What's the principal difference between Caravaggio's painting of an androgynous, leaf-clad Bacchus sipping on a goblet of wine and a medallion of veal sweetbreads with early porcini mushrooms, pearl onions, and roasted garlic?
The first is a masterpiece that, if properly preserved, will last throughout the ages. The latter masterpiece will be consumed within minutes of completion. That's more or less the theory behind the Brooks Museum of Art's third annual fund-raising series, "The Art of Good Taste."
"I really don't think of myself as an artist at all," says celebrated Memphis chef Wally Joe, of the East Memphis restaurant Wally Joe. "I think that when chefs start thinking of themselves as artists it's pretty pretentious," he says.
Of course, anyone who has visited Joe's exquisitely designed eatery and dined on cassoulet of quail with green and red lentils, thickly cut bacon, and rich poultry jus or his pork filet mignon with sweet potato gratin, bacon, red cabbage, and apple jam might suspect that the chef was merely being modest.
For the third year in a row, Joe has been called on by the Brooks to assemble "The Art of Good Taste"'s patron's dinner, a $600-a-head event slated for May 6th at the Brushmark. This year, Joe has asked Ken Frank, the fabled wunderkind of California cuisine and owner of critically lauded La Toque, to help in the meal preparation.
"I think that [Ken] would describe his style as 'new French,'" Joe says. Though Frank didn't invent California cuisine -- that honor goes to Chef Alice Waters -- the energetic veteran of many Parisian kitchens was one of its chief innovators and is one of its brightest stars. Frank's name became synonymous with plates of fresh, quality foods beautifully presented and prepared with a healthy nod to French and Pacific Rim traditions. The left-coast native, who lived in France and pulled quite a bit of scullery duty throughout his late teens, was a star American chef by the age of 21, and two decades later, La Toque -- a casual approach to the finest dining -- is widely considered to be one of the finest restaurants in the U.S. His menus include items such as searedfoie gras with mango; mousse of smoked foie gras with pineapple chutney; New England skate wing with candied eggplant and toasted pine nuts; and pan-roasted quail with Picholine olives and twice-fried potatoes. The beauty of his plates comes not from an excess of preparation but from simplicity and perfect combinations of flavors.
"I'm not sure what Ken will be making yet," Joe says. "I plan to let him decide what he wants to do first and then I will fill in around him." That's probably a wise decision, even though the chefs share a similar aesthetic.
"I'm not going to serve something that looks like a lot of people have had their hands all over it," Joe says, wrinkling up his nose in distaste. "I'm not going to serve something with five different sauces. That sort of thing is for all the young chefs out there," he jokes. Joe, like Frank, believes that quality dining comes not from excessive flash and dazzle but from fresh foods well prepared in a variety of traditions and served with minimum of fuss.
"The Art of Good Taste" kicks off on Sunday, April 3rd, with "Discover the Art of Wine," a class exploring the styles, aromas, and grape varieties led by winemaker Rick Small of the 20-year-old Woodward Canyon winery, which is known for its award-winning Cabernets and Merlots as well as its barrel-fermented Chardonnays.
There are other wine-related events. On Thursday, April 7th, winemaker David Ramsey, known for his work developing Chalk Hill and Dominus wines, will pair five wines with five courses from the kitchen of the Madison hotel.
The "Brooks Uncorked!" event will feature a number of wines from around the world selected by winemakers Valentin Bianchi of Argentina and Joseph Phelps of Joseph Phelps Vineyards in Spring Valley, California.
"The Art of Good Taste" concludes with a grand auction on May 7th, featuring more than 150 items including -- naturally -- art, wine, and dinners, as well as jewelry and vacation packages.
So, what does Caravaggio's famous painting of a lithe Bacchus swilling wine and munching on fresh fruits have in common with a lovely piece of antelope served with caramelized endive, foie-gras/chestnut ravioli, and wild-huckleberry sauce?
For more information on "The Art of Good Taste" series, check out the Brooks Museum's Web site, BrooksMuseum.org.