Poised at the intersection of food and art history, an enchanting Texan beckons with her fork.
Maite (My-tay) Gomez-Rejon, 39, with a graduate degree in art history from the Art Institute of Chicago and a Grande Diplome from the French Culinary Institute in New York City, worked as a museum educator and private chef until two years ago, when she started a company called ArtBites to integrate her passions.
Now the Los Angeles-based chef and teacher crisscrosses the country conducting one-day adventures for folks who also find fascination in the fusion of food and art.
Last week at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gomez-Rejon guided a group of seven women (and her male cousin) through galleries of British, French, and Italian paintings and then cooked an appropriately themed lunch with them at La Cucina in the Reading Terminal Market.
It was her first time working with the museum and it was happy to have her. Museum spokesman Norman Keyes said tours such as Gomez-Rejon's augment the museum's official offerings.
"Whenever people are engaged in art, and can experience it in a fresh way, it's a wonderful opportunity," Keyes said.
Gomez-Rejon also offers tours focusing on Aztec and Chinese cultures, but last week she led her Grand Tour - a look at that British exercise that had wealthy young men of leisure touring France and Italy in search of art, culture, and the roots of Western civilization.
"In the early 1600s, there were no art schools, per se, in England," Gomez-Rejon told the group. In fact, most art was privately owned, and Grand Tour-ists made appointments to see collections at private estates.
Initially only gentlemen with time, money, and connections made the tour. Some took along promising artists of the day - also male - who could not afford such trips on their own.
In time young women made the quest. And by the 1960s, fresh college grads were backpacking through Europe, taking all the glamour and glitz out of the endeavor.
Here's where that fork fits in: Thomas Coryate reportedly introduced the fork to England after seeing it in Italy during his travels there in 1608. The utensil eventually caught on, and so did the desire to study Greco-Roman art, music, architecture, and ideas through extensive European travel.
"Everywhere they went, they ate well and experienced ingredients that were new to them and brought those foods back home," said Gomez-Rejon. "They probably did not miss the relatively bland food back home."
None of the paintings on her tour showed people eating and drinking. Instead, she linked food history to certain carefully selected portraits, sculptures, and objects at the museum.
So, for example, the group stopped at a bust of Louis XIV, who made sure his Palace at Versailles had a kitchen garden and a hothouse so he could enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables year-round.
Word is, Louis also liked to make his own omelets, Gomez-Rejon said.
"French service" originated at Versailles, she said. A parade of servants carried trays of food a mile or more from the kitchen to the dining room of the opulent palace, presenting all the picture-perfect dishes simultaneously.
"By the time the food reached the guests, it was probably cold," she said. "The way we eat now, with our food served in separate courses at different temperatures, derived from the Russian style."
Both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin dined at Versailles. Among Jefferson's papers were recipes for macaroni and cheese and vanilla ice cream, both written in his hand. And Louis XVI, who favored potatoes for their nutritional value, served Franklin a meal at which every dish was potato-based. Franklin was surprised and pleased, said Gomez-Rejon, given that Englishmen of the time shunned potatoes because they were not mentioned in the Bible.
Among the participants who paid $130 each for Gomez-Rejon's Grand Tour were Connie Holt, a hospitality teacher at Widener University, and two of her friends from Wallingford. For years, the three have been part of a larger supper club of couples who take turns making dinners for one another.
"You think you know," said Holt, who is particularly well-traveled. "But there is always more to learn."
When the tourists arrived at La Cucina, proprietor Anna Maria Floiro, who teaches cooking classes in the demonstration kitchen there, was waiting with French brie and Bellinis, a peach nectar and Prosecco drink popularized at Harry's Bar in Venice.
Gomez-Rejon put the group to work on recipes using ingredients one might have discovered on the Grand Tour: Fennel and Radicchio Salad; French Potato Salad; Tarragon Chicken With Leeks; and Semolina Cake With Lime Curd and Lavender Whipped Cream (see recipes). Ancient Greeks used fennel to increase the flow of milk in nursing mothers, Gomez-Rejon said. And radicchio was cultivated in 15th-century Italy.
Thyme, in the French Potato Salad, would be mixed with vinegar and honey to cure melancholy. Tarragon was chewed to relieve toothaches, leeks were considered aphrodisiacs, and the ancients used lavender as a cure for everything from insomnia to insanity, as well as a perfume.
It was a hands-on experience enjoyed even by Elaine Charles, who drove in from Camp Hill for the event.
"And I don't cook," Charles said, "well or at all."
Tarragon Chicken With Leeks
Makes 6 servings
2 pounds chicken breasts
Splash of olive oil
3 leeks, thinly sliced white and light green parts only
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
4 tablespoons butter
Flour for dusting
Salt and pepper to taste
3 teaspoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons tarragon, chopped
1. Lightly flour the chicken and season on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in a large skillet and sear on both sides. Set aside.
2. Place leeks in skillet over medium heat, and cook in 2 tablespoons butter until just tender. Add the broth and let it reduce to about one cup - 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Place the chicken on top of the simmering leeks, spooning some of the leeks over the chicken. Reduce heat to low and cook about 10 more minutes.
4. When the chicken is cooked through remove from skillet (leave the leeks there) and place on a platter. Then raise the skillet heat to high and stir in the lemon juice, remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, and the tarragon. Taste and adjust seasoning.
5. Pour the leek mixture over the chicken and serve warm.
Per serving: 297 calories, 36 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 109 milligrams cholesterol, 402 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
French Potato Salad
Makes 6 servings
1 pound small white potatoes
1 pound small red potatoes
1/2 pound French green beans
1/4 cup white wine
3 tablespoons champagne vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons salt (divided use)
1/2 plus 1/4 teaspoon pepper (divided use)
10 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup capers
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup black olives, pitted
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons basil, chopped
2 tablespoons thyme
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add red and white potatoes and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until fork-tender but not mushy.
2. While the potatoes are cooking, blanch the green beans in boiling salted water for 3 to 5 minutes, until barely tender. Drain and immerse in ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain again and set aside.
3. When potatoes are ready, drain and cut in half or quarters. Place in a large bowl. Toss gently with the wine and allow that to soak into the potatoes.
4. Combine the vinegar, mustard, 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Add olive oil and whisk. Add this vinaigrette to the potatoes.
5. Add the green beans, capers, tomatoes, red onion, olives, fresh herbs. Add remaining 11/2 teaspoons of salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Toss.
6. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve cold or at room temperature.
Per serving: 359 calories, 4 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 24 grams fat, no cholesterol, 1,578 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
Fennel and Radicchio Salad
Makes 6 servings
4 ounces frisee or arugula
1 large fennel bulb
2 heads radicchio
Handful mint leaves, chopped
Handful parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1. Wash the frisee or arugula, pat dry, and place in a bowl.
2. Cut fennel bulb in half lengthwise; cut out the core, thinly slice and place in the bowl.
3. Separate radicchio leaves and add to fennel and greens.
4. Add the mint and parsley. Sprinkle to taste with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice. Taste, adjust seasoning, and serve.
Per serving: 145 calories, 2 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 14 grams fat, no cholesterol, 34 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Semolina Cake With Lime Curd and Lavender Whipped Cream
Makes 8-10 servings
For the lime curd:
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup lime juice
1 stick butter, melted
For the lime syrup:
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons lime juice
For the cake:
1 1/4 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 sticks butter, melted
1 tablespoon lime zest
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups semolina flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
For the lavender whipped cream:
2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons confectioner's sugar
1 teaspoon lavender extract
Sliced fresh strawberries for garnish
To make lime curd:
1. Fill a medium pot with 1 1/2 inches water and bring to a simmer.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together sugar, lime juice, butter, and eggs for 1 minute. Arrange the bowl over the simmering water (or use double boiler) and stir mixture constantly until thick, 10 to 12 minutes; let cool 20 minutes; cover and refrigerate.
To make the lime syrup:
1. Combine water, sugar, and lime juice in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
2. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook gently until reduced to approximately 2 cups syrup, about 20 minutes; set aside.
To make the cake:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch square cake pan and set aside.
2. Whisk together buttermilk, butter, lime zest, and vanilla in a large bowl. In a second large bowl, stir together semolina flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
3. Add buttermilk mixture to flour mixture and stir until combined. Transfer to prepared pan and smooth the batter. Bake until golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. While cake is hot, pour the lime syrup evenly over its surface.
To make the lavender whipped cream:
In a large mixing bowl, beat the whipping cream, confectioner's sugar, and lavender extract together on high speed until soft peaks form.
Serve cake warm or at room temperature, topped with spoonfuls of lime curd, fresh strawberries, and lavender whipped cream.
Per serving: 740 calories, 8 grams protein, 85 grams carbohydrates, 58 grams sugar, 42 grams fat, 170 milligrams cholesterol, 548 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.