Sam Kanson-Benanav is the floor director at the Museum of Food and Drink, which is where we’ll be throwing our Issue 2 release party next week. With a broad background in food—from studying international agriculture in undergraduate school, to working as a butcher and a chef, to overseeing culinary operations for a hospitality group in Minneapolis—joining the team at MOFAD gave Sam the opportunity to combine many of his food-related interests into a single job.
MOFAD opened its current permanent space last fall in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and as Sam explains below, it’s the first museum of its kind, devoted to holistically exploring the role of food and food systems in our lives and culture. If you haven’t had a chance to visit the current exhibit, “Flavor: Making It, Faking It,” next week provides the perfect opportunity. Read on to learn more about the goals and purposes of the museum and its current exhibit, how Sam landed there, and a few upcoming MOFAD events to keep on your radar.
Food has become such an expansive topic—every day there seems to be a new opportunity to rethink its role in our lives. What was the catalyst for opening up a museum devoted to food? What do you hope to accomplish through exhibits at MOFAD?
Our motto here at MOFAD is “Food is Culture” and I think that really sums up how we approach the role of food in our society. Food is at the heart of every major discipline and we feel deserves a cultural institution of its own. Imagine a space on the scale of Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to exploring human society through food and drink. Our intention is to preserve regional cuisines, to educate the public about the food system past, present, and future, and to inspire a new generation of informed consumers, chefs, and producers. Given how, as you say, expansive the topic is, it really just felt shocking that this space didn’t exist already.
Your current exhibit, "Flavor: Making It, Faking It" explores all the minutia of what flavor is, the industry around it, and how we interact with it as humans—and it's such a sensory experience. Can you describe a bit more about this particular exhibit and its genesis?
For our inaugural exhibit in this space we wanted to choose a story that had a beginning, middle, and was still relevant to everyone’s lives today. We found that in the story of the flavor industry. Additionally, we wanted to add to the conversation and serve as a forum to confront and consider some of the politics behind the flavor industry. There’s a lot of noise behind topics like MSG and misconceptions behind terms like “natural” and “artificial.” When you dive deeper into the science of flavor and the history of the industry you find a lot of the ambiguities behind those terms are defined more by our own consumer preferences than the science of flavor making.
What's the process when you and your colleagues go about building a new exhibit? Our new issue features a lot of original art—there are original oil paintings on the cover and endpapers. Would you ever open an exhibit featuring traditional art that relates to food?
Building a new exhibition is always challenging and we are learning about that process with each new project. That is in part why our exhibit design studio “MOFAD Lab” is such an important space for us. We’ll begin with a particular theme in mind, and dive deeper into the existing academic literature until we find the crux of the story. Keep in mind how limited and concise the story needs to be. Assuming you can only catch someone’s attention span for about one hour there’s no way to cover any subject matter exhaustively. Rather you need to define a cogent plot and build an experience that’s compelling, engaging, and consistently reinforces your guiding themes. That’s as much a question of design as it is about research or writing.
In terms of art, it really depends in what capacity it relates to food. As a modern sensory-focused museum we are open to wide array of mediums to explore food and drink. That being said, our aim is always to add to the conversation and explore the nuances of the subject matter. We are less interested in exhibiting food art for art’s sake, but if art plays a role in telling the story we would be welcome to including it. As an example, I took a horticulture class in college in which we explored the evolution and domestication of fruits from how they appeared in original renaissance paintings. Granted, I slept through that lab and failed the exam, you can see nonetheless there’s a compelling exhibit in which art drives storytelling.
What's your background in food? How did you get involved with MOFAD?
My background is very loopy. I studied International Agriculture and Natural Resource Economics as an Undergraduate at UW-Madison because I found food to be a good lens through which to study the distribution of resources. After college, I decided I really just wanted to cook. I worked in fine dining and butchery, and was opening chef at Forequarter Restaurant in Madison. After spending two years researching energy marketplaces in the Amazon Rainforest, I moved into restaurant management, overseeing culinary operations for a restaurant group in Minneapolis that included a bakery, coffee roasting company, independent restaurants and handled all contracted food services at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I became involved with MOFAD after meeting our Executive Director Peter Kim at a pop-up dinner I did here in Brooklyn. MOFAD seemed like a logical next step for me as it combined thoughtful and well curated research with my general obsession of food and drink.
Is there anything in particular that guests at our Issue 2 launch party on 4/27 should seek out while they're there? Can you tease any future exhibits? Any upcoming MOFAD events we'd be interested in?
For those guests who are visiting the space for the launch party, try combining your cocktail with a smell from our smell synth. This is a piece we built for the current exhibition to mimic how flavor scientists recreate and combine flavors. There are over half a million different flavor combinations possible.
Future exhibitions will run the gamut of all things food and drink. You can see some ideas on our website which include everything from “Buzz: World Coffee Production and the American Cup of Joe” to “Fad Food Diets from the Middle Ages to South Beach.” I can’t reveal our next exhibit yet, but I can say where the “Flavor” exhibit is industry and science focused, our next will likely be more culturally oriented, and consider the role of ethnicity in shaping the “American” cuisine.
In regards to upcoming events, our Spring Benefit is May 12th and tickets are on sale now. This year it will be hosted by Ted Allen and Alex Guarnaschelli. Guests will dine on a five course tasting menu with each course inspired by a MOFAD exhibit—past, present, or future. We have a great lineup of chefs including Marco Canora, Andrew Carmellini, Maneet Chauhan, and Ryan Hardy. For those excited by MOFAD who’d like to support the project consider attending this event. Additionally, we have programs almost every week open to the public such as a class on how to cook the perfect steak with J Kenji López of Serious Eats or a single-origin spring sensory honey tasting with the American Honey Tasting Society. And of course, the current exhibit is open five days a week. If you haven't check it out yet, be sure to do so!
All Paintings by Patrick Byrnes for Jarry