Artist-chef Matt Phelps reflects on the meal he designed for New Order Nosh Up, the first in our Utopian Feasts series.
The School of Life’s conversation dinners, exploring the ideas of major historical thinkers, are a chance for strangers to discuss ideas and collaborate creatively in ways they would never normally have the chance to do. In its latest Utopian Feasts series, the food itself became part of the conversation.
The first Utopian Feast was New Order Nosh Up in New Atlantis on 4 April. It was hosted by artist Yinka Shonibare MBE at his Guest Projects space, in a large white-walled East London warehouse. The event was led by curator Cathy Haynes, who introduced us to radical ideas from the history of grand social experiments by utopians from the renaissance thinker Francis Bacon to the avant-garde Bauhaus art school.
As the artist-chef for this event, my brief was challenging but exciting. Cathy designed the conversation menu to give guests the space to share with each other ideas about their vision of an ideal society, and its dystopian as well as utopian potential. So my task was to create a food menu that played on those themes and inspired conversation while also tasting really good.
The theme of “New Order” has sinister undertones. I framed my idea of what it would be by taking broad inspiration from George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World. I decided that my official regime recipe book would require me to serve up precisely equal rations. It would also demand that I limit any sensory excitation that might stir the nonconformist fervour of the guests. So I designed a meal of white food in standardized portions.
I also imagined that, as chef, I would want to undermine the regime as much as I could. So I smuggled in some absinthe cocktails and tins of spices “off the black market”. Yinka, too, had clearly decided to resist the regime and had curated an exhibition for the evening of brilliantly provocative artworks from his collection.
While I worked with my team in the kitchen and the guests sat down to eat, Cathy invited our guests to explore the juicy details behind these questions: Is it possible to design society? To live to the utmost, should we rebel or conform? Where does power really lie? How can we all take part in creating the future? In the process they drew up a collective manifesto, and collaborated on dreaming up their own revolutionary schemes.
At the end of the night, the paper covering the tables was marked with food and sketched over with maps of utopian islands and ideas for a better world: Make it easy to participate, Utopia should not be comfortable, If society was run along the lines of the Co-op we would all be happier and more fulfilled.
But the manifesto included a warning: Utopia has the “Virgin trains” problem – however futuristic the environment, the passengers are just people. That was a major theme of the night: utopia must always be based on what can actually be made real. And trying to make it real has risks.
But does that mean we shouldn’t try?
Photos: Stephanie Wolff