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The art of food, food with art. With the word play captures the essence of the Getty Centre and the Getty Villa, two of the most important cultural structures on America’s West Coast.
The Getty Villa of Malibu, an educational centre and museum dedicated to the study of the arts and cultures of ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria, is part of the Getty Museum of Los Angeles, whose focus is more on modern Western art, from the Middle Ages onwards. What makes these two pearls of visual arts different from other museums around the world is a carefully studied combination of food and art, which perfectly matches the specific historical style of the exhibits featured in both the Getty’s establishments.
«Food has always been part of all cultures, and it’s also part of a gathering,» Getty Villa’s chef Mayet Cristobal explains, «to the extent that it has become almost the real focus of any shared experience. I think that the blending of culture and cuisine is just perfect, it’s a natural combination. A cultural or art exhibition without matching food doesn’t make sense to me, because food is part of life in every culture.»
What makes the Getty idea particularly interesting is the research process that takes place even before the menu has been written down, and it always carefully matches the nature and the context of the museum’s current exhibition. «Yes, the cultural journey we get the chance to take is very fascinating. Our menu always changes according to what we are hosting, and it’s a very creative process for me, because I really get the possibility to study history before creating my dishes. One of the last events here at Getty Villa was an ancient Roman dinner that faithfully matched the current exhibition on Apollo from Pompeii. The entire banquet-style four-course dinner was inspired by ancient Roman cuisine, and we had the honour of working with chef and historian Sally Grainger. She’s a real expert and went through an extensive research of Apicius, which is the only surviving ancient Roman recipe book. This menu featured dishes typical of a celebratory feast – like oysters flavoured with a special sauce called oenogarum, calf's kidney stuffed with fennel and coriander, and, as the main piece, a whole boned and stuffed pig called porcellum hortolanum. It was a challenge, and we also had a tasting with the Getty’s employers before actually going for it, to be sure people liked it. Cooking is a creative process by itself, but I feel blessed to be able to actually connect history and art together with food.»
The ancient Roman menu was rich in meats and it ventured into a complex combination of sweet and spicy flavours, but the geography of the Getty cuisine has no limit, and it spans from Italy and France, to Greece and Cuba. The Getty does have one strict rule though: the kitchen only uses local and seasonal products. «Every product that we use is sustainable and California based, because it’s the only way to be sure that we are serving something good. Of course, we are lucky enough to have a climate which is very similar to the that of the Mediterranean, and that’s why we can afford to have such a beautiful Roman garden here at the Villa,» Cristobal explains. «We grow herbs like rosemary, lavender, peppermint, lemongrass and many others, as well as many kinds of Mediterranean fruit, from apples to lemons and figs. Unfortunately, we don’t produce enough food to actually use it for the restaurant, but every single detail here is authentic, and that’s our principle. The menu is seasonal, and we change it almost every week, but we have some dishes that have been a part of our tradition since the early Seventies, like Mrs. Garrett’s Original Carrot Cake, or the Getty Cobb Salad.»
Food is not the only cultural side order of the museum by the ocean, situated between Los Angeles and Malibu, The Getty also presents a brand new culinary event, the Tea by the Sea: «The tea takes place every Thursday and every Saturday, and it features a tour around the Mediterranean garden paired with it. We offer small bites, like sandwiches and small desserts, and of course the main character, tea, with an optional choice of Sherry or Champagne.»
The repertoire of smells and scents undeniably evokes a classic Pompeian garden, but in right front of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a memorable way of enjoying a cultural day at the museum, while embracing an authentic piece of Italy.