Cooking in Marfa, where culture is the integral ingredient
Internationally heralded as the mecca of minimalism, the Texan town of 1,800 residents is home to a couple’s culinary experiments
By Osman Can Yerebakan
Marfa restaurant The Capri’s chef Rocky Barnette heard the same advice from ‘the village elders alongside the young bucks that came a season or two earlier’ about his growing love for the tiny Texan town: ‘If you really want to move here, identify a need that the town has and if you are capable of meeting that need.’ The life-changing tip did not wait to settle with the East Coaster (Appalachian to be more specific) who was ‘thunderstruck with the notion that I could join a community that already existed, but still ostensibly be in a pioneering town.’ His five-day sojourn in Marfa more than 10 years ago was what Barnette calls ‘a holistic perceptual introduction’ to a place he had never heard of before, but was taken aback by its larger-than-land sky, which is ever-changing enough to blame his insomnia on.
A few hours’ drive away from El Paso International Airport, the town with less than 2,000 inhabitants was still a crowd compared to Virginia town, Washington, where nearly 100 people resided and Barnette had cooked at the storied Inn at Little Washington for nearly a decade. The density of ‘creativity and precision’, which contrasts Marfa’s humble population, was the initial attraction for his wife, Austin-bred Virginia Lebermann when she first visited the town for a Lannan artist’s performance in 2001. ‘I discovered a hidden world of impeccable creativity in the dust and wind of the Chihuahuan desert,’ says The Capri founder and co-author of the cookbook, Cooking In Marfa, with her husband.
Phaidon has published the book with a foreword penned by the couple’s friend, Eleven Madison Park co-owner/ chef, Daniel Humm. ‘The ethereal landscape and the candied, nearly neon sunsets’ impressed the Swiss culinary mastermind during his first visit to the town, and ‘being outdoors by the open fire’ while eating at The Capri. The book unfolds as its authors’ love song for the historically and agriculturally abundant terrain where ingredients for some 80 recipes stem and are foraged from. Barnette’s shopping list stretches as far as the Far Western land where lies a ‘particular vantage of the cielo and cosmos.’ Mesquite bean flour, prickly pear, yucca blossoms, amaranth, marigold, verdolaga, mexican buckeyes, and acorns. ‘And an array of native flowers,’ he adds in reference to his flavour-first approach to ‘reconstructing the original inspiration without fuss’ and presenting the food with respect to its ingredients.
The couple’s orchestration of a sensory affair at The Capri and now in Cooking In Marfa expands gastronomic limits. They tapped Marfa’s own Douglas Friedman to dress their book with earthy images of food and land. At the restaurant, which they converted from a World War II airfield hangar, diners’ eyes are conquered by Dana Schutz and Matthew Day Jackson on the walls. ‘Art and food are inextricably tied in our little world – it is all about trying to live a deeper, more substantive human experience,’ says Lebermann who, in fact, left her first signature on the village through art when she cofounded Ballroom Marfa in 2003 with arts philanthropist Fairfax Dorn. The programming at the multipurpose cultural non-profit occasionally spills from its 1920s dance hall-turned-museum building onto the desert, most remarkably with Elmgreen & Dragset’s iconic sculpture, ‘Prada Marfa’.
Lebermann sees the restaurant as a ‘culinary cultural laboratory’ of experimentalism of the Ballroom, where art appears with attention to what historically existed on its grounds. Their current outdoor exhibition unFlagging investigates entitlement over a land inhibited and cultivated by generations of indigenous communities. Flags and sound compositions, envisioned by eight international artists that include Cecilia Vicuña, Naama Tsabar and Jeffrey Gibson, wave and echo under scorching Texan sun.
On a land with layered histories, a sentiment towards inherited legacies is also felt by outsiders. When Art Production Fund cofounder and Marfa lover Yvonne Force Villareal proposed Elmgreen & Dragset to readapt their initial Prada Nevada proposal to Marfa, they chose to place the faux Prada store in the neighbouring town of Valentine. ‘Their decision was to add the desert vista on the sculpture’s background on the highway, but more importantly, to respect the tradition marked by artist Donald Judd and his peers,’ says Force Villareal.
She may have spearheaded permanent placement of one of the most globally celebrated public artworks (in part, thanks to proud Texan Beyoncé and The Simpsons) in the sleepy town, but Force Villareal’s affinity with Marfa started with visits to her husband, artist Leo Villareal’s family. He, in fact, is the true local, with generations of family ties, preserved in their family house built in 1910 by his rancher great-great-grandfather. After Judd started to visit Marfa in the 1970s, the family matriarch, Villareal’s great-grandmother, grew a cordial friendship with the artist mesmerised by the region’s ample vistas. ‘We have a letter Judd wrote her to thank her for the plant she sent to his opening,’ remembers the artist, who is known for immersive light installations.
A plate of yucca blossom tempura at The Capri, ‘Prada Marfa’ on the brim of Highway 90, or Judd’s 15 concrete sculptures spreading outside his Chinati Foundation – art shines on this Texan desert. Isolation, an experience which rhymes as complex as desired today, has been the town’s promise for those lost in urban chaos. ‘Not changed, but magnified,’ explains Rainer Judd, President of the Judd Foundation and a local, about her quarantine life in the town she was first introduced to by her father as a child.
But here, you’re on a sparse land where distance and scale dictate their own rules. ‘Animals outnumber humans, which is a respite from bad urban planning and architecture, and it’s a stunning achievement to survive until today with its good human scale,’ she says. ‘A little post office, two grocery stores, a farmers’ market, and some good spots to idle and eat’ make the town’s small but intimate commerce. Outback or built, spaces were also crucial for Donald Judd, a maker and builder whose architectural imprint still thrives. For Rainer, it has most vividly been in ‘two-foot by 12-foot boards for furniture and shelving,’ which she observes, ‘the town has taken on interpreting that to their own liking.’ On a remote land, Judd made do with what nature made possible, similar to a chef, a farmer, or a passerby.
According to Rainer Judd, to understand why one would move to Marfa, ‘live in some modern industrial hell for a while, and then come back and realise, my lord, it is gorgeous here.’ Still curious why her dad carved his roots on this land? The Judd Foundation recently published Donald Judd Spaces, a 416-page book about spaces where the artist sought different textures of refuge, from his iron-cast Spring Street dwelling in New York to his sprawling Marfa ranch.
‘Walkable, bikeable, spacious with wide streets, surrounded by 50-mile ranch views’ is Judd’s tip for newcomers, but tranquility is still the key that opens all doors here. ‘Experiencing any sensory stimulation at a slower pace outside of urban strongholds enhances the experience of art or food – the quietude and simplicity give the experience the time to resonate,’ says Lebermann, who thinks her restaurant requires more effort than the Ballroom to hear its flavours: ‘Experience there is more subtle, less spoken about on property, so you have to “listen” a bit more diligently.’
Judd veered his way here to plunge into long stretching panoramas of impossibly hued sky bleeding into vast lands – a view quite different from Soho or East Village at the time. Today, his contemplative art and those of his peers prompts contemplation, with idle life having permeated to all geographies – from reticent Marfa to the most chaotic New York. Not to forget ‘the shamans etching pictographs into the caves before the cumbersome rules of nomenclature were written,’ reminds Barnette. ‘All while their fellow community members were obviously eating something prior to agrarian society and industrialised agriculture.’ This is, however, still a ‘foreign’ town flagged as misspelt in a Word document, but it is this mystery that winds its lovers back to its dusty open roads where tumbleweed rolls between adobe houses. On a given night, the crowd in Lebermann and Barnette’s roadside saloon includes ‘intrepid travellers from any walk of life.’ But if you’re in Marfa, the land throws the dice. ‘Some days when the winds are blowing or the high desert cold sets in, no one shows up at all.’