From pop up restaurants to coffee shops, street food markets, greasy spoons and even chicken shops, eating is more than just a necessity to South-East Londoners. It’s a pleasure, a pride, and now an art. Matthew McGuinness’ most recent project, Gourmandizing, combines art and food to explore what South-East Londoners eat, and paints it on their walls.
“Everyone’s got to eat, we can’t escape it” says Matthew, as his 16-month-old son Cosmo picks cereal puffs off his father’s hand. “But the landscape of eating is shifting. There is an incredible food renaissance going on in London. You can’t look anywhere without seeing a new butchery or farmer’s market opening.”
“Gourmandizing is about giving people a taste of the town.”
Matthew decided to take eating to the streets in early 2012, and created Gourmandizing, a public artwork that seeks to investigate what people of South East London are cooking.
“In a restaurant’s kitchen, people are from everywhere,” Matthew recalls from his days of being a professional chef. “When you start cooking a dish, someone will say: ‘Oh, my mum makes something like that, using such and such spice.’ With Gourmandizing, we are exploring what food the people of London are making, and how they are changing what it means to eat British.”
Gourmandizing is firstly a collection of murals, but it has fingers in many pies – workshops, merchandise, supper clubs… “It keeps growing,” says Matthew.
The idea came to him when his time in the kitchen began taking over his life as an artist. A visual artist by trade, Matthew moved from New York to London with his wife Kenya Hunt five years ago, leaving behind his career. “Being a chef was on my bucket list, so I started replying to ads and got a job as a dishwasher in Shoreditch. I worked my way up to being head chef of a Spanish restaurant. But trying to get better, cook better, serve better, it means I had no time left to spend in the studio.”
The kitchen became his studio, and he started making artwork in the middle of service, whenever he had some down time. Gourmandizing started as supper clubs that looked into the food penchants of particular pockets of London, but Matthew’s history with graffiti took him back to the streets.
After Persepolis in Peckham and Father’s Barber on New Cross Road, the most recent Gourmandizing mural gave a new life to Sem Cafe in Brixton.
“I was waiting for the bus across from this place, staring at this terribly façaded wall, and I thought: ‘We have to paint that.’ I put together a proposal, went down to talk to them and told them I’d do it for free. They said yes, and I started researching.”
This is the usual process of a mural for Matthew. After finding an interesting location and convincing the wall’s owner to let him paint it, it is up to him to create the look and feel of the piece. “It’s a mix of lots of sketches, talking to people and learning the history of the neighbourhood. Telling of the community’s food is what is important.”
At Sem Cafe, he found that Mem Morrison, a South-East London based performing artist of Turkish origin, had done a piece in the cafe. “His artwork was looking at identity through food; it fit perfectly. I contacted him and he gave me his mother’s baklava recipe for the mural.”
Sourcing recipes from the community is at the heart of Gourmandizing. “I often think of recipes as being the very first form of open source content sharing. We are making them even more accessible – by putting them on the street. Seeing people writing down the recipes from our murals, knowing neighbours have tried them out and liked them: that’s what we want.”
“Ultimately, the food isn’t the artwork,” he adds. “It’s more the experience of it that is, that connectedness of sourcing the food, talking to people and making something out of that.”
The idea of community and sharing is important to Gourmandizing. Matthew works with Jason Page, “who does a bit of everything, from using his professional contacts within the social sector, to holding a paint brush for the first time in his life” and apprentice Alex Mellon, but anyone who wants to help with the painting is welcome.
Still, Matthew is the thinking mind behind the art. He is currently in sketching phase for their next mural with Babur, an Indian restaurant in Honor Oak, Lewisham.
“We are asking people for recipes that tell the story of their families, their home countries and their histories. For this mural we want to create a three-course meal, with a recipe off Babur’s menu, and two recipes from the community that we’re hoping to then add to Babur’s menu for a while.”
He finds inspiration in daily drawings of what he cooks and recipes readers send him. They are the skeleton of Gourmandizing, and a possible future project. “I always forget it because life has become so busy, but the premise for the project was to turn all these collected recipes into a cookbook. Maybe someday…”
For now, he is busy enough trying to get Gourmandizing the recognition it deserves. “We work with a DIY approach and very little funding. It was different back in New York, I had an established career, but here I’ve had to start from scratch.” After getting interest from a few publications and collaborating with Tate Modern on workshops, they will be applying for funding next year.
“We started with a few murals to sell the project to organisations that would support us. I think this project has legs and can definitely attract interest.”
“It’s not easy,” he concludes, “but I’m an adventurous eater.”
Matthew’s favourite eating spots in the area: “Honestly, I like better to cook at home. I love markets – Borough market, Billingsgate, Smithfield – where I know people who will get me nice cuts, back-of-the truck style, that I can cook at home.
“I do really love grabbing a salt beef bagel from Beigel Bake on Brick Lane when I’m out on the town with Cosmo.”
Have you got a recipe that tells your story, your family’s, or your home country’s? Share it with Gourmandizing at email@example.com. It might make it onto the walls of Babur and its menu…