Louis DiBiccari on drafting all-star teams of Boston’s most inventive chefs, artists, and bartenders
Louis DiBiccari, owner of the small-plate mecca Tavern Road in Fort Point, has a pretty good thing going. Between that current restaurant which he owns with his brother Michael and extraordinary back-of-the-house chops as impressive as almost any chef in Boston—with stripes and credits spanning the full gamut, from L’Espalier and the legendary Season’s culinary dojo at the Bostonian Hotel, to nomadic parties and underground “Chef Louis Nights”—he could easily just indulge kitchen fantasies without bothering elsewhere. As anybody who has worked in the restaurant business knows, it’s easy to get tunnel vision, and to slowly disengage from the exterior world.
But DiBiccari doesn’t think like that. Famous for his “nose-to-tail” approach and using the whole hog, he makes use of all resources within reach. A community guy, he would prefer to have no restaurant at all if he had to cook in a colorless city. So after sensing a disparity in how Boston’s visual artists were treated compared with how celebrity chefs are received, DiBiccari moved to build crossover exposure for the studio set. The resulting beast of an idea was CREATE Boston, which takes place for the sixth time this Friday in SoWa. In short, the mastermind moved to assemble all-star teams of artists, chefs, and bartenders to manipulate and meddle with flavors and senses. In a good way.
I met up with DiBiccari at Tavern Road, and while under the spell of one of his lamb meatball gyros, tried to get into his head as he decided how to parse and allocate the posse of creative talent on board for this latest orchestra—a palette that includes cocktail artists like Sabrina Kershaw of Deep Ellum and Tenzin Samdo from Tavern Road, as well as muralist Erica Femino, chef Logan Foos of L’Espalier, and a dozen-plus others.
CF: You just had the fifth CREATE Boston in October. It was the last event that I remember being outside for last year. Now you have the first event I will be outside for in 2017 [Ed. note: I have since learned that the place technically has a roof]. I’m not complaining about it, but why so soon?
LD: I thought we’d just go from fall to fall. Maybe summer, if we could do one outside of Boston … Maine, Nantucket. But then we got a phone call from [the heritage BBQ event Cochon555]. I’ve known Brady [Lowe] for a couple of years now, and have competed in Cochon a few times. And he said he had an opportunity to do Cochon at the [SoWa power station in the South End], and I said that is basically the best event space in Boston, or amongst them, and it’s somewhere I have always wanted to do an event. It’s open-air, but a closed space.
What’s so great about it?
It’s perfect for this because it’s just concrete and dirt on the floors. And brick everywhere, and a little bit of wood here and there. It’s the most beautiful vanilla box, and we get to go in with our artists and bring it to life. It’s going to look dope.
Let’s go back to the beginning though. What kitchen were you working in when you came up with the idea for CREATE?
CREATE didn’t come from a kitchen. It came from an awareness, an observation that every newsstand I walked by at the time I started CREATE had a Stuff magazine and an Improper Bostonian, and between the two of them, it seemed like every week there was a chef on the cover. And it was awesome, for me, it was great for my career, but I was also involved in the artist community. I lived down here [in Fort Point] on Melcher Ave., and I was pretty plugged in. And it sort of occurred to me that Boston was a little lopsided. You were all set if you were in a restaurant, and people cared about what you did and wanted to support it and be a part of it and touch it in some way. And it was the same way with politics, and sports, and science and innovation with this becoming a hot spot for those things.
But I kept wondering about the artists. There are so many out there using so many mediums, and we had what, a wall in an alley in Central Square? I realized that a lot of artists out here had a ceiling, and I’d meet them and they’d tell me that they’re moving to New York, or they’re moving to Montreal. Whatever it was, I thought, That’s shitty. They can’t make a career here. So my idea was to take that open studio atmosphere and add to it, embellish it. And what if there was food in the room? Then what would happen? People would go. They’d be excited about this super cool thing happening with all of these restaurants involved. And maybe if they didn’t have any exposure to the arts scene, when they get there they will see the art. They will have to be exposed to it.
You talk about how many mediums there are that people are experimenting with. Do you consider food to be art?
I think chefs are using the plate as a canvas more and more. There are chefs I follow on Instagram who there is no doubt that they’re amazing artists. You can argue that chefs aren’t artists, or that chefs are artists, but when you look at their plates and you see what they’re doing, there is no doubt in my mind that they have a gift as an artist. They’re also amazing cooks, they can put flavors together, but visually what they do it stunning. It’s a craft, a skill level that belongs in the same conversation as art at least. There are so many other things that go with [food] as well, like the cost that goes into each plate and things that revolve around the restaurant as a business, which I think pulls away from the art conversation, but when you just look at the product for what it is, and what’s been done with it, I think that you’re talking about art.
What sticks out in your mind from the first couple of CREATE events? What kind of hurdles have there been on the road to seeing through your vision?
The first one was at the Boston Center for Adult Education. We took all the classrooms, the main room when you walk in, and the kitchen on the bottom floor. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. We had about four months to plan it, which I figured was plenty of time, but I’m a chef and I was coming off the heels of doing Chef Louie nights. I thought it would be easy because I did pop-up events, but this was different. This was curating an art show. For a guy like me who bangs pots and pans around a kitchen, what the fuck do I know about curating an art show? Nothing.
What lessons were learned?
Finding chefs was easy. I didn’t know [the art community] any more though by 2013, so I was kicking over rocks. I was crawling down wormholes trying to find the right people. My vision was that it was like a street art festival, and not like walking into the MFA or the ICA. It’s completely different. I was scrambling. I needed to find artists, and we finally did about six days before the event. We just paired them off with chefs and threw them in there. And even then, some of the installations were unbelievable.
I was especially inspired by Jason Cheek, who was working at Toro. He did an installation with the [Boston-based art collective] !ND!V!DUALS, who work with reclaimed wood. Not picture frames and end tables, but they create theater. They create characters, and there’s a lot of narrative behind it. For CREATE they did Lovesick Cafe, which was basically they took the kitchen of the BCAE and turned it into this restaurant. They built ovens, and hand sinks, and everything you would find in a kitchen [out of wood], and the idea was very “Twilight Zone”-esque. These creatures were aliens that came down and killed all the humans in the cafe, and then they reopened the cafe using all of the humans as the protein, and they were serving the humans to other humans, which was wild. So Jason made a pate using livers, hearts, kidneys, tongues—it was delicious, it was beautiful, and it made perfect sense. And they had Jason right in the middle of the table serving this stuff. It was unbelievable. They had done it at Bonnaroo, but this was special because it was the first time they had a chef actually cooking right there in the kitchen. That was the first impression you had on CREATE year one, and that’s what we wanted, the Oh shit! factor. What the fuck kind of show am I walking into? What is going on? And no one did know what was going on, because we didn’t even really have a brand yet. We just created an event. It takes years to build a brand.
So with the next times out, what had to change? What had to evolve?
We needed a bigger space. We were selling out the BCAE with 150 tickets, and I knew we could sell 400.
And were the artists making any money yet?
I didn’t know anything about how that works, so I asked the artists after, and we sold $3,500 worth of artwork in year one. It’s great. For your first time out, that’s great. The next year, we sold $4,500 worth of artwork. And it’s like we have it down how to move artwork now.
What have been the other major changes?
I brought in bartenders for year three, and year four was the first year of live music. Year five was merchants and live installations. Now this is [the sixth CREATE]—we’re going to have food trucks too.
What have been the biggest memories of late?
I’m most inspired by the ones that have a narrative to them. Those are the ones that I get most fired up about. Last year I put Colin Lynch from Bar Mezzana with Moe Pope. A lot of people don’t even realize how talented Moe is of a visual artist. Even though he’s one of the most well-known musicians in Boston. Moe and Colin met up in Mattapan, around where Moe grew up, and Moe said, “I want to show you where I’m from. And they got out of the car and walked around a bit, and went to some of the local markets, and talked about a lot of the challenges of growing up there. Colin decided that the best way to represent that with food was to make a tomato bisque with all these really high-quality expensive ingredients, but the base of the soup was just cans of Campbell’s tomato soup. And Moe had his tracks playing on the headphones.
How do you ultimately make the teams? Are you just pulling names out of a hat?
I just sit down, and I have a list of the bartenders, chefs, and artists who are doing it. And I’m forced to think about who they are as people. The goal is synergy. Teammates. I’m not matching up an artist with a chef because they both use a lot of blue. I match up based on personalities. I am the Chuck Woolery of the event. I need to matchmake. I do it myself, and don’t let anybody else get involved. But I base it on personalities. I want them to work well together.
This year, one of the things I’m most excited about is Alex Crabb. He’s done it every year, and every year he gets more wild. Last year he was in the back corner with a gas mask on dressed like the paintings. He wouldn’t use the tables we rented for him—he just had cutting boards spread out on the floor, and they were plating on the floor. This year I put [Crabb] with Duncan Mischo, who last time filled the room with sketches of his adult coloring books. And there were crayons and markers and shit all over the floor and you could just go around coloring, so it was very interactive. What the fuck are those two going to do together? That’s where my mind goes.
Who else will people be lining up for?
[Artist] Markus Sebastiano and [chef Meghann] Ward of Tapestry, who is exactly the kind of person who I love having involved with CREATE because she’s flying just far enough under the radar right now. She’s getting exposure, but she hasn’t been over-exposed, and she’s someone who people can come in and say, “I’ve heard of Tapestry, but I haven’t been there yet.” And her food is awesome. The Cuban food she’s doing is off the charts. It’s delicious. That food really stands out. It’s beautiful, and I thought her and Markus were both super-aggressive with how they approach the canvas.
Like I said, I’m looking for teammates.