Zhang Daqian and the art of fine dining

China’s most popular artist was also a committed foodie — so much so that he would regularly prepare beautiful menus for the guidance of his personal chef. A selection of these delicious artefacts are to be offered at Christie’s in New York on 20 March

In addition to his prodigious skills as an artist, Chinese painter Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) was also an expert chef and ‘known to be a real gourmand’, says Jennie Tang, specialist in Chinese Paintings at Christie’s in New York. ‘He loved food, and loved painting food,’ and considered cooking a form of fine art. Indeed, he was known to tell his disciples that it was impossible for a student who ‘does not appreciate cuisine to really understand art.’

In his work, Zhang often depicted humble fare such as mushrooms, carrots, asparagus, cabbage, persimmons and mountain vegetables. The link between cooking and art is also evident in Zhang’s meticulous handwritten dinner menus, which he would regularly prepare in anticipation of a meal.

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Dinner Menus. 9⅞ x 14⅝ in (25.2 x 37.2 cm) and 12¾ x 21¾  in (32.5 x 55.4  cm). Estimate $22,000-36,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Paintings on 20 March 2018  at Christie’s in New York

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Dinner Menus. 9⅞ x 14⅝ in (25.2 x 37.2 cm) and 12¾ x 21¾ in (32.5 x 55.4 cm). Estimate: $22,000-36,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Paintings on 20 March 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Menus. 6 x 21½ in (15.4 x 54.5 cm) and 7⅝ x 10⅜  in (19.3 x 26.5  cm). Estimate $7,000-14,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Paintings on 20 March 2018  at Christie’s in New York

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Menus. 6 x 21½ in (15.4 x 54.5 cm) and 7⅝ x 10⅜ in (19.3 x 26.5 cm). Estimate: $7,000-14,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Paintings on 20 March 2018 at Christie’s in New York

‘Looking ahead to dinner he would write down exactly what dishes he wanted to eat that night and give it to his chef to create,’ Tang explains.  

Min Chi Hsu worked for Zhang as his private chef from 1977 to 1979, soon after the artist had moved to Taiwan from Brazil. Min Chi had just completed culinary training, and was introduced to Zhang through a friend’s father, who was studying painting with him at the time.

‘Zhang Daqian treated me like family, and we would eat together for almost every meal I cooked,’ says the chef. ‘Because Zhang was such a foodie himself, he was not shy about critiquing my final product, and would make recommendations on how to improve each dish. He treated me like one of his elite art students, and took time to teach me calligraphy.’

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Menus. 9⅞ x 19⅝ in (25 x 50 cm) and 10⅞ x 7  in (27.8 x 18  cm). Estimate $5,000-10,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Paintings on 20 March 2018  at Christie’s in New York

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Menus. 9⅞ x 19⅝ in (25 x 50 cm) and 10⅞ x 7 in (27.8 x 18 cm). Estimate: $5,000-10,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Paintings on 20 March 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Feast Menus. 10 3⁄8 × 22⅞ in (26.5 x 58 cm) and 10 x 13½ in (25.5 x 34.2  cm). Estimate $6,500-12,500. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Paintings on 20 March 2018  at Christie’s in New York

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Feast Menus. 10 3⁄8 × 22⅞ in (26.5 x 58 cm) and 10 x 13½ in (25.5 x 34.2 cm). Estimate: $6,500-12,500. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Paintings on 20 March 2018 at Christie’s in New York

A typical dish, such as that prepared by chef Nicole Gajadhar of Manhattan’s Saxon + Parole in the above video, might call for such ingredients as pickled Taiwanese cucumbers, kirby cucumbers, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, yellow Chinese chives and red bell peppers.

The results look ravishing, but are a far cry from Zhang’s favourite dish, which, according to Min Chi, no chef was seemingly worthy enough to prepare. ‘He loved his own meatballs,’ says Min Chi with a smile. ‘Those he would cook himself!’

On 20 March, a collection of menus prepared by Zhang — ‘personal pieces that show a glimpse of the artist’s life,’ notes Tang — will be offered in the Fine Chinese Paintings  sale at Christie’s in New York.