Art a la cart

With sales of his jewelry and sculpture slow, Zbigniew Chojnacki has turned to the creation of crepes: Edible masterpieces lovingly given shape in a tiny West Philly cart.

Four months ago, after a false start on another corner, Zbigniew Chojnacki set up shop - which is to say a gleaming food cart he calls La Dominique - not far from the flaring nostrils of the dragon that demarcates Drexel's urban campus.

It is not virgin territory, particularly. Within a few blocks of 33d and Market here, lunch trucks and sidewalk trailers serve vegan burgers and shakes, and falafel, and, at Pete's Lil' Lunch Box, what is regarded as an entirely decent BLT.

But Chojnacki is the first with crepes on this stretch, and while he is hardly what you'd call efficient, or quick, or capable of stepping up his production - even when pressed - he has already added a grace note of charm, even of delight, to this prosaic and decidedly un-Ivy block.

He is 55 now, lanky and rawboned in a Lincolnesque way, and meticulous to the point almost of excruciation: He is reluctant, it seems, to let his crepes go.

Still, the fame of his tiny cart has spread: From offices blocks away, orders come in for six, for eight, crepes that are, quite simply, more elegant than you'd have a right to expect of what passes for workaday street food on the sidewalks of Philadelphia.

The crepe-maker smiles a Cheshire smile beneath his jaunty yellow-and-white umbrella, from the window of the cart that he has named for his granddaughter, Dominique.

"I did not want to be," Chojnacki says, "another one with the hot dogs."

This is not, presumably, the trajectory that Chojnacki (HOY-nat-ski) contemplated when he left - "escaped," he says - Poland in 1984 to pursue his craft, jewelry design and figurative ceramic sculpting, most recently in a studio on the wide flank of York Street in Fishtown.

There were very good years. In the juried craft shows he customarily brought home first- and second-place prizes, says his wife, Krystyna, a painter. Wealthy collectors paid well for his work; he has a piece in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery.

But the recession came early to his part of the art world. Two years ago, sales began slumping. Among his cohorts, he has seen it happen before: In the late '80s, when the economy tanked around Los Angeles, he watched a migration of artist friends to cheaper digs in an out-of-the-way town called Santa Fe.

Look at what that inspired, he tells me over a glass of red wine in his 1863-vintage Fishtown living room, converted to a gallery for Krystyna's paintings and the sober figures he low-fires to produce on their surface a crackled, raku glaze.

A younger generation of artists may be discovering Philadelphia's warehouse flats. But this time around, Chojnacki says, "already six of my friends have moved to Hannibal [Missouri], the town where Mark Twain was born."

When he told one of them that he'd bought a food trailer, she was startled. She'd bought one herself, she said.

Just in case.

Zbigniew Chojnacki made crepes with his mother as a child. So that seemed like a good idea when the art market slowed down: Crepe carts were few and far between.

He did not realize, nor did Krystyna, how much work would be involved: She shops for the no-hormones chicken (for the coconut chicken stuffing) and the free-range eggs (for the breakfast crepes) and picks up the plum butter imported from Poland (for the sweet crepes).

In the evenings she makes the eggy batter.

Zbigniew gets the coffee ready each morning, stocks the boxes, then in the evening cleans the grill and shines up the cart with cloths. He is not finished, often, until 11 p.m.

He cannot even look at the sculpture, Krystyna says: "This is full time. It is a lot of work."

In the cart, he moves tentatively, at his own deliberate pace. The batter is poured, and smoothed, then toasted parchment crisp and palomino tan, and spatulaed off.

The veggie crepe is layered with creamed spinach, then green pepper, zucchini and broccoli that is grilled to order, then marinated artichokes the color of ivory, and finally grated parmesan cheese.

The dessert crepes take less time. But in the end they, too, are five-dollar works of street art, one favorite rendition stuffed with an airy whip of lush, homemade raspberry cream and shavings of dark Belgian chocolate.

But Chojnacki cannot leave well enough alone. And it is after he has folded the packet, or the sweet triangle, that you will be required to wait - and watch - a little longer: The ship is not ready to sail. Not yet.

Each is topped with his equivalent of a wax seal, the berry slice and Nutella, a swirl of his signature cognac sauce and sprinkle of peanut praline. They are not merely crepes, now. They are autographed copies of crepes, set in their containers as gently as you set a baby in a cradle.

From Drexel's glassy-faced law school, he is easily visible. From the Hagerty Library next door, a librarian who watches him daily from her window has found herself waking up some mornings craving his crepes.

He thinks that maybe his trailer can be the avant-garde, bringing a new flavor to Market Street even as his compadres from Los Angeles brought something new to Sante Fe.

Maybe he has not quit the art fray, after all, so much as reimagined the canvas - and with it an afternoon on a sidewalk in the city when it is treated to a brief moment of tenderness.


To view more of Zbigniew Chojnacki's art, go to www.zcstudios.com.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.