Last Call: Is A Coronavirus Canapé Disrespectful, Or Is It Art?

It's been argued that food is the art form of our time, and the Chicago restaurant Alinea has been cited as one of its foremost practitioners. Alinea itself has closed for the pandemic, but its chefs still have an opportunity to express themselves at AIR: Alinea In Residence, a rooftop pop-up in Chicago's West Loop. Last weekend, the chefs welcomed diners to the restaurant with a canapé that reflected current events. That is, it looked like renderings of the coronavirus.

The canapé is made from coconut custard and Szechuan peppercorns studded with freeze-dried raspberries.

The Instagrammer who shared the original post added the comment, "Unbelievable. @thealineagroup This isn't ok... this isn't 'cute'. This is shameful. How unbelievably disrespectful to anyone who's life has been lost. I don't care how you spin it, this is unacceptable."

Nick Kokonas, a co-owner of Alinea (who has also been the subject of Takeout interviews and advised the Salty Waitress), responded in the comments:

Art is often meant to provoke discomfort, conversation, and awareness. This is no different.

Everyone on here saying we are somehow oblivious need to think just a single level upwards.

The novel coronavirus has changed all of our lives drastically in the past 3 months. You cannot turn on a radio station, podcast, browse the news, etc. without hearing about it 24/7. Rightfully so. It is literally among us, invisible to us, and has brought out the worst and, sometimes, the best in humanity.

We are science forward people. We implemented temp checks, mandatory masks and hourly hand washing, and contact tracing before the city or state even mandated it.

The bars and restaurants within 2 or 3 blocks of us have hundreds of patrons, no masks and probably no testing or contact tracing. It's awful to see.But this — this is not disrespectful. This is not 'pro Trump'. This is not making light of the situation. This is manifesting and making visible what we all cannot see and reminding patrons, right as they arrive, that we are aware that this is still with us and will be for some time.I don't want to cite art that was controversial or provocative just to show precedent... but know your history first. What we often now hail as a gesture that creates awareness — be it during a time of war, famine, or social change — was at it's time controversial.What would be disrespectful is serving shots of booze on a patio and not acknowledging what is really happening in our country. That would not honor those who are affected by this. Think. Look around. And don't look at the surface.

This failed to mollify commenters who argued that, despite Kokonas's efforts to promote safety in his restaurants, the dish was still in poor taste.

"I have never encountered 'art' that asks people to take pleasure in death through aesthetic means," wrote one self-described art historian and curator. "The closest would be monuments to fascism that were so prevalent all over Europe during WW2."

The news website Block Club Chicago exchanged emails with Kokonas, who described the controversial dish as "comfort food" and said that many of the people who have criticized it, and Alinea/AIR in general for being elitist, have not experienced either.

Still, this is dodging the actual argument. Which is: is it disrespectful right now, in the summer of 2020 when people are still being infected with COVID-19 and dying from it, to make a canapé that looks like the virus? Should people be reminded of it while they're dining out? Does eating something that looks like the virus force diners to take pleasure in it? And does the dish provoke anything beyond outrage or pleasure?