Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Artist at the Plate

In the 1990's before Link, Garcia, and Besh ruled the CBD and Warehouse District, one of the most sought after tables in the city was at Mike's on the Avenue. Crawfish spring rolls and oysters topped with Korean barbecue sauce signaled the forthcoming Asian influence on traditional cuisines. The man behind this now omnipresent blending of cuisines sits in his calm, white and green dining room trying to recall how the past became the now. But to really understand Mike Fennelly's approach to food, you must understand he is an artist first.

Art has always been a part of Fennelly's life. After growing up as the son of an artist in Northport, Long Island, Fennelly moved to New York City after high school to study at the Parson's School of Design. While pursuing his art degree, he began what would become a recurring theme in his life. By working in restaurants (including stints at Windows on the World the restaurant inside the World Trade Center, the River Cafe, and Empire Diner) he could have enough money to avoid being a starving artist. "For some artists being starving motivates them to paint better, but not for me," Fennelly explains.

A move to Point Reyes, California found him working in an ad agency doing book design by day and cooking for friends at night. A jaunt down to Los Angeles found him studying interior design and architecture while cooking for a catering company. Next, a move back East to Washington, D.C. to become a catering chef. After a few years, to Santa Fe to focus on painting but which soon found him installed as the chef at Santacafe.

As all American artists must do by law, Fennelly soon found himself in New Orleans. Here is where his unique style of cooking really began to take off. For example, the sauce on his barbecue oysters comes from the dressing on a sashimi salad served at a Korean BBQ. "Wherever I lived, I was usually near Chinatown, and I just learned to cook with those ingredients and flavors from experimentation. Also, I have an innate sense of what goes together." Fennelly explains.

Fennelly left New Orleans in the mid-90's and struck out on a cross-continent journey. Eventually he found himself in a Lost like setting, living on a remote fifteen-acre self-sustainable piece of land on the Big Island of Hawaii. "No electricity, no water, I built a road. The goal was to build a bed and breakfast."

While there, he cooked with local, organic ingredients in a nearby Hippie town using only what was available. His paintings at this time took on a decidedly local viewpoint as well. Fennelly estimates in five years he painted more than 500 paintings and sculptures of the Hawaiian landscape and especially focusing on the colors and movement of koi (shown below).

But soon Fennelly left again. This time heading back to the East Coast to live in Provincetown, Massachusetts. There, he and Bailey reunited and opened Wabi Dumplings serving bite sized snacks to hungry tourists. While working together again, they learned that the original space of Mike's on the Avenue was back on the market.

And here they are again, serving crawfish spring rolls, crawfish and crab cakes with wasabi, those barbecued oysters, and duck filled pancakes. Fennelly still paints, now it is the glittering facets of the chandeliers which line the antique shops on Royal St and paintings of sushi and oysters, rather than the colors of koi. His artwork can be seen at the Steve Martin Gallery; his food tasted at Mike's on the Avenue, once again.

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