A while back, while doing my weekly music preview, I came across an odd little event; the first year anniversary of Eat Gallery a self-described “culinary art gallery.” Now I don’t know about you, but that’s just the kind of funky spin that pricks up my ears. I’d heard of the culinary arts but never a culinary art gallery and to my surprise it was just down the road from my day-job on Almeda (it has since moved to CoIside at 1919 Houston Ave.). I ran by the place during lunch and found the food playful and delicious, the vibe welcoming and fun, and the “Green Chocolate smoothie” (an organic spinach, avocado, agave nectar, vanilla, & almond milk smoothie) mmm, mmm, mmm… so good that I still recommend it as the perfect pick me up for anyone feeling down. I also sat down with “Provocateur / Pastor” Marlon Hall and “Community Architect / Pastoral Leader” Danielle Fanfair to chat about their vision, what it was about and see where they hoped to go with it.
Before I sat and talk with Marlon and Danielle, I met Art, a docent who is leaving the gallery with his daughter, and I ask him about his experience at Eat Gallery.
Art - It’s therapeutic, it’s a treat, and it’s a reward. You get all kinds of lessons from all kinds of people. It’s a great place for cross-pollination of people and ideas …and of course there’s amazing food.
My role as docent is to share the dreams of these culinary artists who were bold enough to turn their dreams into reality. One of my favorites is Ella Russell and her Edubalicious cookies who turned my baby into a “crumb baby.” Ella curates the sweets here. She was a single mom who needed to make cookies for her kids to go to school. It came from not having money to send her kids to school with treats, to making cookies at her house, to now here she has 43 flavors of cookies and she has a following called crumb heads. She’ll bring cookies here at 2 o’clock and we’re sold out by three; we just can’t keep her cookies here! I love sharing those stories with people who come in and those people then share the stories with others and they’ll even turn to us and ask, “Did I say it right?” (laughs)
This place is the sanctuary of Almeda Street – just sit down and jump in on conversations and eat a bit.
After, waving goodbye to Art and his daughter, I sit down with Marlon and Danielle. “So,” I say, “I know you are a minister, how did you get from that to Eat Gallery?
Marlon - It was less of an intentional on our part and more of a natural evolution based on human culture. What human culture longs for most is human development – people just want to be better. Once a person makes up their mind that they want to be better then they discover that they can be the best at only that which they can do. So we are responding to that intrinsic need of people to be their best at what they do. So if the church is to be of any value in human culture it should meet the crucial needs of the people that they want to connect with.
We’re entering into this interchange where we are going from a literary culture to a post-literary culture. We’re moving from this place where we speak this rhetoric, say these words, and communicate these ideas in text and in books to a place where the Internet has created a whole new intersection of ideas where it isn’t just from point A to B or left to right on a page be it the Bible or a newspaper. Now it’s from point A to point C to point F…it’s all over the place.
So, we wanted to contextualize this message of hope, imagination, and possibility in a way that was relevant to that post literary culture and call them to be their best. We started this place and we wanted people to touch what it meant to sacrifice for a dream, to taste what it meant… to make the sacrifice… to be your best and we wanted to use the culinary arts as a parable for what it means to say, “I want to be better and not just that but I want to do what I was born to do – my best!” So when people come in they don’t have to know that we are a religious organization to call this a sanctuary because they see and taste that God is good in every meal. They taste and see that there is something good about human beings and how we care for them with our customer service.
So, we didn’t plan for it man. We told the guy who wanted to give us this place no for two years because we were to busy. We were managing and maintaining our worship gathering and everything around it.
Danielle - …and the Dream Station
Marlon - …the Dream Station was this place we wanted to become this intersection of different ideas and disciplines – a place where people could grow. Our church’s mission has always been to help people grow from their passion in life, to a purpose, to a plan on how to execute that. So, the dream station became a place where music producers would come and share new music, writers releasing a book could give a talk, and so on. It was just a white box for people to share their dreams.
Danielle - Tamika Handy recorded her album there. H.I.S.D. did a debut of a video there. An ethnomusicologist and photographer and a DJ named Jason Woods who goes by Flash Gordon Parks did a four-part series called “ROOTamentary” that explored the roots of hip hop, jazz, and blues; styles like Motown, Stax, and Philly soul sound; and how Houston’s contributions to soul music became contributions to R&B that contributed to Hip Hop that became a culture. So Dream Station was really the beginning of the visibility that people were having on culture when they decide to take the risk of living out a plan that is rooted in their passion and purpose.
Marlon - From the page to the purpose…3D!! What it means to project these ideas of virtue. So you asked how we transition from a faith institution to our non-profit effort through the Eat Gallery, we wanted to 3D project – the imagery of what it meant to live out, to embody the virtues of Jesus who was a really innovative dude. No matter who you are in the world, no matter what your faith, he said these are the words that communicate Love for humanity and I’m gonna put my body where my mouth is. A person who says that – even if he is a fool and he died for all the wrong reasons – is someone who died the right way. That’s what we do. We put our bodies where our mouths are and, to be quite honest with you, the are days where our non-profit is not a non-profit – it’s a negative profit. We don’t always zero out and we are in the negative in many areas but we strongly believe that the dreams of these culinary artists and the people who taste those dreams will then activate their missions in life.
Danielle - It’s interesting to see people run out of excuses like, “I want to do this but I don’t have a place.” Well, you can do it here. So it’s interesting and so far the seven artists we began to curate back in June of 2011 have exceeded the goals that they set out for themselves. They set really ambitious goals for themselves and in a year they have all deepened their businesses and exceeded those ambitions. Like Keisha Bocage of Bocage Catering… She volunteered and just by coincidence she met the executive directors of some of Houston’s leading non-profits and for-profit organizations and they have since reached out to her for catering. She developed relationships with innovators and others and now she’s doing personal chef work, deepened her catering business, she’s a sous chef at down house, and just really blossomed and it’s because she decided that she wanted to go on this crazy trip with us.
So, what do you mean when you call yourselves curators?
Marlon - Danielle and I believe that every human being is a life artist. There is not one person born out of the matrix of their mamma’s womb that is not born in one way or another to make an impression on something. Visual artists make an impression onto the canvas, literary artists make an impression onto the page… everyone was born to make an indelible mark that only they can make that will bring about beauty on the world. So as a person who is to help people make that impression, I am a curator. But I’m a curator of human potential not of any specific genre, discipline, or art; I’m a curator of human possibility.
We went from there to engaging these culinary artists and so naturally we call ourselves curators of their culinary art but we are curators of every other life art too. We will curate mathematicians, art, photographers, educators…we took a group or people to Nairobi Kenya. We’ve done that for about six years. We call it the Social Imagination Project. We take three artists, three educators, and three social workers to cross-pollinate projects with the like in Kenya. They raise their own money to do a project with someone else from another culture that reminds them of their own. Typically a lot of the folks are African Americans and we’ve seen the life-art come out of them in other countries then come back and make an impression on the city of Houston through those experiences in Nairobi that we just see as indelible.
I’m not extraordinarily great at anything but I’m really good at helping people recognize what they are extraordinarily great at. If we had more curators and less corporate executives, the world would be a more beautiful place. Those people are killing themselves because they were born to be curators and cultivate beauty and not be part of these machines that just generate profit. Not that there is anything wrong with profit.
Danielle - The original definition of curator comes from the Latin “curare” which just means to care for. The modern definition is typically associated with art galleries. Those people have a love for and obsession with preserving and caring for things for the purpose of other people seeing them and being inspired. So we share the heart of a curator because were obsessive about people’s purpose and we care for people so we are inspired by hosting these intentional intersections and points of cross-pollination like the curator of an art gallery purposefully hangs paintings, sets the lighting, and so on so that the viewer is inspired. We take the same approach but with people.
Marlon - I’ve just always been obsessed with people. When my friends would be dropped off at the mall, I’d find myself at food courts and wondering who these people were and what their backgrounds we’re so it was natural when we decided to do this culinary gallery. It shocks people when we come from behind the counter and give people hugs. We sit behind this counter and watch people, interact, and we learn the timing of people’s pain before they experience it and we’ll ask them if they’d like a glass of water and make them laugh just before they cry.
Postscript: Not long after this interview, Eat Gallery moved to 1919 Houston Ave. I followed-up with Danielle on the move and how, if at all it would change their mission.
How will your mission continue at your new location?
Danielle - We have begun a Pop Up Food Art Residency at CoInside. An Artist Residency exists to invite artists, academicians, curators and all manner of creative people for: time & space away from their usual environment and obligations; exploration of his/her practice within another community; and meeting new people, using new materials, and experiencing life in a new location.
We share values with CoInside, a progressive shared co-working space. We both seek to nurture those who have the courage, talent and gifting to serve the city entrepreneurially, but not the overhead for their own spaces. The Eat Gallery does this for culinary artists, CoInside is a hub for innovative professionals.
What hopes do you have for Eat Gallery going forward?
Danielle - That we continue to nurture dreamers who believe in their dreams and are doers [and that] the seven culinary artists in our collective continue to deepen in their mission, exceed new goals, and inspire people with their stories. To quote Reginald Adams, executive director of the Museum of Cultural Arts Houston, “Their success is our reward.”
1919 Houston Avenue
Houston, Texas 77007
Open 11a-2p every Friday