The concept of tapas was born of necessity, and of course, of wine. Sweet wines and sherries were threatened by hovering fruit flies, so bars began serving small dishes of bread or salted meats (ham or chorizo) sized to cover the tops of glasses. Wine bars continued to expand the variety of glass covers, and we end up with tapas. It’s not the first time functionality has met design, but it’s probably the most crucial example of such in the culinary world. So important, in fact, that this art deserves its own exhibition, and that’s exactly what you’ll find at TAPAS. Spanish Design for Food at the Former Ambassador’s Residence.
This exhibition is the last thing you’d expect when considering such a dainty and molecular craft. It doesn’t consist of your favorite snacks molded out of weird materials and it’s not your conventional kind of pretty. Instead, you’ll find the art of tapas dissected: how each component on the plate is shaped, textured, and duplicated over and over again, where design comes into play, how wine and beverage now fit the food, how the tapas are transported, on what they are served, and how they are eaten. This means everything from the plasticine molds used to map plate designs that allow chefs to produce the same dish time and time again, and why Chupa Chups and stuffed olives are some of the most important Spanish culinary contributions to the world.
Even the art of the dining room has its own exhibit, which features unique eating surfaces, abstract utensils and plates, and various chairs designed to optimize the specific tapas dining experience. Curator Juli Capella wanted to make the point of telling the entire story of tapas and strives to give a glimpse into the future of what every day dining around the world would look like. His exhibition includes Spanish chefs, designers, architects, wineries and restaurants. You’ll notice a foosball table modified to serve as an eating surface, and a clear, gummy tennis shoe carrying fried bites, and your conclusion is correct– this wouldn’t be DC if José Andrés wasn’t one of the featured artist chefs. After all, tapas are really the closest thing we have to an official district food.
The most interesting part of this exhibition is reading the inspiration behind each plate, funnel and mold by each artist. It’s one of those double-take moments where you didn’t see anything there beyond a set of wooden serving dishes at first, and seconds later realize they’re meant to represent the seven deadly sins when paired with the correct food. These stories and muses force the diner to think the way chefs do, considering every aspect of the ritual of eating tapas and becoming acutely aware of everything on their plate. Every calorie is here to serve an artistic purpose.
TAPAS. Spanish Design for Food opens to the public on January 24th at the Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain, and closes on March 23rd.