Why are we so fascinated by tiny polymer pancakes and pins shaped like soy-sauce fish?
In September 2016, Google Doodle celebrated the 121st birthday of Takizo Iwasaki. Known as the father of plastic food replicas, Iwasaki was the brains behind sampuru, or samples, which grace the front windows of many a restaurant in Japan. Lipid-looking slices of tuna belly sitting atop rounded pellets of white rice, or glossy ramen broth with floating circles of narutomaki (pink-and-white fish sticks) – all fake – make decisions easier for tentative eaters. Intrigued by the potential of wax and its ability to morph into different shapes, or so the story goes, Iwasaki started his own company – Iwasaki Be-I – which still makes up a significant part of the market today.
Something about sampuru is inherently inspirational; it’s something in the precision of the shapes, the accuracy of the colours, and the unfathomability of unshifting, non-rotting, vividly realistic replicas. These days, the majority of sampura are still handmade. Public fascination with the food models is an ode to the skill and talent of both the original culinary creator and the model’s maker.
Alissa Lonergan, a Brisbane-based artist who works in polymer clay, pottery and paper mediums, became infatuated with sampura after a post-university trip to Japan. Upon returning to Australia, she delved into the world of clay and attempted to replicate the models she saw overseas. Then, she posted her results online.
“I haven’t deleted the photos because I think it’s really important to document, but there’s some shit photos down there,” Lonergan says of her @alissalu Instagram feed. “It’s a dark place.”
In downtown Tokyo, between Asakusa and Ueno, a long street is crowded with kitchen relics and tools. Kappabashi, or Kitchen Street, is where chefs and restauranteurs shop for gadgets, dishes, instruments – and models. They’re not cheap, with half-crescent oysters – out of shell – coming in at around 1800 Japanese yen ($16 USD) or an edamame bean, in shell and on a keychain, starting at 1200 ($11 USD) Japanese yen. The precision of colour, texture and size is what buyers pay for.
Lonergan’s art, while inspired by sampura, doesn’t seek to replicate it. Her pieces are miniature: bowls often no larger than a bottle cap and slices of toast a staple’s length in diameter. Her artistry is in the details, in the to-scale minuteness of design and the execution of her textures. But she’s the first to tell you it wasn’t always like that.
“I can send you a photo of the first ramen I ever made and it’s honestly the shittest-looking thing you’ve ever seen,” she laughs. “I was so impressed with it at the time, but the scale was totally off.”
Anna Vu, the illustrator behind Good Food Crap Drawing and the art director at Australian Gourmet Traveller Magazine, knows a thing or two about average-looking art. Her illustrations of dishes from across the world decorate her GFCD Tumblr and Instagram accounts. What started as a way of recording what she was eating during her move to New York in 2011, has turned into a well-recognised site of culinary documentation.
“For me, it was just a personal record of what I was eating,” she says. “I was eating such amazing food all the time and I kind of just wanted to remember it all rather than just taking a photo of it.”
Vu’s illustrations – from cavatelli pasta at Bondi’s Icebergs and raw sea scallops from the Sydney Opera House’s Bennelong restaurant, to skate and white asparagus at Le Chauteaubriand in Paris or the degustation at Momofuku Ko in New York – are drawn with felt-tip pens and Textas from a combination of memory and photographic reference. In early 2016, as part of Vivid Sydney (an annual art and culture event held across the city), Vu joined Sydney chef Mike Eggert in creating a three-course dinner. Eggert created the real-life dishes while Vu translated them to an illustrated menu. Each table-setting featured a paper placemat with a drawn-on “plate and a knife and a fork, and we gave them a packet of Textas so people could draw what they wanted”, Vu says.
“A lot of people did get into it and they were drawing food on their plates which was great,” she says. “There were a few penises too.”
For Vu, it was the first taste – bar a food-art exhibition at the Create or Die Gallery in 2015 where Vu shared the limelight with the likes of Chili Philly, a food artist whose medium is knitted food-themed hats – of being treated like an accomplished food artist.
“This is something that I’ve always done at home on the couch, not something that I’ve had to publically display,” Vu says. “[The dinner] started at 7 and went until 11 and we thought, ‘God, how are we going to fill the time?’ People had to get kicked out at the end.”
That’s because Australians, as a rule, like to eat. While Australia has no identifiable national cuisine on par with Spanish tapas or Hong Kong’s yum cha, the Australian approach to food is easily defined: passionate, creative, open-minded and wide-borrowing. It’s a diversity that makes artistic pickings all the vaster. Lonergan has made everything from thumb-sized burgers, complete with microscopic sesame seeds, to teeny tacos and miniature coconut-covered lamingtons. She’s created pain au chocolat, Vegemite on toast and Japanese curry with rice.
“I want to represent food from everywhere, but all the food I’m creating is food that I would eat on a daily basis,” she says. “I definitely wouldn’t stick to ‘classic Australian cuisine’ because what even is that?”
It’s a sentiment shared by Vu.
“We are so lucky in Australia,” she says of the variety and complexity of Australian cuisine. “I don’t think we honestly know how good the food is here.”
Dylan Jones, a pin-maker and digital innovator based in Melbourne, is also slow to define ‘Australian cuisine’. His art, which takes the form of enamel lapel pins (in designs such as soy-sauce fish and maneki-neko – waving Japanese fortune cats – holding doughnuts) and chicken-drumstick patches, is hand-drawn and matched with Pantone colours before being sent to China for production. Jones creates pieces that feature many nostalgic references to his 90s childhood, such as signature pink-and-sprinkles doughnuts reminiscent of The Simpsons or assorted food motifs – soy sauce, pizza bozes or hamburgers – inspired , in part, by the evenings he would spend crawling through cookbooks and cooking from recipes.
Lonergan took a slightly different path to artistic inspiration.
“I was one of those kids that would vomit if they got a chunk in their yogurt,” she says. “I never ate a lot of adventurous foods and it wasn’t until I got to my late teens that I taught myself to like food that I thought I hated.”
In the process, she paid more attention to what she was consuming.
“I guess learning to sort of pick up those minor details in food, it just comes from spending a lot of time looking at photos, looking at the actual food, and the way the light hits certain points of food,” says Lonergan.
One of the most significant contributors to the success of food art (and accessible modern gastronomy) in Sydney (and, increasingly, the world) is Instagram. All three artists document their work on the medium, exploring their genre – and the committed masses behind it – in the process.
“Argh!! So cute!!!” reads one comment on @alissalu’s page. “make more plz,” reads one on Jones’ page, @itisdonuts. “Haha. This one is the best yet!” writes @moonparkisgone on Vu’s illustration of a plate of “chilli cured crab, rice, egg yolk [and] nori” from the now-closed Moon Park restaurant in Redfern. Following along with the artists in real time, consumers (named as such both literally and figuratively) feast on the details – the accuracy of sprinkle size, say, or the choice to cover a local favourite eatery – and revel in the familiarity. (Requests for specific foods or dishes, however, can be difficult – or creatively stunting – to fulfil.)
In Australia, burgeoning food communities and an innately social culture see passionate foodies flocking to Instagram to document their meals. But while a dish can find thirty-seconds of fame online, it can live forever in art. Sometimes, that art is even served next to the food it seeks to represent.
“A few restaurants have my drawings up,” says Vu. “It’s nice to see your work – and when I say ‘your work’, I mean the chef’s food. For them it’s nice to see their work immortalised. When I do the drawings, it’s at the back of my mind if the chef would like it.”
Lonergan has received requests from restaurants to replicate dishes in miniature form; in the past months, she’s worked on a pizza-themed clock for a Brisbane pizzeria. These days, she’s focusing on ceramics for real-sized food too. Jones recently released a hinge-based pin shaped like a pizza box, and hints that food will inspire his next release. Vu is retrospectively working her way through her food memories from a 2016 trip to Europe, with goals to complete one drawing per week. For the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival from March 31 to April 9, Vu illustrated one dish from each of the day’s events and presented an exhibition of drawings from a quarter-century of the festival as part of the event’s 25th anniversary celebrations.
For all, the artistic process begins with an adoration of the work of another artist: the chef. In replicating dishes, the food artists pay homage to the concept’s original creators while documenting the current trends.
“Food is art,” says Jones. “When you cook food, you’re creating something; it’s not too dissimilar to making a painting. In a lot of ways, it’s a lot deeper than making a painting because it’s something we all need to sustain ourselves.”
As an art form, then, food is accessible to all.
“Everyone has an opinion about it,” he says. “Not everyone has an opinion about Picasso.”
“I think food is always going to be represented in art,” agrees Lonergan. “It’s the one thing everybody across the world can relate to.”
Food as art is nothing new. Still life captured the realism and monotony of meals; Andy Warhol made canned soup an artistic statement. With increased “shareability” and greater public involvement now factors in the contours of cuisine, design and the modern dining experience, food is often seen as art – for trend, or for tack; for better or for worse – and art is more digestible than ever. Food art, such as Vu’s, Jones’, and Lonergan’s, is a product of the very environment it exists within: deeply palatable in its familiarity and yet unique in its style and execution.
All the things, one might argue, that good food should always strive to be.
“I think food and art are always going to go hand in hand,” says Lonergan. “It’s like eating with your eyes on both terms.”
Riley Wilson is a native Sydneysider who grew up between Australia and the USA, with extensive travels throughout Europe and Asia along the way. She is a freelance writer and editor, contributing to The Sydney Morning Herald, Melting Butter, Broadsheet Sydney, and a variety of publications in Australia and overseas. She’s deeply passionate about olives, oysters, postage stamps, and punctuation. Find Riley on Instagram: @thelifeofrileyw or clippings.me/rileywilson.
Mitch Lui is a lifestyle photographer based in Sydney. Her work is primarily inspired by nature, city lights, colours, space and architecture. Passion driven, observant and in search of every fine detail, shown through her lens in digital and analog formats. You can find her daily work in Broadsheet & Time Out Sydney. Follow @mitchlui or on mitchlui.com.