s lump sum check. So they’ll get a month’s pay. They’re going to stay on insurance for 60 days. All of the hourly staff were super grateful. I’ve gotten a lot of letters and emails from them. The management staff remain on full salary as of right now. We’re a one-off hotel with single owners, and they have no thoughts of shutting down entirely as far as long term. They know when we get back up and running, we need managers right away to get back in and set things up. Then we can bring the staff back on. They wanted everybody to be locked in and ready to go when it’s time, so they wanted to show their commitment.

It does make you feel sort of feel selfish. It hasn’t been something I’ve wanted to boast about or anything. I think it’s awesome, but all my friends and peers and colleagues are not in the same boat.

I coordinated the shutdown—it took about two days, but we donated all of our food. You have to think how much food we had in this 150-room hotel. With six walk-ins, we had just massive amounts of food and produce and bread. We donated half of it to Raleigh Rescue Mission for the homeless, and then half to the Boys and Girls Club. None of that food went to waste. Since the staff was being taken care of, we felt like it would be best to give it to charity. It actually made the news. One of my old cooks is the chef at Raleigh Rescue Mission, and it really meant a lot to him. He said, “This will feed a thousand families.” It was pretty awesome.

The hotel has a three-acre farm. All of the sous chefs and chefs, we’re going out there three to four days a week and maintaining it. We’re mulching, pulling weeds, manicuring it and getting it set up for spring and summer. With the food we get right now, we’ll give some out to the staff. We also have been donating to charities or restaurants that might be still doing curbside or providing meals to doctors and nurses and hospital staff.

My son is four and a half years old. My wife’s working from home, and she’s got a job where she has to be locked into her computer on calls. We’ve got a schedule set up. My son’s learning how to count, you know, addition. He’s learning how to read and stuff like that so he’s ready to go to kindergarten. So, selfishly, this is a really special time for me because I’ve never spent this much time with my family. I’m a chef. All I do is work. But between my son and the farm, I’m almost busier than when I was working full time.