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.
‘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.’
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.