I first saw Mina Stone’s Cooking for Artists on display at Arcana when I was visiting L.A. last March. It was in the front near the register. The book was tall and bright white, with large bold Santorini-blue letters that took over almost the entire front cover. It screamed, and I wondered: 1. Who is Mina Stone? 2. Which artists?
Cooking for Artists is more art book than cookbook, with its mix of illustrations from artists like Elizabeth Peyton, Rob Pruitt, and Alex Eagleton. I even treat it that way; I leave it open on a little table for display, I don’t bring it into the kitchen to cook with and potentially ruin. Recipes are often short, or worded so that they’re incredibly easy to follow or copy onto a notepad more deserving of kitchen spills, making other cookbooks look chaotic or ostentatious in comparison. All of Stone’s recipes are informed by her Greek heritage, where the cooking method starts with whatever is available at the local market, so all the ingredients are seasonal and fresh. Each dish has a corresponding photo, taken by Stone, which adds to the overall ease of this book. Cooking for Artists is the perfect merging of design and function. The aesthetics help draw attention to the recipes, which are the real reason I keep returning—for food so simple and thoughtful that I believe in staying in again.
You started working as a personal chef for art dealer Gavin Brown, almost a decade ago, and that was to help supplement your income while you were working as a clothing designer. For the last five years you’ve been cooking for artist Urs Fischer in his studio. Can you tell us more about what were you doing before, and how you initially started working for Brown? Then for Fischer?
I initially started cooking to support myself while I worked on my clothing line. I had always loved to cook and I worked odd jobs here and there. I cooked a dinner party and the then director of GBE, the downtown manhattan art gallery, was there: Corinna Durland. She asked me if I would be interested in cooking an opening for 40 people—to which I hesitantly said yes—and that was the beginning of cooking at the gallery ten years ago.I started cooking for Urs’s studio when he did his show at the New Museum in 2009. I cooked for the celebration party at his studio and then I sort of never left!
Urs Fischer published Cooking for Artists under his imprint Kiito-San, I wonder, what other books were used as references to help create this?
The best way I could answer this is to say so many books and also none at all. I love cookbooks and so does Urs. I flip through cookbooks all the time and am inspired and informed by them. When it came to putting Cooking For Artists together, it became a totally insular and organic experience and it felt like it only came from us. I really wanted a simple book, with a picture for every recipe. Then the rest sorted itself out as artists submitted their contributions and we put the book together.
There’s a long history of dinner parties in the art world. I know Brown initially wanted you to recreate a meal like 19th century French art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, who used to host dinner parties in his cellar. How have you integrated this history into your dinners and menus?
I think Gavin put it perfectly in the forward of the book, when he references the idea of “breaking bread” together. That is really what it boils down to, and the history I have integrated into my cooking comes from that idea. It doesn’t have to be fussy or complicated, just a delicious and shared experience.
I’ve read that a lot of your cooking proficiencies come from your yiayia or grandmother, and that you’re not formally trained. What are some of your earliest memories of her cooking that you reuse in your work?
My earliest memory of my yiayia cooking for me is fried eggs in olive oil. Possibly every Greek kid’s favorite dinner—with french fries to supplement. It happens, much to my surprise, to be one of the most successful recipes in my book. I think it reflects my cooking concept in general: keep it simple.
Good food brings good vibes, health, and a relaxed atmosphere. So in that sense I hope I have contributed to an artist’s ability to work better.
Aside from your yiayia, what are some skills or techniques from art school and working as a designer that you’ve incorporated into cooking? I always like to see how those concepts crossover from one job or career, to another.
My creative process is similar when it comes to both fashion and cooking. They are both very hands-on jobs and ultimately about making people happy. There is a reward at the end with both jobs.
When I designed, I had ideas that made their way into my head and which all came together into something that made sense. I feel the same way about cooking. Parts of a puzzle come together to form a full picture.
Cooking for all of these creative and visual people, I wonder if you or any of your guests have ever drawn parallels between certain works of art and your recipes?
Ha! I have never wondered that but I would be most flattered. The only thing I can say is that I feel like good food brings good vibes, health, and a relaxed atmosphere. So in that sense I hope I have contributed to an artist’s ability to work better.
Can you explain more about your process as a personal chef? How far in advance do you decide the menu? How involved are the hosts? How do you course the meal? We’d love if you could give us an idea of what goes on behind the scenes.
When I cook at Urs’s studio, I might have an idea before I go in, or something I would really like to try and make. Sometimes I am stumped, but I figure it out when I go to the grocery store before I go into work. Most often I feel inspired and do a lot of research on my own about what I am interested in at the time.
Usually the host is not involved too much, I feel lucky that they leave it up to me. It is how the best result comes through anyway, so it is in everyone’s best interest!
Your three main ingredients are salt, olive oil, and lemon juice. Can you tell us more about why those work so well across so many different dishes, and when cooking for so many different people?
I think it is because it makes things taste clean, fresh and bright at the same time. I grew up with those three ingredients seasoning almost everything I ate, so it is what makes sense to me. It seems to make sense to others as well!
When you were first starting out as a chef, if you could, what advice would you give yourself?
Not to take things too seriously. It makes you better at everything you do!
What’s next for you?
I would like to study the cuisines of Greece and the Middle East more than anything—from antiquity to today (and then another book!?).
Lisa John Rogers is a writer living in Detroit and the senior editor of Aftertastes.