Like a lot of kids, Marije Vogelzang loved to experiment in the kitchen. But she didn’t just like to prepare the food, she also enthusiastically grew the ingredients and crafted the handmade napkin holders to decorate the table with, too. From soup to nuts, she’s always liked her meals to look as good as they taste.
Today, the Dutch-born Vogelzang is the proprietor of Proef, one of Amsterdam’s gastronomic highlights. Located in the city’s Westergasfabriek, it’s a cozy spot that serves cocktails garnished with edible flowers and local, mostly organic fare that’s lovingly prepared and presented on mismatched, secondhand crockery. The small-plates menu encourages sharing—as well as the chat and intimacy that follows. “I just wanted it to be a restaurant I would like to dine at,” Vogelzang told us. “Not a high-concept, formal setting but a relaxed atmosphere with pure, good quality food to share. The sharing concept is very important!”
Though you might not guess it from Proef’s laidback vibe—not many restaurants encourage you to chat with the resident chickens—Vogelzang is also an internationally hailed eating designer, a term and genre she invented. Which is not to say that she’s the mastermind behind genetically engineered giant turnips or fantastically hued breakfast cereals. These post-modern culinary nightmares are the very opposite of what Vogelzang does—as she said in her talk for the Munich edition of the TED conference last year, “food is perfectly designed by nature.” Instead, Vogelzang centers her designs around the act and experience of eating. For example, her Pasta Sauna, a food-meets-art installation that was part of Performa 09 in New York City, was a sauna in which the steam rose from vats of boiling pasta rather than hot coals. Visitors were handed bowls of pasta dough, which they handed to attendants who rolled, stretched and cut it before dropping it into the pots of water below. The cooked pasta was then handed back, to be garnished with olive oil, salt, pepper and herbs.
For an earlier eating experience, she staged a Christmas dinner in Japan at which the tablecloth extended to the ceiling. When guest sat down, they put their heads and hands through slits in the fabric. This had the democratizing affect of masking everyone’s clothing, putting them on a more even and informal footing—no easy feat given the rigidity of Japanese protocol.
Vogelzang’s work poses provocative and timely questions but it does so without over-intellectualizing them and in a forum that’s open to all. Everyone eats and everyone has ideas about food, a truism that Vogelzang delights in. “I love that food is non- elitist, that everybody can eat and taste and has an opinion about it,” she says. “I love that I can travel anywhere and that food is a topic of conversation that you can speak to everybody about. I love to see the differences in preparing food around the world and the different rituals around it. There is no better material for a designer to work with.”