ArtDego was dreamt up in 2012 at a table by the window in St Kevin’s Arcade. My colleague Dominique and I were meeting Mink Boyce, the coordinator of Artweek that year, and Kate Simmonds, our connector and Artweek publicist. The conversation moved quickly from promotion to involvement, which happens to us often.
I’ve found that playing a part in events tends to result in more genuine, interesting content. Aside from that, it’s the primary purpose of Gather & Hunt to build a feeling of community: media is just one of the methods we use to do that, events another.
Dominique and I had recently finished our second Tasting Club at Sidart, and we were feeling confident about events. It was arguably a misplaced confidence. Dom’s now-husband, Hayden McMillan, then head chef at TriBeCa, was part of a rookie team of young chefs called The Next Crew, with Nick Honeyman and Mark Southon (O’Connell St Bistro). They ran pop-ups to give themselves a chance to flex creative and culinary muscles, and there had been talk of collaboration. ArtDego was the result of those conversations.
Upon reflection, I think the only reason that first year of ArtDego worked (we had no real idea what we were doing!) is because everyone had their roles and carried them out to perfection. Hayden rallied the chefs, adding to the ranks Steve Smith (now at Meadow) and Brian Campbell (now at Miann). Mink chose the artists, a diverse mix that included a sculptor, an installation artist, a painter and a poet. It was something of a dream team.
Dom and I organised everything else, from marketing to equipment. The most difficult challenge was the lack of kitchen at the Nathan Club, a cavernous, dim space on the ground floor of a heritage building on Takutai Square in Britomart, that played host to ArtDego in its first two years – we had to build a temporary kitchen in a large store room.
We were constructing an entire restaurant from the ground up, for one night only, from tables, chairs, cutlery and glassware to a front-of-house team populated with the best and brightest from restaurants all over town. On top of all that, we were installing an art exhibition.
It’s no surprise that there were a few hiccups. I remember realising we were short eleven knives and forks at 5.30pm. I remember the Antipodes Water supply drying up at 9pm and Morven McAuley hauling over borrowed stock from Café Hanoi. I remember the sound system in the dining room failing to work, which meant our recordings of each artist and chef describing their dishes became distorted and fuzzy when blasted from the speakers. I remember packing out the next day – a general disaster. Hayden and Dominique did most of the work then left, angrily, while Tiffany Singh and I dismantled her installation of rainbow ribbons and rice, and the crew for the next event packed in around us, equally angrily.
There are better, more enduring memories though. Watching diners squeeze the dressing for their first course from miniature paint tubes then, in the second course, seeing them pick up their beeswax-dipped banana-leaf plates to lick them clean. Turning to see Dom in tears as poet Courtney Sina Meredith performed to a hushed audience. The breathtaking focus in the kitchen as the team of twenty chefs worked to produce each dish. The standing ovation at the end of the night, and the sense of success we all felt afterwards.
No one wanted to leave. We sat on the floor, all fifty of us, with boxes of dumplings from Dominion Road, burning our tongues and drinking beer that wasn’t ours. There was this sense that we’d managed to pull off something properly special – a true first for Auckland.
It was a night of beginnings. The team from that first ArtDego became regular collaborators in many different ways, new and enduring friendships were made and there was even a romance in our ranks. Perhaps most important to me was the feeling of potential, the kernel of an idea that we have since developed into an annual event for our city.
By 2013 Gather & Hunt was broke and I was burnt out, but together with Alice Harbourne and Rebecca Smidt of Cazador, I did it again regardless, turning around the entire event in three weeks. It was madness. We decided that for ArtDego to feel fresh every year we’d need new chefs and new artists. Only the chef who created canapés the previous year could return. It was the right decision, but from a production perspective it means ArtDego never really gets easier.
Each new collection of personalities brings new challenges and triumphs. The most memorable chefs and artists are always the ones who push us, the diners and themselves. I’ll never forget artist Hye Rim Lee’s collaboration with Kyle Street of Depot, which involved an installation of rare clams that looked like flaccid penises floating in jars lit with hot-pink light, or Tiffany Singh and Steve Smith’s ritual-inspired vegetarian dish that was served with no cutlery.
Last year, Claire Cowan performed a solo flamenco dance and cello performance that made me shivery and emotional, and chef Joao Martins interpreted performance artist Ryan Ballinger’s work in the form of delicious ‘protein gels’ squeezed straight from plastic packets into mouths. It was a strange start to the evening and shook up the whole room – but of course that was, and still is, the point.
My co-producer Rebecca’s knowledge and passion for art makes her a perfect artist coordinator. She curates pairings that are a conceptual struggle for all involved. ArtDego isn’t intended to be a pretty evening – we want it to surprise and shock – and Bex’s involvement ensures we consistently do that. In 2013 she paired sculptor of the grotesque Matt Molloy with Paris-trained pastry chef Sonia Haumonté of Vaniyé and their dessert was a highlight of the night, delivered by waiters wearing surgical masks. There was a petri dish and a pipette, and a frightening structure that revealed itself as a dome of passionfruit mousse. It was strange, interactive and more than a little magical.
Once 2013 was over we began the search for a new venue, as the Nathan Club was disappearing and no longer seemed adequate for our needs. That’s how we found ourselves in a meeting with the Auckland Art Gallery, and it’s this partnership that’s really given ArtDego the opportunity to grow. The lofty atrium is our perfect home as well as one of my favourite places in the city.
This year is our most exciting yet, and our long-term vision for ArtDego means I know I’m going to be saying that every year for a long time. We see this as an opportunity to celebrate New Zealand’s creative talent in art and cuisine on a global scale. This year is the first time we’ve invited chefs from other parts of the country, with one coming from Wellington. It’s the first time we’ve included artists whose work is already exhibiting at the Auckland Art Gallery – Octavia Cook’s contemporary jewellery can be seen in Wunderrūma (until 1 November), and a new sculpture from John Ward Knox will be installed on the North Terrace in mid October. Another of our artists, photographer Pippa Drummond, is returning from New York to exhibit for the first time ever in her home country.
From the outside, ArtDego is very much about the artists and chefs and the magic they create, but its collaborative heart actually runs a lot deeper than that. Each year we ask a different designer to create our look and feel; the only enduring design element is our perfect logo, designed by Kaan Hiini in 2013. The night is captured by a very busy photographer – in past years we’ve been lucky enough to work with Laura Forest, Kate van der Drift and Emily Raftery, and all four events have been immortalised in film by the incomparable Benj Brooking. Our front-of-house teams have included talent from The French Café, Cazador, The Blue Breeze Inn, Ortolana, The Grove and more. Perhaps the most incredible thing of all is the fact that the whole team consists of volunteers, working tirelessly to be part of the creation of something unforgettable.
ArtDego is brought to life each year with the help of a wide network of suppliers, winemakers, specialists and helpers, the most enduring of whom are Antipodes Water Company and Nautilus Estate of Marlborough.
It really does take a whole community, spread out across the country, to create every ArtDego. Here is what happened in 2015, our maddest year yet:
This story originally appeared in The Seasonal #01 SPRING in October 2015