Feeding the Artists

By Lonestoner


“Food is the next big art form on the Playa.”

Since 2007, the Feed the Artists program has been living up to its name, providing gourmet meals and relaxing ambiance to the hardworking individuals who arrive in the Black Rock Desert a week or more before the event to create the art that blows our chemically enhanced minds each year.

It started when Keith “Colonel Angus” Rinzler had lunch with his friend and well-known Burning Man artist, Zach Coffin. As Burners often do, they talked about Burning Man, and in the course of the conversation Zach mentioned the fact that Burning Man artists work so hard that food is more often than not an afterthought. Colonel Angus thought that was bullshit and wanted to do something about it, so he called his buddy Jean-Pierre “Chef JP” Weingarten, and the rest is [BM] history.

Nearing its fourth year, Feed the Artists has successfully served many meals to Burning Man artists and their crew members (and one lucky Gate volunteer who was just in the right place at the right time), in addition to coordinating meals served by a great many generous theme camps.

In its inaugural year, FtA fed three artists groups on three nights; the final night saw Larry Harvey and Lady Bee amongst the diners. In 2008, Feed the Artists served meals, including their first official breakfast, to approximately 650 people, and six theme camps fed an additional seventy-five people. This year, FtA fed around four hundred, but arranged for an astonishing thirty-five theme camps to feed approximately six-hundred and fifty people. Every single funded artist and their crew members (including the hardworking temple crew) and many non-funded but still hungry artists and crew members were gifted a meal, and most enjoyed two or three. Clearly, the Feed the Artists program is a HUGE success.

Although FtA stresses to the theme camps that participate in the program that it’s all about appreciation and collaboration, and what, specifically they serve is less important, they use their own now famous dinners to set an example and push the envelope of “food as art” on the Playa. According to Colonel Angus, “our dinners are a means to an end, not an end unto themselves Of course they serve as a showcase of our own artistic talents when it comes to food on the Playa and a deep expression of appreciation for the artists and others who are our guests, but even more importantly, they serve as an example to all other theme camps of what is possible. If we can serve THAT kind of food, in THAT kind of environment, to THAT many people, in other words, then how hard would it be for YOU, Mr. Theme Camp, to invite an artist group of ten people over for dinner one or more nights? That really is our raison d’etre.”

And push the envelope may be an understatement. This year’s entertainment ranged from a harpist and violinist, to a magician, to an 8×20 vinyl “art mural” that provided an opportunity for artistic expression and interaction and decorated the dining area of Entheon Village throughout the event. Not to mention the seventy foot sky bucket where diners were treated to champagne and a bird’s eye view of our beautiful and beloved Black Rock City. Then there was the Mystery Tent. I can’t tell you anymore about it because hey, it’s a mystery, but rest assured everyone leaving the Mystery Tent did so with an evil smile. But you don’t have to take my word for it! Here’s what others have to say about Feed the Artists:

-“I’m Bryan Tedrick, maker of the “Portal of Evolution”. My small crew (4 men) enjoyed 3 great meals this year. Not only was the food outstanding, but the people were great too. In fact, we are now considered “family” by one camp. It’s like we joined tribes and are related. The time spent eating and talking helps people get beyond casual chit chat. I found the generosity wonderful and I think they felt our genuine appreciation. How else to overcome barriers? Tough to meet people cold. The food idea is perfect for us and we hope it continues.”

-“I was on Playa almost 2 weeks early and was working on Shiva Vista/fire conclave. I attended two FtA dinners and we also hosted one. The one we hosted we had the Burninator guys over for some spaghetti, nothing fancy, but was a great opportunity to talk shop as we have similar fire pieces. But later we went to a dinner hosted by Entheon village. I must tell you it was the most amazing dinner I have ever attended, anywhere. Upon entering their shaded dining area we were offered a lavender spritz. We mingled with the people there (but our group was so large we were most of the people) as they served us wine. A blinky necklace was passed on with a wink. When you got the necklace around your neck you were whisked away into a room where you were served smoke, vodka, and received a wonderful hand massage (from a beautiful woman) as a scantily clad woman belly danced for us. The massage was a godsend after days of hard work. The dinner itself was very tasty and had several courses. They even gave us a bottle of wine. Their kitchen facilities there were completely amazing. I have never felt so pampered in my life. I was very impressed with the whole thing. I loved the idea. We relayed our stories to our theme camp later (Lutre Village) and they liked the idea and might be willing to host a dinner. I also loved the pendant (medallion) we received. Feed the Artists is definitely something I’d like to see grow and I am willing to help it do so.” -Lee Williams(aka Snowlover)

-“I was at BM as part of the Temple crew this year and we were thrilled to get fed by the people at Sacred Spaces Village. I’m sure it was a challenge to find someone willing to feed a crew our size–there had to be at least 70 of us–but they were incredibly gracious and served us a hell of a meal. So… my feedback is very, very positive.” -Ira Weinschel

Feed the Artists co-founder Keith “Colonel Angus” Rinzler was kind enough to grant my request for an interview, here’s some of what he had to say about FtA:

Lonestoner: How long have you been going to Burning Man, and what was your first impression?

Colonel Angus: This year was my fifth year. My first year, like most people, I was blown away. I wasn’t really with a camp, just a group of friends. I knew that for my second year I wanted to be a part of a camp, probably a large camp, and I wanted to work, to contribute in some way.

LS: How does one go about volunteering to work with FtA?

CA: Anyone interested in volunteering should start with our website. There are many ways to get involved, let us know what you’re good at and we’ll try to accommodate you. Because of the difficulty of organizing volunteers on the Playa, we do ask that you be willing to participate in FtA planning, which happens for many months prior to Burning Man.

LS: Who came up with your logo, and the slogan “Feed the Artists, Burn the Food?”

CA: The “Feed the Artists” part of the slogan was mine and Chef JP added the “Burn the Food” part. For the logo, I worked with a designer friend and went through more iterations that I care to admit.

LS: How crazy are the logistics for what you guys do? It seems like a lot of work…

CA: The logistics are pretty crazy; it’s a lot of coordinating. In January we start planning for the year ahead and we have an annual FtA planning retreat during the Fourth of JuPlaya event. With enough of the right people, you can get anything done.

LS: If you don’t mind me asking, who pays for all this shit?

CA: We are a small, geographically diverse group so holding large fundraisers is difficult. The bulk of it comes from a few large donors, who wish to remain anonymous, but we wouldn’t be able to do what we do if it weren’t for the numerous small donations we get through our website. Donations are gladly accepted and greatly appreciated. www.feedtheartists.net

LS: Tell us about some of your FtA moments, you must have some good stories.

CA: It’s all good, and while gifting isn’t the reason we do what we do, we have received some fun and interesting “payback” from some of the artists groups. The biggest gift is just getting to know and hang out with some of the amazing artists, which I never seem to be able to do as much as I’d like. This year a group of them threatened to kidnap me, just to make sure we got quality time together. It never happened, but there’s always next year.

Chef Jean Pierre Weingarten is a Feed the Artists co-founder, “Chef Du Cuisine,” and kitchen co-coordinator for Entheon Village.

At Burning Man 2006, I erected a “restaurant” at the Grand Hotel at Ashram Galactica—a hotel theme camp—where I served several intimate meals for 15 guests, inside a gloriously ornate Mongolian-crafted ger (yurt). I experienced a new facet of the hospitality industry that I never realized existed in all my 20-plus years in the biz: providing my talents, energy and time to cooking meals out of service to others, without remunerations and with a greater sense of appreciation for what was offered. During a time when I felt stagnant with professional cooking, and tired of the profit-driven environment with which I had been immersed, I felt refreshed and fired up about this type of volunteerism and participation upon my return to the Default.

So it was synchronous that at the end of the Burn week that same year, Keith “Colonel Angus” Rinzler paid me a visit in my carport-turned-kitchen. They had heard about the Ashram and what we had accomplished, and wanted to find out more concerning our restaurant. Little did I know that this marked the beginning of FtA, and a couple of months later, Keith and I corresponded through emails and phone conversations about an idea he had. He wanted me to be a part of a simple, yet powerful endeavor: gifting Burning Man-funded artists and their crews on the Playa with nourishment and camaraderie during their time of setting up and installing their art works during pre-event week. He said that the concept dovetailed beautifully with the guiding principles of Burning Man such as Communal Effort and Immediacy. He called it Feed The Artists and in 2007, with the advocacy and support of Christine “LadyBee” Kristen—then Art Curator for BMORG—we at Ashram Galactica hosted the first Feed the Artists dinners for three different artists groups, on three different nights during the pre-event week. I provided a buffet menu that nurtured and nourished our guests. A new era was born.

Cooking on the Playa is quite a challenge. Dust, of course, is the main bug-a-boo with which to contend, and ensuring that the kitchen setup is as dust-proof as possible is one of the most important considerations. The menus I created for the FtA dinners reflected the need to make sure that the artists we fed were well nourished, so that they could continue their setup with more energy; especially in the harsh environment of the Black Rock desert. I utilized ingredients that work well in the desert arena: high protein, low carbohydrates menu items, coconut water, dried nuts and fruit, etc. I often dipped into the cuisines from around the world and varied styles to best suit Black Rock: Thai, Moroccan, Spanish, California, vegetarian and vegan. In 08 and 09 we were gifted—respectively—fresh Alaskan salmon
from Robby “Ahab” Lebovic, a salmon fisherman, and albacore tuna from the Tuna Guys.

The following is the last menu—where stoned fruit was the theme—we
offered on Saturday, August 29, 2009:

-lavash with goat cheese, dried apricots, wilted spinach and red bell peppers

-chilled carrot-honey

main course
-grilled tuna with a nectarine salsa, blue lake green beans, onion confit

-English cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes with a plucot dressing

-flourless chocolate cake with a dark rum, dark chocolate sauce and peach purée

It was amazing to me how people really dug what we were creating, and the outpouring of help, ingredients and sheer appreciation made all the hard work worth it. No doubt there.

This year was perhaps the most challenging one for me, in that not only was I responsible for planning, cooking and overseeing the FtA dinners, but I also volunteered to be the kitchen coordinator for Entheon Village (our FtA hosts for the second year) during the week of the Burn, where I would make sure that over 277 campers were fed brunch and dinner, for 7 days. As the Colonel has stated, we started in January with conference calls, menu and event planning, coordinating with volunteers, vendors and purveyors, etc., and for me, I did double duty, because I also put on my EV chef’s toque and helped to create a streamlined operation for the kitchen.

This is my last year with FtA, as we have achieved our goal of making FtA known and upheld to and from the good people of BRC. Future theme camps and artists groups will continue this amazing gift we helped to shepherd at Burning Man. I am elated to have been a part of it.” -Chef JP

Mark Gibson, AKA Abo, self-described “Senior Kitchen Bitch” has been a part of FtA
since the beginning.

-“I met The Colonel in 2006 when he called me in N. Cal and asked if I was still showing my
Burning Man video that I had advertised as a public program in the local Mt Shasta Herald newspaper. He was traveling through the area and happened to see my announcement. He would only be passing through that evening, and I was not screening the program that night. But when he expressed unusual interest in seeing it, I invited him to my home to watch it (Burners always open their doors to other Burners). He came, dined, watched the video, soaked with me in my hot tub, and stayed overnight in our guest room.

We all talked about how much we like to go early into BM. He called me back that following spring and asked if I still wanted to get in early. “Hell yes” I replied. He told me about this food program he dreamed up and that he needed a crew to go in early and feed the artists. My wife (who runs our photography business in my absence) was playing golf when he asked me if I could go the Wednesday of the pre-week (normally I went the Sat or Sunday). I was so excited that as soon as I hung up talking the the Colonel, I called her on her cell phone on the golf course and asked if it was OK with her that I went in very early this year to the burn for this new project. She agreed, so I immediately called the Colonel back and told him to count me in.

That first year we fed about 45 people in three different art crews. They reciprocated with favors to us and we got to know them during the burn. Larry Harvey and the other BM major players came to the diners, so we got to know them too. I worked as JP’s “Senior Kitchen Bitch” doing whatever the chef needed. We developed a little family crew of FtA, and have vested and shared other events during the year.

This past year’s program certainly was the most work, but it also was the most spectacular and rewarding.” -Abo

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