Food catering at art exhibition openings/launchings and events is an art in itself – that of balancing budget, prestige, expanding clientele-followers base and sheer gastronomic lure.
The standard is on the core trinity of “(main) course”, desserts and drinks. Most galleries opt for food caterers who charge “per head”, or based on its menu list, or a combination thereof. Some clients source their own homemade traditional kuih according to individual preferences; and a few take pleasure in the preparation itself, especially the family recipes; while some even prepare/cook the food.
All, of course, must be halal.
The type and quality of food vary with the status of the exhibition, the significance of the event, the artist/s featured and/or the GOH (guest of honour) present, with the budget starting from a modest RM500 to as much as RM3,000, that is mostly because of higher crowd capacity.
The cost is borne by the gallery or organiser, or even a sponsor/s or venue host, or shared or pushed to the artist/s.
Buffet spread at G13 Gallery in Kelana Jaya, Selangor.
You can only find signature dishes and drinks from Sutra Theatre and Art Gallery, which has its in-house chefs comprising artist-artistic director-manager/lighting expert Sivarajah Natarajan, Yogi Chellappan and Yeni Ernawati, but it is factored in as expenses with a ruleof- thumb of RM45-to-RM50 per head for a crowd with between 50 to 60 people.
Its selection is impressive: tempura with sambal (vegetarian), herbed zucchini bites, fried noodles, nasi goreng kampung, pasta (vegetarian and non-vegetarian – Sivarajah is a vegetarian), south and north Indian cuisine, salad and desserts of pulut hitam (with santan), butter cake, and its signature drink of serai with ginger or sirap cincau.
The desserts in general include kuih talam pandan, kuih lapis, kuih seri muka, kuih kochi, kuih bengka (tapioca), pulut tekan, pulut tai-tai (blue butterfly pea flowers) and agar-agar (jelly).
In group exhibitions involving the artist Marisa Ng, like in Disambiguation (Universiti Malaya Gallery) and Eve (KL Jazz City Art Gallery), Ng charges economically for the simple fare of mee goreng, cucur udang, rendang and curry puffs, with the cost shared among the participants to defray expenses.
A gallery with a different spread is G13, with its selection of Italian pasta, pizza and southern Indian cuisine. It has an average budget of between RM1,800 to RM2,000. As it deals only with contemporary art, art students and a younger set throng its exhibition openings, so it sets aside a special holding room for its VIP guests and select collectors.
It also serves wine, but only to its bona fide clients. There is a merry band of professional freeloaders who gravitate to events serving liquor and hotel-quality cuisine like Oasis Square @ Oasis Damansara in Selangor, and in KL – Connexions @ Nexus, Sime Darby Convention Centre, Royal Chulan, The Zenith @ The Vertical and KL Hilton.
Liquor was available in the initial editions of auction houses; now only KLAS Auctions, Dai-Ichi Art Space (Penang) and Galeri Seni Mutiara (Penang) serve liquor – and even then with guarded scrutiny, so unlike the free-flowing days.
Some signature dishes at Sutra Theatre and Art Gallery.
In one art event organised by a notable KL-based French art entrepreneur, one guest got so inebriated that he could be seen sauntering by the side of the swimming pool, with two re-filled glasses of the sponsored Andy Warhol Absolut! These educated scroungers would pick up scraps of art information from others to parrot, apparently for some legitimacy.
In one (auction opening), a female freeloader was bold enough to empty a plate of pastries into her beach bag!
To circumvent this problem – and it can be an embarrassment if food is found short – The Edge Art Auctions, now defunct, took the controversial move of vetting guests via invitation cards (even then strictly following the number stated) to its VIP lunch buffet. The International Art Expo Malaysia, when it started, provided food and drinks at its VIP openings, but has since stopped because of the phenomenally large crowds. But some galleries still host little receptions for its well-heeled clients. A few, however, see a good crowd as a face-saver and would over-order, especially when a big-wig politician is the GOH.
The Dai-Ichi Art Space in Penang relies on food catering despite its outlet being with the award-winning Arte Restaurant and Wine House, with its upscale gourmet food. It goes for canapes with desserts of chai kuih, tapioca cake and kuih seri muka, while for its Maritime Silk Route exhibition, which also commemorated the patriarch Datuk Tai Keik Hock’s 50th wedding anniversary, tapas buffet was served. Wine and beer are freely served, and this has attracted even seasonal foreigners.
When it and the parent company, Dai-Ichi Modern Art Gallery (Sungai Petani) organise major festivals and symposiums like its recent 20th anniversary celebrations, the selected guest artists are taken to restaurants and food courts in Kedah and Penang to sample local fare.
The Arte restaurateur Vincent Tai said serving mee hoon is messy, and the 3pm opening time is just good for snacks and finger food, and not dinner stuff.
It’s the same with the upstairs gallery at Penang’s China House, where the one renting the space arranges for its own food catering, like in the recent Rebirth exhibition by Alaa Shasheet, organised by Open Studios Penang.
Another Penang gallery, The Art Gallery, sources from different suppliers. The manager, Eelene Tan, rues that decades ago, there was only Eden Catering which stipulated a minimum of 80 persons! “We often had lots of food left,” she laments. Its usual fare now includes satay, curry puff, kuih such as kaya kuih, fruits; and with coffee and tea in sachets, and cordial in a dispenser. She says that when they held exhibitions at Mont Kiara in KL in the past, it was canape style.
In Penang, Ming Art at Straits Quay is gauged to be the most lavish in its food spread and drinks, but it has only one exhibition a year, unlike say, Galeri Seni Mutiara, Dai- Ichi Art Space and The Art Gallery, which has at least six exhibitions a year each.
Laksa were served at the Galeri Maybank exhibition.
Nasi lemak or nasi tomato with chicken are tops in openings at HOM Art Trans in Ampang, KL, with a budget for RM800 and with kuih and fruits for 50 pax; but its boss cum artist-artivist Bayu Utomo Radjikin says that its drinks (cordials and teh tarik) are catered for 100 pax.
The menu at the City Art Gallery/Li Chi Mao Museum is: curry chicken, sweet and sour fish fillet, fried mee hoon, mixed vegetables, curry puff, egg mayo sandwiches, kuih seri muka, coffee, tea and orange cordial. Its managing director, Datin Mary Tang, would source for extra cakes and a jelly platter. She said that when there is excess food, some artists get to “tar-pau” the food back, so as not to waste it.
At the National Art Gallery in KL and the Penang State Art Gallery, the catered food is via buffet and dome-serving, where tables are reserved for “invited” guests and dignitaries.
The food fare is often rotated, as familiarity dulls taste buds, and decision-makers like the Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers toy around with different menus, once even having the signature nasi lemak of a collector Datuk from his restaurant in Shah Alam, while another was forced to change when her food-catering friend decided to call it quits because of ill health.
When royalty is involved, the protocol of reception, the red carpet and “regal” chairs come in. When the amiable Perlis Raja Muda and Raja Puan Muda graced the VIP Night of the International Art Expo Malaysia, a special holding room was prepared, but the royal patrons often preferred the sumptuous visual feast. A special menu from KL Hilton complete with crew was in order when the Perak Sultan and Raja Permaisuri attended Yusof Ghani’s Segerak VIII exhibition at Galeri Prima, KL, organised by Henry Butcher Curate and the New Straits Times.
Providing a visual feast preferably with intellectual jogs may be the be-all of art exhibition openings, but the lingering taste of the food makes the experience wholesome, especially when a sip of wine spurs one’s resolve to raise the paddle board to bid for the work or works one fancies.
Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.