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June 4, 2014 at 6:15 AM

A downtown storefront becomes a culinary imaginarium

Guests look on as chef Maxime Bilet uses dry ice to create kettle corn-flavored ice cream in under a minute at the end of “The Iconic Dinner, Version 2” at Bilet’s Art For Food culinary space in Seattle recently. Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times

Guests look on as chef Maxime Bilet uses dry ice to create kettle corn-flavored ice cream in under a minute at the end of “The Iconic Dinner, Version 2” at Bilet’s Art For Food culinary space in Seattle recently. Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times

In a once ­vacant storefront downtown, a culinary experiment is brewing. It’s a playground of food, a research center, a schoolroom, a cutting­-edge dinner club — and that’s just in its opening months.

At a recent free “play day,” all five senses were at work at what’s now known as “Art for Food: An Interactive Culinary Arts and Science Space.” A stroll through the expansive storefront showed children drawing designs with edible inks on edible paper and creating aromatic, smoking concoctions using herbs and dry ice. An anthropologist specializing in desserts prepared fresh mochi by an exhibit of her photos of Japanese sweets. A live permaculture garden was being planted indoors, along with an “edible wall” of herbs. Chocolates that buzzed with Pop Rocks under the tongue were sampled next to sound recordings echoing the noise, while founder Maxime Bilet, the magician behind the space, carbonated fresh grapes and offered them to visitors.

Starting with the downtown Art Walk on Thursday, June 5, Art for Food will be open to the public from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays at 1001 Western Ave. It’s a work in progress, but the space is expected to include DIY food explorations, a cookbook library to browse — and a place to meet and collaborate with other people interested in all aspects of food. Funding the free educational and public aspects, the space also regularly plays host to multicourse themed dinners (to the tune of three figures) and does culinary research and development.

“I didn’t want to call it a gallery, necessarily, or a museum,” Bilet (pronounced Be­ LAY) said. He’s hoping the theme will be learning and exploration and making connections.

“Complete strangers hang out in the kitchen, we’re cooking, they’re asking questions.”

The 31-­year-­old chef behind the project is an innovator who’s become a star during his years in Seattle, named by Forbes magazine as “a young influential in the pool of food scientists and inventors.” He worked for Heston Blumenthal at England’s famed Fat Duck and co-­authored the locally produced, six­-volume “Modernist Cuisine” book, which has been called one of the most significant books about food ever published. He’s found as a marquee name on projects like an upcoming series with the Culinary Institute of America and the MIT Media Lab, giving presentations at international food conferences. Though, depending on the day, he’s as likely to be developing recipes for a food bank or volunteering with the Edible Schoolyard project at Tacoma’s McCarver Elementary, where he calls teacher Julia Martin­ Lombardi one of his heroes.

“You meet people where they are, and you make sure they get the best experience,” Bilet said.

Art for Food began initially as part of a grant­-funded venture to put interesting public art into vacant downtown storefronts, but Bilet won a lease from the building owner after the initial success and intends it as a permanent project. Teaching people to cook will be an essential part of the mix. While Bilet’s work is known for modern molecular techniques, he doesn’t want cooking to intimidate.

“We are very much an eat-­out culture. And yet what happens with that is you don’t believe you can re­create these things,” he said. “I meet people all the time who have a great palate and love to eat and just dismiss it and say, ‘I could never ever do that.’ Actually, it’s far simpler than it looks.”

Dinner guests enjoy conversation in between courses at Maxime Bilet's The Iconic Dinner, Version 2 at Art For Food.  Bilet's dishes for the night featured cuisines from iconic figures like Julia Child, Mario Batali and David Kinch.

Dinner guests enjoy conversation in between courses at Maxime Bilet’s The Iconic Dinner, Version 2 at Art For Food. Bilet’s dishes for the night featured cuisines from iconic figures like Julia Child, Mario Batali and David Kinch.

One of the most rewarding aspects for him in the project’s early months has been the serendipitous collaborations made with people walking through the doors. Abby Canfield, for instance, chef de cuisine at Agrodolce, came to work at the space one night with Maria Hines for a costumed globally-­themed tea party. Intrigued with the project, she asked Bilet if he could ever use a volunteer hand.

“How about tomorrow?” he replied. The next day, she was back working the chocolate table at the play day, where children and adults both fell under the chocolate’s spell.

Bilet, a nonstop blur of ideas, basked in the pleasure of seeing some of them become reality.

“If it’s a child who has never had a vegetable or it’s a famous chef who’s never had some essence we’re making in the kitchen — the whole spectrum. We don’t want to eliminate anyone from the picture.”

Updates on the project will be available soon on MaximeBilet.com, and the Facebook page is online here.

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