Chef Louis DiBaccari: bringing people together through food and art

November 27, 2018

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Alexis Smith

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Boston’s own Louis DiBaccari is setting out to mix the culinary arts with visual and performing arts. His CREATE Festival is a celebration of Boston’s artistic talent from graffiti artists to chefs—creating a platform equally showcasing food and visual art.

DiBaccari is a chef with deep roots in Boston—his uncles sculpted the iconic Parkman Plaza figures (Religion, Industry, and Learning) located at Boston Common—having opened Tavern Road in Fort Point and having established Boston’s CREATE Festival. His next project is opening a brick and mortar space in Somerville’s Bow Market where his aim is to showcase the city’s artists and top bartenders. Their vision is to serve “baller” cocktails in a space that’s sexy and hip, but also showcases the art on the walls. His space will be an invitation for people to learn about art and get turned on by what they see. It’s an exciting time for artists and this will be a beautiful space to exhibit their ingenuity and creativity.

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I come from a big Italian family and food was an important part of our childhood. My mom raised four boys, so she cooked for us every night and packed lunch for us everyday, made us breakfast every morning. What really stuck with me was the holidays, Thanksgiving is a huge deal in my family, we go all out—there  would be 60 people at the house. Food brought people together; when I graduated high school and went off to school, I somehow found myself in the the worst food program you can imagine. It was such a horrible experience that I decided to move off campus and I was going to fend for myself. I would call home and ask “how do you make the gravy, how do you make meatballs” whatever it was, and my mom and aunts would send me recipes, I ended up living with a bunch of hockey and football players so of course they were always hungry and I became the chef of the house. I was cooking almost every night. I’d make sandwiches in the morning, pasta at night, I was doing roasts, chicken, everything!

I had become obsessed with cooking to the point where I wasn’t even going to classes anymore, I was just living at this house as a live-in chef. Eventually, I realized that I needed to go somewhere where Culinary Arts were available and it was this moment of clarity for me that made me drop out of school. I got a job back home, in Lynnfield, working in a kitchen for the first time and I fell in love with it. I went to culinary school in Arizona and when I was done, I came here and jumped straight into the best kitchens I could find and I did that until now.

I was inspired by the sense of community and the sense of family that food automatically brings but the work itself, I became addicted to it. Once I got into professional kitchens I realized the teamwork that goes into running a professional kitchen is the exact same adrenaline rush you get from being on a basketball court with four guys and passing the ball around-- it reminded me of playing sports in high school. I was an athlete, this was my mentality, this is what I wanted to do: be part of a team. I like working with people towards one common goal and that’s what kitchens gave me.

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How do you start getting the idea of combining the culinary arts with visual arts?

I still can’t say that I really understand a lot about art. I don’t have a background in it, I don’t have an education in it, I just know that I’m very inspired by what I see. I know what I like. At the time, I didn’t understand any of it, I didn’t seek it out. I started dating someone actually who was a fine-art photographer and she opened my eyes to that whole world and even at that time I don’t think I had a full appreciation for it or passion for it but I understood what was going on. I also saw what was happening in the city. She lived in Fort Point which is New England’s oldest and largest artist community but that was right around the time when we knew that the buildings were being sold to developers and that the artists were going to be displaced. New England’s oldest and largest artist community was about to become gentrified. I actually opened a restaurant there but when we went in there we knew that we wanted to tip our caps to Fort Point. The restaurant was called Tavern Road and we wanted to make sure that Tavern Road was thought of as an artist restaurant, so we needed to have lots of art in there. The name itself was a tip of the cap to my uncles who were sculptors in the city of Boston and their studio was on Tavern Road, right by the MFA. I wanted the kitchen to be very similar to what Tavern Road, the art studio was.

The art studio was a place where people did apprenticeships, they came through and they learned how to work with clay and do sculpture. They learned how to work with metal, wood, whatever the medium was. Tavern Road was a place for them to learn and practice and be creative, and that’s how I always approach food and that’s how I wanted the kitchen to operate at Tavern Road so I thought, “Let’s just call it Tavern Road!”

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Then, I realized that artists weren’t really appreciated in the city but chefs were. Chefs have all been on the cover of magazines. Restaurateurs, athletes, there’s certain types of people and profession that Boston gravitates towards and I thought, “Why aren’t there any glass blowers on the cover of Boston Magazine, why aren't there any graffiti artists that are getting written about in the Globe? Why is it that we have all of these amazing artists in Boston and no one gives a shit or pays any attention to them? If I wanted to see their work, where would I go and how would I find them?” There just wasn’t any exposure for them, a lot of them were leaving, and now that Fort Point was being blown up and gentrified, they wouldn’t have a place to live either. I said, I’ll bet if I threw an event and put an artist and chef together, people would pay money for the ticket for the food and once they got there they’d realize that there was this amazing artwork that they didn’t know anything about. So, I did that. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen because I’d never done something like this before and it was just an idea and I was just a cook who didn’t know anything about art. We were able to rustle up six artists and chefs, and we brought in a couple of bartenders and we had our first CREATE! I didn’t know what to expect, I’d never curated an art show, I’d never been to an art show. We sold $3,000 of art work at our first event. I didn’t know if that was good, if that was average, if it was a disappointment, but it turns out that its phenomenal! The artists were so excited and wanted to come back the next year, so I did it another year.

And it was primarily visual artists?

Yeah, it was primarily graffiti artists. We also had a glassblower and a photographer, we tried to find some different mediums. When we got to the second CREATE, the artist that kind of carried us through was the Individuals Collective. These guys are the most bad-ass woodworkers you’ll ever see. There are lots of woodworkers that work with reclaimed wood and maybe they make a table or something but these guys create theater, they create characters and they create situations, they create storylines. One of the storylines they created was called Lovesick Cafe and they had brought to Bonaroo two years previous and they agreed to bring it to CREATE. Lovesick cafe is similar to The Twilight Zone: these aliens that they had built out of reclaimed wood, came down, went into a cafe, killed all of the humans, reopened the cafe and were serving a full menu of cooking with the humans as food. They had a maître d, they had a chef, they had cooks. All the details were thought of and they had a whole kitchen built which we brought it into the Boston Center for Adult Education and put it in their existing kitchen. It had this holy shit factor and we paired them with Jason Sheik who at the time was at Toro. Jason made a patte where he used hearts, livers, kidneys, and tongues to make the food and I was like, Yes, that’s exactly what they would serve here at this cafe, I get it, that’s perfect! There was this really easy connection to understand that translated really well.

 20_domathonlovesickwebready04That's incredible that they were able to create an entire universe with food and wood!

 

I thought, this is what CREATE is, it’s not like going to the MFA, it’s not like going to the ICA, CREATE is its own thing! It’s about synergy, it’s about collaboration, it’s about creating a narrative and a storyline. It’s not about what I thought it was, just pairing up an artist and chef and just coming out for the food, this is about creating stories at the event. That’s when we we started giving people a little more direction. We would now tell the chef that we wanted him to meet with the artist and talk about what compels you to be artists and your individual brands and try to find some commonalities. Find one voice between the two of you and make sure that there’s synergy and speak directly to that. Then we had some really outstanding, really thought-provoking, thrilling exhibitions and installations.

 

Moe Pope, most people don’t know he’s a visual artist because last year he was nominated for 11 awards at the VMA’s. He’s a hip-hop sensation in Boston, an incredible musician, and that’s what people know him as. What they don’t know is that he’s a painter, he works with mixed media. He’s a phenomenal visionary when it comes to art and so we brought him into CREATE to show that side of him. We paired him up with Colin Lynch who had just opened up Bar Mezzana, which is one of my favorite restaurants. Colin’s ingredients are top level. He is top level. He and Moe went to Mattapan where Moe grew up and they went to a little coffee shop and Moe said “That bodega across the street, that’s where my mother did all of her food shopping for me and all my siblings. I grew up eating Campbell's tomato soup and Kraft mac and cheese. My mother just tried to put food on the table and there were times when she couldn’t and we just had to figure that out, this is what I was raised in”. For their installation, Colin went back to that bodega and bought a whole bunch of cans of tomato soup and made this tomato bisque Where the base of it was the Campbell’s tomato soup but they added all of these things you would eat at Bar Mezzana and they made this beautiful, amazing, delicious, super high-end soup. The idea was that Moe started from the bottom, now he’s here and Moe was able to elevate himself out of that and into who he is now. On top of the that, people tasted the soup while having headphones on that played Moe rapping about fighting his way out of the projects. It was awesome and people walked away spellbound. I realized that CREATE should be a lot more than just throwing some art on the wall and having some food next to it. Give it some real thought. Create a story.

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Do you have a favorite medium to work with?

No, they inspire me as people and it doesn’t really matter to me if they’re doing glass-blowing, or mixed media, or they’re a fine-art photographer. I just get so jazzed up that they put so much work into making CREATE what I want CREATE to look like. 

When I go to museums, I get pretty turned on by the modern art. I really like messaging, I really like trying to figure out what it is that the artist is trying to say. Do I understand it before I go over to read the card? That’s part of it for me. My uncles did Parkman Plaza over behind Boston Common, there’s three statues right near Park Street Station and one of them is Industry, one is Religion, and the other is Education. When you’re looking at them the State House is right behind it with the dome and it’s a super cool shot. It’s amazing and my uncles did those! On the back of the sculptures, engraved in the marble it says DiBaccari right there, it’s really awesome.

What I want create to be is a level playing field. I know that through the course of a calendar year, food is going to dominate the headlines. I know that more people go to bars than go to galleries, but if for one day we can create an event where it’s a level playing field, where the art, and the music, and the food the drink all coexist, that’s just sort of what we want the event to be seen as. Six years ago, we started off as just an artist and a chef, now we’ve paired them with bartenders. Now we have three live bands who play, we have a DJ, we have 30 to 35 merchant tables. We have live performance art, live installations, and we have food trucks. We have little restaurant popups and it’s just become this festival now which was never the intention, I just wanted people to recognize artists, but now all of the sudden I’m running this festival.

Bow Market called and they approached me saying that they were building a market in Union Square and they had one space left that they wanted to be a gallery or studio. They wanted something exciting and different, and they were wondering if I could envision CREATE as a brick and mortar space. If there’s a way that I can do this, I would like to grow the CREATE brand into more than twice a year.

 Natasha-MoustacheI have one filter I set up for CREATE and before I make any decisions things have to pass through that filter and it’s: by doing this are we developing a larger platform for artists in Boston? If the answer is no then we don't do it. If it’s a yes, then we pursue the option further. I looked at this project and I said, “Right now, I can only give the platform twice a year for four hours a day, so right now I’m giving 8 hours to artists a year. This brick and mortar space is an opportunity to do potentially 6-7 hours a day, 7 days a week!” That really sold me. If we can take that gallery model and flip it on it’s head a little bit by having it double as a cocktail lounge, I think we can motivate people to want to come here and we can motivate people to start caring about what's on the walls. It’s a difficult departure for me because I won’t be cooking and that’s my art, that’s what I contribute, but I’m going to hit a pause button on that so I can grow CREATE. Then I’ll try to figure out a way to get cooking again someday. For now, I know that it’s a necessary thing to do. If I want to grow CREATE, then this is the way to do it.

We decided that this space cannot be white walls and picture frames, it has to have a lot of character on its own. It has to have a personality on its own. It has to look good and sound good. There has to be great music and the cocktails have to be baller which is why we decided to batch out cocktails ahead of time. I like watching bartenders make drinks and I think a lot of people see that and are impressed but it doesn’t always add something to the experience other than time. What if we could serve a drink immediately and it would be delicious? This space is going to be all about hospitality, so the bartenders are going to be pouring off of draft lines and all of the cocktails are going to be from recipes from all of the best bartenders in Boston. No matter who is back here pouring that drink, it will be consistent because we’ll make it the same way every time. A cocktail will not change because someone decided they were a little busy and needed to cut a corner somewhere. It’ll always be the same, it’ll always be perfect and we can get it to you in record time. It’s efficient, it’s fast, it’s consistent. Then we’re going to design each wall differently so that the room itself is still super sexy and really hip, and once the art goes up it’ll become this totally different, special place and I think we’ll have most likely two artists to a space at a time. But I’m also not opposed to having six smaller artists come in who aren’t on a super famous level yet and exhibiting them. We want it to have a lot of different looks and feels. We want the space to be able to flip it’s personality based on who the artists are in the room. Because we aren’t spending our time making drinks, it allows us to increase the level of hospitality we’re able to deliver all around the room. If you brought food up from the market, we’re clearing a space for you, we’re talking about the artists and making sure you’re informed about what is going on in the room around you. We’re going to tell you about the artists and we want you to listen we’re also going to tell you about the bartenders, there will be a lot of points of information and that's what's going to make the space really interesting.  

 

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