Catering Trends 2010: How Jennifer Rubell Combines Food and Art

Jennifer Rubell's unconventional approach to catering has people second-guessing the seated dinner.

By Michael O'Connell October 22, 2010, 8:45 AM EDT

Photo: Kevin Taehman

Catching cheese dripping from the ceiling with crackers, butchering your own rabbit for the main course, and popping balloons to get at a piece of cake aren’t activities familiar to the benefit crowd. But Jennifer Rubell is changing that by bringing her own vision of interactive, art-inspired meals to events.

Daughter of Miami art collectors Donald and Mera Rubell—and niece of Studio 54 co-founder Steve Rubell—the 40-year-old entrepreneur has worn many hats in her career: food writer, hostess, hotelier, vintner. She sees this latest job as her two worlds colliding, a happy fusion of food and conceptual art. “For me, it’s purely about whether a project is interesting and if it connects to art history,” Rubell says of the select events she’s taken on since forging her latest career.

It started almost 10 years ago when her family first asked her to host a now-annual breakfast at the Rubell Family Collection during Art Basel Miami Beach. Jennifer’s playful execution of the earlier meals included grids of Styrofoam cups filled with instant coffee, mountains of bananas, walls of doughnuts hanging from nails, and tables covered with eggs, bacon, and croissants, with only latex gloves as serving utensils. Before long, she overheard a guest ask, “Who’s the artist?”

“I just started doing these projects without really knowing what they were, but when I looked at them, I could see the conceptual underpinning that had been there the whole time,” she says. “And there were key people who recognized that in my work.”

One of them was RoseLee Goldberg, the art historian and founder of Performa, a New York arts nonprofit known almost as much for its biennial festival as its high-concept fund-raisers. “As somebody who goes to so many benefits in New York that support these great institutions,” Goldberg says, “I find that everyone enjoys that first hour when you can chat and walk around, before you have to sit down and basically work for the rest of the night.”

Goldberg commissioned her longtime friend’s first large-scale event, Performa’s 2009 benefit, called “Creation.” Rubell ran with the Garden of Eden theme, littering the floor with apples beside a felled tree, rigging honey to drip from the ceiling onto piles of ribs, and commissioning chocolatier Jacques Torres to create chocolate Jeff Koons rabbits, which guests happily beat to shards with provided hammers.

Soon Rubell was throwing similarly interactive but uniquely inspired meals for the Americas Business Council and the Brooklyn Museum. News coverage and conversations of her work now include the term “food artist” (a moniker previously associated with the butter sculptors of the world), which, for her, means never compromising quality of food for aesthetics.

“I really don’t mess around,” she says of her hunt for the right vendors, which, in New York, always includes the caterer Bite. “What I do often has a lot of logistical considerations, so even if somebody is a fantastic cook, they might not be able to pull it off. There needs to be a desire and a willingness to work inside my framework.”

Whatever you call what she does, Rubell has had the luxury of working with institutions she admires, hiring vendors whose food she trusts, in venues that she loves—always with complete creative control. But as her distinct brand of entertaining becomes more renowned, she’s getting a lot of unexpected offers. “I got an email from a celebrity wedding planner,” she says, laughing. While such events aren’t high on her list of dream projects, she’s not entirely opposed to them either. “A celebrity wedding in a museum context could be really interesting to me.”

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