Profile: Marc Bretillot

Culinary designer and contemporary performance artist Marc Bretillot brings fantasy to food, while exploring the rituals and symbolism associated with mealtimes. Natasha Edwards tucks in

‘I’ve always had a passion for cooking. It was almost by chance that I became a designer, rather than a chef,’ says Marc Bretillot. Today, though, he is somewhere between the two, at the forefront of the new profession of ‘design culinaire’, using his design skills to complement chefs, food companies and caterers.

After studying decorative arts at the craft-oriented École Boulle in Paris, and a period of glass-making, he turned to furniture and lighting, working with wood, resin, metal and recycled items, while also making prototypes for other designers. His studio and house – a former fountain-maker’s atelier in north east Paris – is littered with children’s bikes and roller skates, the requisite computers, one of the lamps he welded on to recuperated pram wheels and, behind a glass panel in the middle of the central room, the open kitchen where Bretillot likes to prepare dinner for friends.

Bretillot looks more like one of France’s post-punk alternative rock musicians than a designer, so it’s no surprise to learn that he also plays in the food-linked performances of rock trio Les Equarisseurs – drumming from under a table while simultaneously stirring up a giant soup with mechanical food mixers.

What has brought Bretillot most attention, however, is his pioneering workshop in culinary design at the École Superieure d’Art et de Design in Reims. ‘I was originally brought in to teach a course in materials,’ explains Bretillot, who soon began taking along foodstuffs to show students that they could be treated, from a design perspective, like any other material. ‘Mayonnaise is like a resin, which changes composition and hardens. Meat has to be cut with the grain, like wood,’ he says. In 1999 it became a course in its own right.

One aspect of Bretillot’s work covers the rituals of the meal and symbolism of eating. ‘Cuisine is an illustration of how society functions. If we look back over time, the way of serving is related to the form of government during each period,’ he says. Today’s trends for compartmentalised servings, froths, mousses and cappuccinos are, he believes, a form of virtualisation of food.

Food design existed before, insists Bretillot, whether in grandiose cakes, designed in architectural-style drawings, or confections, such as a Toblerone. What is recent is food associated with the name of a designer, but, whereas most designers stop at the stage of restaurant interiors, packaging or dinner services, Bretillot treats the properties and associations of food, and the rituals and symbolism associated with the meal.

Some projects take the form of redesigning food products. It’s not just stylism, says Bretillot, but a question of classic design issues, such as historical context, image and function, researching the history and origins of a product, and questioning existing codes. For the upmarket food hall of Le Bon Marché department store, he collaborated with pastry chefs Philippe Muze and Olivier Cheron to design a new, ‘more ergonomic’ version of the classic French millefeuille – vertical rather than horizontal, and held together in a binding of nougatine and chocolate, it is easier to cut. Recently, he was brought in by the Chambre des Métiers of the Limousin region to help local charcutiers update the image of the traditional pâte en croûte (pork pie) – his solution, a form of stencil, using greaseproof paper during the baking, to create a distinctive pattern on the crust.

Bretillot clearly still enjoys tinkering with machines. He has invented gadgets to ice shortbread and pour champagne, while a long-running fantasy is a system of mechanised, tabletop service carts. For Paris Designers’ Days at the Palais de Tokyo in 2005, steel rods with little hammers could be rotated to tap tunes on the wine glasses, while a knuckle of lamb was served to each diner, suspended from a shrine-like metal frame, to descend slowly into a mound of mashed potato and gravy below.

Although Bretillot notes a trend for multidisciplinary teams, he sees the role of food design as developing towards one-off special events. For a buffet given by a wood veneer supplier for Accor hotel group, Bretillot devised a wood-themed menu, from wood-smoked salmon, woodland blackberries and cinnamon bark to the oaky tannins of Cognac. In creating alternatives to the standardised wedding buffet or product launch lunch, he ensures guests leave with something to remember.

In parallel to his corporate clients, Bretillot also adds a more anarchic, alternative edge to his conceptual projects, making them closer to contemporary art, such as meals/performances at Paris’s Fondation Cartier, a reenactment of an Italian Futurist recipe with artist Gilles Saussart and a series of alarming meat sculptures. As he likes to remind you, ‘the act of eating is something very violent’.

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