On a Tuesday afternoon late in September, Leif Hedendal prepares for the twentieth meal in his Dinner Discussion series. Borlotti beans simmer on the stove as he washes nettles in the sink, plunging the greens into a stockpot of water to remove any excess dirt. He moves silently and intently from sink to counter to stovetop, slowly transforming a crate of donated produce into a meal for thirteen people.1
Tonight’s guests’ names are written on a whiteboard in the hallway; an X appears beside each as they arrive. It’s an eclectic bunch: artists, chefs, writers, an academic, and two mushroom foragers. Leif’s goal is cross-pollination: he invites artists, curators, and writers to mingle with chefs, farmers, and food activists. He believes the two groups can learn from each other—artists about food policy, flavors, and farm dinners; food professionals about more-abstract approaches to ingredients and materials.
Invitations are unsolicited, selective, and vague. The email simply reads, “You are invited to Dinner Discussion,” followed by a date, an address, and a list of people who have already RSVP’d. “Dinner Discussion is all about the mystery,” says Leif, who has been a chef at underground and secret restaurants; at eateries, such as Greens and Citron; and lately, at art events, galleries, and museums. “I want it to be private. I invite people in this mysterious way, and I don’t over document it, because I want people to feel that it’s an intimate experience, and to talk deeply about their projects.” Following the dinner, he puts up information on his blog: a photo from the night, the list of attendees, and links to their websites.
But for all this secrecy, there’s no secret to Dinner Discussion. Once a month for the past two years, Leif has invited and cooked dinner for a changing group of guests in his Mission district apartment. Although “discussion” is in the title, no formal talks occur; the word refers simply to the casual conversation that unfolds among guests as they sit on his living room floor, eating food around the low wooden coffee table.
Like its guest list, Dinner Discussion is a hybrid: part dinner party, part underground restaurant, part networking event. But is it part artwork? “I’m sort of framing it as an art project,” he says. “Other people are trying to convince me I’m an artist, so I might as well go along with that.”
Such reasoning reverses cause and effect, reflecting Leif’s circuitous introduction to socially engaged art—he did underground dinners first; people called it art second. His work first changed from a food to an art context in 2008 after he attended a social practice conference at UC Santa Cruz on a whim. “I was absolutely the only person that was involved with the conference that wasn’t a professional artist,” he says, “which makes people pretty interested in you. They were like, ‘You’re a chef and you’re here, that’s so cool.’ I was kind of embraced.”
Since then, he and his work have moved from the outskirts of this community to a place strategically located at its boundary—one foot inside, one foot out. This past spring, Leif presented a dinner at Open Engagement in Portland, Oregon, and in September, he was nominated for an artist’s grant at the Feral Share event at Headlands Center for the Arts.
Despite these developments, he’s uncommitted to the idea of himself as an artist; rather than clarify, his statements on the topic further cloud the question. While he accepts other people’s imposition of the title, he makes a convincing argument against it: “A chef isn’t an artist. An artist is someone who engages with art history and studies art; that’s one way to think of it,” he says.
Still, he’s eager for people to critique his work as art: “I appreciate people questioning whether it’s art or not,” he says. “I haven’t had many art critics talk about my work. I’ve never gotten a harsh review. I wish I had.” Pushed further, he negates the category of art altogether: “I’m also kind of into that concept of who cares if stuff is art or not,” he says. “My life is art. We need to not have commodified art anyway; people need to transform their lives so that everything is creative.”
But a series of questions emerge in considering Dinner Discussion as an artwork, some of which typify the concerns surrounding art-food hybrids. If part of the appeal of such events is their existence outside of codified art-historical structures, is that quality jeopardized when they are presented, however ambivalently, as “art”?2 If Leif does accept the moniker of “artist,” do he and his events need to engage with art historical frameworks, such as the legacy of conceptual art, the nuances of social sculpture, and ongoing dialogues within relational aesthetics?
Other questions are specific to Dinner Discussion, a project whose use of secrecy is both powerful and problematic. With such an emphasis, the information Leif does share takes on greater meaning. His decision to publicize only the guest list undermines the possibility of protecting participants’ identities and places disproportionate emphasis on their name recognition. It’s unclear if the event’s elusiveness is meant to create a protective shield around the participants or merely to increase its social desirability through selective withholding of information and access.
As the Internet makes all our formerly private information—from phone numbers to baby pictures—readily available, an event that exists solely by word of mouth, trickling from ear to ear like a rumor, has the potential to be truly subversive.3 In addition, requiring one to be physically present in order to access full knowledge of the event mirrors the stubbornly non-virtual quality of food, which one must be near in order to experience.
Such questions all but evaporate when the event is simply considered as a meal; chefs are rarely expected to adhere to the strict conceptual frameworks artists impose upon themselves. Tonight, the guests arrive and are ushered into the living room while Leif continues to cook. Bottles of wine accumulate on the table, and glasses are full as the salad is served: dragon tongue beans with arugula, strigoli, and chervil. Leif tells his guests to keep their forks as he clears the plates and then brings out the main course: borlotti beans with savory nettles, chilies, and shallots and zucchini with a salsa verde. Conversation ranges from mind-altering fungi to underground gardens, Michael Pollan to the 01SJ Biennial. Someone passes around a jar of mushroom vodka. People linger, but not excessively; the night ends at 10:30 p.m., but not before people pass out business cards and new acquaintances exchange hugs. The next day, Leif sends out an email to the guests asking them to stay in touch with one another.
For all the discussion of Dinner Discussion as an artwork, Leif best describes the event—its generosity, warmth, and simplicity—when he omits the word art altogether: “I set it up to make it sound like it’s this thing, ‘You’re invited to dinner discussion,’” he says in a low voice, “and then I send them the thing telling them who people are, but then you get here, you just have dinner, and talk,” he says. “So that’s what Dinner Discussion is.”