It’s easy to lump Le Corbuffet: Edible Art and Design Classics in the category of lightweight novelty books. Designed to appeal to culture mavens, the book’s 60 recipes have names like “Robert Rauschenburger,” “Quiche Haring,” “Frida Kale-O Salad,” and “Denise Scott Brownies.”
But look beyond the book’s cheeky puns and there is meaty cultural critique. “Le Corbuffet attempts to play with humor as a form of resistance,” writes Esther Choi, an architectural historian (not to be confused with the Korean chef of the same name). Choi came up with the idea for the book while researching the Bauhaus for her dissertation. Seeing the menu and seating plan for a lavish dinner for Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of art and design, Choi was struck by the contrast between idealism and practice in aesthetic circles. For instance, how could the Bauhaus—an institution built on the premise that art could be an egalitarian force and help rebuild society after World War I—stomach luxuries such as turtle soup, duckling with apple sauce, and salmon in lobster sauce? That too, at a time when most people in Europe were living on rations?
Choi explains that the exotic feast for Gropius, held at the once-opulent Trocadero restaurant in Piccadilly, was all about utilizing “the spoils of London.” She adds, “It was incredible what they’re eating at this meal and that really alerted me to Gropius’s privilege,” she says. Incidentally, the paper invitation to that 1937 dinner fetched more than $3,000 at auction in New York some years ago.
In a series of small dinners in her Brooklyn apartment, Choi conjured dishes in response to the Bauhaus menu but minus the exotic ingredients and the pretense of artistic connoisseurship. The recipes in Le Corbuffet represent some of the crowd pleasers from those parties, she says. “The project for me was an experiment in introducing ideas in a format that uses humor and play, instead of negational critique,” Choi explains, recalling the criticism courses she’s taught at Ontario College of Art and Design University, in New York’s The New School, and The Cooper Union.
The book’s graphic design underscores Choi’s subversiveness too. Designed by New York-based Studio Lin, Le Corbuffet presents each recipe as deadpan typewritten sets of instructions, in the manner of Fluxus art traditions. The intentionally imperfect food photography would horrify tweezer-food loving aesthetes, but that’s partly the point, says Choi. “As a culinary and artistic celebration of satire. Le Corbuffet gave us an opportunity to laugh at ‘high culture’ and the pretense of gastronomic and artistic connoisseurship.” she explains. “Perhaps perfection should be regarded with suspicion.”