A performative dinner

I came across Inês Neto dos Santos’ work by accident, while researching for a utterly boring topic for a work I had to do. It captivated me so much I immediately sent her a message, telling her that I would love to attend one of her performative dinners. So you can imagine my enthusiasm when I received a message from Inês a few weeks ago, letting me know that one of her dinners would take place in Porto! Of course I booked a seat, and the experience was what I expected: carefully made food, meant to sparkle discussions and exchanges between a small group of people who really like food, for whatever reasons.

Inês moved to London 8 years ago to study Graphic Design and Illustration at London College of Communication and she later did an MA in Visual Communication at Royal College of Art. Although she confesses to be ready to come back to Portugal soon, she also admits that studying in London — and specially at Royal College, where its creative community connects easily, — has inherently led her to the place she has achieved as an artist.

She never identified herself with the conventional forms of illustration or design and started to realise that she wanted to work with food. It took her a while to make the connection between that passion and her artistic work, but eventually she started using the table as her canvas. She has been honing her method: if in the beginning she used plates, now they are left aside most of the times, as serving the food directly on the table has a way more performative strength.

Her first experience was hosting suppers at her college, (illegally, shh!) cooking as a pretext to join people together to debate a certain theme. Nowadays, she hosts a supperclub called MESA (it means table, in Portuguese), in which she partners with an artist of another creative area. In a conversation during the dinner, she recalled the time when she collaborated with a ceramist and made people try to eat slippery food using nonsense utensils. The next one will be with a choreographer.

All set for Inês’ performative dinner at Illustration School. Cabbage, swiss chards and fennel decorating a subtle pink table.

The dinner I attended was part of a residency at Illustration School, in Porto. The menu was created based on her experience in the city: her walks, her conversations with locals at grocery shops, the seasonal products, Portuguese typical ingredients and dishes. There was kimchi made with Portuguese cabbage, a reinterpretation of a coconut sweet named “casadinhos”, a panacotta made with Portuguese sheep’s cheese, sharp potatoes as a contrast to the rounded corners of buildings she found so odd to see all over Porto’s streets.

So although she doesn’t draw in the most conventional assumption of the word, she does it when setting the table or while serving the food. She cut her beetroot pickled soft boiled eggs and threw some rocket and walnut pesto all over them, almost creating a painting. As we eat, the table gets dirtier and used, as a proof of the contact between her work and the attendees.

The starters: beetroot pickled eggs topped with rocket and nut pesto. Also turmeric sourdough bread with preserved mackerel and Portuguese cabbage kimchi.

Inês usually says she works with food, people, and places. She has been interested in exploring fermented food, as she believes they are beautiful metaphors of community works, once they absorb their surroundings and everyone who touches them. The dinner itself also depends on the group of people attending and their attitude towards food, because the edible ingredients are disposed all over the table, which obliges people to react to it in a more unusual way. For instance, I ended up eating fresh tagliatelle served inside a cabbage leaf with my own fingers — I have no manners, I know.

We met again two days before she went back to London, while she was rushing to finish one of the outputs of her residency: a limited edition recipe publication, made along with Karen Lacroix, also a former student at Royal College of Art, co-owner of Illustration School and head of Uncanny Editions, a publisher and studio design. Amidst colorful paper sheets with scanned Swiss chards and fennel leaves, we talked about the motivations for her work, ideas for future collaborations, places to eat, and everything related with food. Hopefully, I’ll be attending another of her performative dinners soon, where new discussions and food experiments will take place.

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