How We Work: An Interview with Nick Jirasek

February 5, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest post by A.Martinez

Nick Jirasek is a food artist and founder of underground food entity Guerrilla Smiles. He has worked with Tony Fitzpatrick, Links Hall, Redmoon Theater, Linda Warren Projects, Hauser Gallery, Ensemble Dal Niente, High Concept Laboratories, and more. Nick has a strong love of Malort and makes a mean pork shoulder. I got to ask him some questions about who he is, what he does, and his exciting presence in the arts scene.

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A.Martinez: What is your definition of a food artist and what you do?

Nick Jirasek: A food artist is one who uses primarily comestible materials to create, explore, or challenge ideas.  I work professionally in this capacity at exhibition openings, private events, the streets, house-parties, underground dinners, performances, pop-ups, talk-shows, and screenings.

Martinez: You are a self-trained- how did you develop your skills?

Jirasek: Immersion. There are seemingly unending resources, documentation, and wisdom surrounding food. Everyone wants to talk about it, wants to teach you the ‘right way to do it,’ to share the ritual of eating with you, the most authentic place to buy kielbasa, the healthiest diet, the ethical diet, the best place to eat carnitas. Once I had the feeling that being a food artist is what I wanted to do, I made it my entire life. Some of the learning has been traditional in cooking under trained kitchen professionals, but most of it has been in acute observation and guerrilla learning tactics. I’ll sound like a broken .FLAC if I say the internet has been a tremendous resource, so I’ll say it’s been invaluable. That of course means the usual suspects of e-books, Youtubes, and blog trolling, but also some harder to find fountains of information in more underground and illicit venues of the www. Once one is cognizant of basic technique, cultural/ethnic culinary tradition, and flavor pairing, is when some cooks then begin to hone their craft or get the fuck out; an Italian chef mastering the different regions of Italy, travelling to the Piedmonts to study centuries of tradition in Agnolotti, or a trade-school dropout in search of Tru. They begin to specialize based on their talents, their genealogy, and interests. But, I’m not interested in specializing my edible journey. I want to continually challenge the ideas and traditions of food while building a vocabulary of how to articulate that comestibly, socially, and literally.

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Martinez: Who and what is Guerrilla Smiles and how long has it been around?

Jirasek: Guerrilla Smiles started as a social project about 6 years ago; to simply spread smiles in unexpected places and unexpected ways that would serve to beautify our lives and the lives around us.

I was a worn-out, director of food and beverage at Chicago’s 4th tallest building, the John Hancock. I worked a ridiculous amount of hours. The dreams at night of P&L’s, and the commute home down Chicago on the 66 bus was the cherry on-top of the soul sucking sundae. One day someone at the Hancock had ordered what must have been nearly a hundred gold, helium filled balloons and thrown them in the loading dock after the party was over.  I grabbed all the balloons and walked down the street, handing a floating ball of gold to anyone and everyone that would take them. People like balloons, or maybe just the color gold more than I had thought. I was overrun by would-be gold-diggers by the time I made it to the McDonald’s on State street. At that point I walked to the middle of intersection and released the remaining bouquet of gold into the sky. Similar projects came in weeks following like cashing half my paycheck at the currency exchange in quarters and handing them out, then throwing them in the air and off bridges. Safety became an issue.

Around the same time my good friends Claire Molek and Erin Babbin were starting a gallery practice called Studio1020 (later theStudio and thisisnothestudio).  Building on the ideas put forth on the street, I pleaded with them to seize the opportunity of the ubiquitous gallery food & wine table.  The idea was simple; to mirror the displaying artists’ work aesthetically or thematically in comestible form. This way the dialogue of what the artist’s message was, was literally palatable and hopefully led to broaden and ease the discourse.  Through the past 5 years, a changing cast of cooking professionals, artists, and friends have helped carry on this mission from private dinners of 9 to public events of 900.

Martinez: The Break The Bread series focuses on your collaborations with visual artists at galleries around the city. How do you choose what artists and galleries with which you’re going to collaborate? Or do they choose you?

Jirasek: For the vast majority of gigs, the artist, gallerist, or curator approaches us. Guerrilla Smiles does not advertise, has no website, and uses social media sparsely as a means to communicate. That is to say, we truly relish our underground disposition. My time with Studio1020 afforded me a great opportunity to interact and network directly with interested parties, interesting artists, and share lots of ideas through food. It all started from there and kind of naturally branched out by word of mouth. I have, in special situations, approached artists I want to work with and am looking forward to doing so more in the near future, as well as producing independent original work.

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Martinez: What is the process of trying out new dish?

Jirasek: I kind of have an ongoing list of techniques, ingredients, serving vessels, equipment and ideas I’m waiting for the right opportunity to try. When it seems appropriate, I get to try out new stuff. In general, the basis for everything I make is a new dish as every exhibition or performance is new. There is some safety in knowing my control of flavor is adept, my technique is solid, but conversely an exciting trepidation in knowing that this dish has components I have done before, but altogether is completely new.

Martinez: What is the biggest revelation you’ve had about the way you work?

Jirasek: One needs to be aware of their work patterns and not sabotage their opportunities. I don’t like asking for help, and no one will ever work for me for free.

Martinez: Is shopping for ingredients an important part of your creative process?

Jirasek: Extremely. I devote at least an entire day to shopping for an event that can completely change the menu. The Green City Market is a staple and only occurs on 2 days of the week. But generally I go to local specialty stores and markets that take me from 113th to Skokie. This process of traveling all around the city, of breathing in the lifeblood of our diverse culture, of interacting with ethnicities whose only commonality with me is Chicago and food, is probably my greatest inspiration. It’s not dissimilar to the interaction I have with people on the night of an event. Most ‘food people’ will disagree with me on this, but I’m less interested in the local food movement and more interested in small, local family businesses, and traditions in Chicagoland.

Martinez: What is your favorite ingredient to work with?

Jirasek: Celery or Popcorn.

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Martinez: Guerrilla Smiles has a dish called Oak Street Beach. Describe this dish and how it came about.

Jirasek: Oak Street Beach started as dish for a thisisnotthestudio show featuring artist Xiao Tse at High Concept Laboratories. Tse took upwards of a thousand pictures from the concrete pavement of Oak St. Beach’s shore, facing the lake and narrowed it down to one piece that combined around twenty of the most discerning shots. It is essentially a deconstructed soup, with the broth held separately so as not to affect the aesthetic and textural integrity of the dry ingredients. The dry ingredients are held in a ten ounce clear plastic glass. The sand is a combination of ground peanuts, cashews, and maltodextrin.  The grass is julienned wild ramps. The trash is a candied ginger chip. The fish is a rice flour fried smelt. The towel is a soy and turmeric based spring roll wrapper. The wet ingredients are suspended above in a fitting five ounce plastic glass, rimmed with suntan lotion that is garlic mayo. The Lake Michigan water is a kombu dashi. The eater is instructed to take a small mouthful of the dry ingredients and wash it down with a swig of the wet ingredients, going back and forth in a double fisted affair like they are swimming, until they are finished.

The service of Oak St. Beach was very much so inspired by a dish put forward by Michael Carlson of Schwa at Redmoon Theater’s Spectacle Lunatique 2011 called “Walking Through the Forest.”

Martinez: You were born and raised in Chicago and this has a strong influence on the food you make. Are there any other cities or cultures that you either look to for inspiration or are inherent in your work?

Jirasek: I think Mexican food simply got everything right. We obviously have a large population of Mexican-Americans in Chicago, and benefit greatly from the cornucopia of ingredients, flavor, and culture they have imbued upon us. Aside from that, I took great inspiration from my time cooking in Panama City, whose flavors are a great amalgamation of the diverse foreign cultures who have occupied the area and the local flora and fauna. I look forward to delving into historical American First Nation culinaria as a geographical inspiration, and look forward to marrying Filipino and Czech food with acidic flavors.

Martinez: Food-wise, what do you think are some exciting places or events happening around the city?

Jirasek: I think The Plant in The Back of the Yards is going to be a blueprint for metropolitan farming worldwide. Asado Coffee’s recent expansion plans and concept of ‘nano-roasting’ is next level. Smalls BBQ is the kind of approachable, forward thinking neighborhood restaurant that Chicago has lacked to put it on the level of NYC. Floriole’s baguettes are worth lining up for a la Paris when they come out fresh at 11am everyday. Three Aces is what every gastropub should strive to be. I also think we’ll see a boon in quality independent food writing like Graze, Middlewest and whatever Anthony Todd has up his sleeve.

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Martinez: What is your favorite Chicago-style food? And where’s your favorite place to get it?

Jirasek: Chicago’s hot dog is unmatched. Though not all the classic ingredients are included, Gene & Judes’ can’t be contended with because of the volume they go through and the freshness that entails, and fries like woah. Gotta go with underdog Chickie’s for beef because their giardiniera is only quickly cured and crunchier. Salerno’s for pizza because the true Chicago slice is thick crust and party cut.

Martinez: What does Guerrilla Smiles have lined up in the coming months?

Jirasek: In the great tradition of former Redmoon Theater Development Director Sean Kaplan, we will be curating the amuse-bouche portion of the upcoming fundraiser Spectacle Lunatique, outfitted Guerrilla style, primarily by the underground supper clubs of Chicago. We are in post-production for the next episode of our Break The Bread series with OnTheRealFilm for last year’s THAW fundraiser for Links Hall, as well as designing a menu for a soon opening southside cafe with one of Chicago’s champion contemporary artists.

Martinez: Is there a piece of advice, food-related or not that you think of often?

Jirasek: Don’t crowd the pan. When it rains, it pours. Be safe, be strong.

All photos courtesy of the artist.

A.Martinez is a freelance art and music organizer living in Chicago, IL.




The Art in Brewing Beer: Arcade Brewery

January 30, 2012 · Print This Article

This post is part of an ongoing series about art and beer. 

Over the weekend, I met artist and brewer Christopher Tourre at his house as he and Lance Curran, his partner in Arcade Brewery, brewed a five and a half gallon batch of beer they call Oatmilk Stout. Tourre brews on his kitchen stove in big gleaming steel pots. At the same time that he showed me a page of obscure calculations made in composition notebook, the mash assembled by those same calculations steeped in a rough plastic cooler of the kind you normally bring iced and bottled beer to the beach in. A hardware store spigot juts out its front for easy drainage. Chris tells me that some home brewers get extremely scientific in their process, invoking hyper accurate measurements and fine-tuned equipment to get as close as possible to target flavor components like International Bitterness Units (IBUs). But even a highly trained human tongue can only pick out a range of a few IBUs. Add in layers of complexity like sweet flavors from the beer’s malt or extracts added to it and the exact measurement becomes even harder to guess at without equipment.

Taking the mash's temperature

For Tourre and Curran, this kind of ambiguity is an asset to be celebrated both in their beer and in the engagements they’re looking to build around it. The imperfect process and intuitive understanding a brewer have are just two things that make brewing an artful craft. While Arcade is certainly intended to function as a business, lessons that come from participatory art and event-making are also primary concerns. Last year, in a month-long residency at Spoke, Tourre invited the public to both sample his own beer and to share in the creation of original brews. He connected with foragers and garderners around Chicago to make small batches of beer and soda using ingredients they found or grew. He also gave free home-brewing workshops. At the end of the month, he hosted a tasting of all the different beverages crafted with his co-creators present to share the stories behind each drink.

Although the Public Brewery at Spoke was firmly planted in the realm of art, it also helped Tourre and Curran’s business prospects. The residency got them in touch with New Chicago Beer Company, opening soon at The Plant—an indoor vertical farm in the Back of the Yards. Arcade will be renting New Chicago’s equipment between cycles to brew their first commercial batches. But public events are not intended to shrewdly forward a brand and network. Tourre and Curran think of interfacing with the public as more than market research. As they shift from an art project to a business, they’re aware of certain values they want to hold onto. “Sometimes it’s easier as an artist to create a convivial spirit and atmosphere.” Tourre says, “How do you stay sincere when it becomes a business? How do you take something that I would do as an art project and convert that over to a money making endeavor? How do you keep the same spirit, legitimacy, and authenticity? That’s part of the challenge for us.”

Because the beer isn’t in the bottle yet, sincerity and collaboration with the public are mostly guiding principles at the moment. But Arcade does have a few plans for keeping audiences substantially involved in what they do. Public Brew sessions will work much like the residency at Spoke did: people can attend causal brewing sessions where Tourre answers questions and explains every step of the process. While Arcade will have certain beers available year-round, their seasonals will be decided by a process of public consensus. People will be able to submit, discuss, and vote on recipes to create seasonal brews they’ll share credit on.

Arcade is also developing some novel ideas for the design of the bottles too. They’re working with the writer Jason Aaron and the comic artist Tony Moore to create a six-pack design where each bottle will have on it a frame of an original comic that relates to the beer it holds. The central theme for Arcade seems to be that everything around the beer is as important as the beer itself. As Curran said during our brewing session: you don’t just taste the beer, you experience it. That experience manifests in the crafting of beverage and builds out to include the vessel it comes in, the type of things people do when they’re drinking it, and the understanding people have of what it is they’re consuming.