In every restaurant kitchen there is a system, a culture and a flexible methodology that the staff embrace and operate by. Over the last five years, the public have become hungry, not just for the food produced from these kitchens, but for an insight into the pliable structure around which a chef must move during service. Melbourne artist Jeff Martin has captured the essence of a kitchen’s idiosyncratic service style and methods in his paintings of some of the world’s best restaurant kitchens in the thick of service. The resulting exhibition, Back of House, is currently showing at Gould Galleries in South Yarra.
Martin gets restaurants. He’s worked in them as a cook, a waiter and owned his own cafe and it was the stock market crash of the late 80s that led him to hospitality. The then-advertising agency exec found himself out of a job, looking for new options and hospitality seemed to fit. “Through the life I’d been leading, I knew good food and was interested in it,” he says, “so I thought…restaurants.”
His hospitality career saw him work for the likes of Greg Brown and Stephanie Alexander, but he was also nurturing his skills as an artist, always drawing. “Throughout all this I always drew. It goes back to the advertising and being creative at school but I was never told that I could make a living out of art until I met other artists and was given support,” he continues. “I went on a holiday in Italy and in ‘99 found a little island called Favignana – went back in 2001 and 2003, and in 2004 had my first solo exhibition of Sicilian fishermen.”
Martin’s career has grown steadily since and the idea of sketching chefs in service was borne of a desire to paint a subject “in movement but focused on the task at hand.” He explains that this exhibition evolved through contacting different restaurants on the San Pellegrino Top 100 restaurant’s list, travelling through Europe and the USA, gaining access to one phase of service, sketching the chefs, taking photographs and then translating his work onto large canvases.
The results are extraordinarily emotional, particularly for anyone who has worked in a restaurant. Details are minute; some chefs are clearly particular people, while others are captured via moods or notions of a movement. Martin’s work clearly displays the differences in each kitchen, from Thomas Keller’s almost obsessive use of green tape to the frenetic pace but palpable control of Noma, along with the robust personality of Claude Bosi in the kitchen of his eatery Hibiscus in London.
It’s a very special exhibition and its popularity has seen the closing date extended to April 10, after which it will be flown off to London to be part of the awards ceremony for this year’s San Pellegrino Top Restaurant’s awards evening. It seems Martin has not only captured a kitchen’s essence, but also the attention of many chefs.