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Diners enjoy the North Fork Art Collective’s second Palette to Palate dinner at Bruce & Son in Greenport. (Credit: David Benthal)

It’s a rare dinner party where I get to indulge in my two favorite things: food and art (well, three if you count the wine, but that’s a bit of a given here on the North Fork, isn’t it?). That’s exactly what transpired at the recent Palette to Palate dinner, organized by Kara Hoblin, founder of the North Fork Art Collective and curator of the event. 

At this inventive and educational nine-course pairing dinner, Jennilee Morris, executive chef/owner of Grace & Grit, created nine farm-to-table dishes inspired by nine artworks in one-to-one matchups. Alex Rosanelli of Hounds Tree Wines topped off each dish with the appropriate wine, and North Fork Roasting Co.’s Jess Morris created the two desserts. Held at Greenport’s Bruce & Son restaurant, the event was actually the second Palette to Palate dinner in what looks to be a growing series (the first featured Bruce & Son co-owner/chef Scott Bollman with pours from Macari Vineyards). Proceeds from the dinners benefit the North Fork Art Collective.

What makes the concept so unique, is that it all starts with the art.

“I’ve been to art dinners before where the food and art were both amazing, but there’s always been a disconnect,” Hoblin said. “I see the need to foster great community collaborations, especially in our highly digital world. Therefore, the idea for the Palette to Palate dinner series was born—a dinner where the chef would be inspired to create a dish based off the art, then the winemaker/vineyard would be inspired by the dish and choose which wine to pair with it. It’s a continuous connection of inspiration and creativity.”

Rosanelli and Hoblin discuss the pairings with diners. (Credit: David Benthal)

Anyone who’s spent time on the North Fork has seen many of these artist works before, and not just on the Collective’s gallery walls. From Hoblin’s colorful chalk murals at First and South or Noah’s to Scott Bluedorn’s intricate drawings on the Greenport Harbor Brewing Company’s beers and six-pack cases, the North Fork is all about creative collaboration, with pairings popping up all the time. So it was by design that the 20 dinner guests (artists, locals, weekenders, friends and family) dined at one super-long community table. I serendipitously sat next to Jennifer Marchese of Wildflower Florals and Event Designs, who not only created the dinner’s beautiful floral centerpieces, but gave me a floral education that is sure to inspire my next garden.

Before each dish came out, Hoblin introduced the work and artist’s message, then chef Morris explained her culinary interpretation. The art was hung, gallery-like, on the restaurant walls, borrowed from the Collective around the corner. Artists were either Annual Collective Members, or part-time Community Members, and the works offered a broad range of media and techniques. Many pieces were inspired by the North Fork itself, completing the circle of inspiration.

Hoblin curated the art for both Palette to Palate events, letting themes organically fall into place.

Jennilee Morris in the kitchen. (Credit: David Benthal)

“The first show had a very natural fresh theme, representing the start of summer and the rebirth of the warm weather and florals,” she said. “This show evolved into an otherworldly theme; a question into process, creation and narrative about exploring an abstract unknown.”

The artists did not give the chef input into the culinary dishes, letting their works “speak” for themselves.

“I took every single piece of art and let the first thing it made me think of lead the way,” Morris said of the process.

The resulting dishes were unexpected in many ways, and my husband and I had fun trying to guess how the chef would interpret each one (we were never even close). Diners also got an education. “At the first dinner, a painting of lilacs by Emma Balou inspired chef Bollman to serve weakfish, because fishermen have a saying that ‘Once the lilacs bloom, you know it’s weakfish season,’” explained Hoblin.

The bread course. (Credit: David Benthal)

The evening’s first dish played with the friendly dining term “breaking bread.” Artist Mark Wilson’s piece used a bleach dye attached to a pendulum to create random arcs on black paper and the inspired dish was the best homemade bread with brown butter swirls that anyone at the table had ever tasted. Seriously, if the dinner had ended right then and there, we would have gone home happy.

But Morris was just getting warmed up.

Attraction by Verona Penalba
(Credit: David Benthal)

The next dish went more conceptual. Verona Penalba’s vibrant painting “Attraction,” which featured two faces kissing, was a return to painting for the Nicaraguan/Greenport artist after a hiatus raising her daughter. “This painting was so beautiful and meaningful. I took it as ‘self love’ and wanted to create a plate that offered simplicity, wholesomeness and raw beauty,” said Morris, whose resulting dish was a healthy-for-you vegetarian serving of micro veggies. Planned or not, each guest also turned the dish’s dollop of red beet and white tzatziki and goat cheese into a veritable artwork on the plate upon eating it!

Anastasia by Dalton Portella
(Credit: David Benthal)

Some dishes went more literal with the artwork’s colors, like Dalton Portella’s yellow/red ombre “Anastasia” painting, which inspired a dish of yellow and red cold watermelon soup accented with charred corn (created in collaboration with Grace and Grit chef Adam Kaufer). Sarah Prescott’s “Rust in Bloom 6” – which looked like green and pink flowers on a blue background but was actually a photograph of rust on a 1950s Ford truck – inspired a trio of sorbet in berry, watermelon and unexpected-yet-delicious kale.

Whaleclipse by Kara Hoblin
(Credit: David Benthal)

Naturally, there were fish dishes as well, like the Fluke Crudo inspired by Kara Hoblin’s “Whaleclipse” accented with habañero and summer kiss melon to pick up on the art’s orange sunset. Sea salt added a taste of the ocean. One of the more intriguing dishes was inspired by Scott Bluedorn’s “Capsula” collage made with found objects from his beach walks. Here, Morris created an Escargot Terrarium, featuring little jars with different textures like charred bread and escargot.

Peter Treiber Jr. is an artist and a farm manager (you’ve surely seen Treiber Farms’ American Flag truck on Route 48), and his “Head Space” collage of a man in a suit with a repeating upside down head proved challenging for Morris. “I looked at this and thought businessman, so I did a play on the businessman dinner with meat, arugula greens and tomatoes blistered on the grill.” Not surprisingly, the wine switched to red here. “What’s more Boy’s Dinner than Cabernet Sauvignon?” said Rosanelli, who pulled the sold-out vintage from the vineyard’s library.

Curator Kara Hoblin shows off the dessert course, a work of art in its own right. (Credit: David Benthal)

The final dish was a dessert inspired by Colin Goldberg’s “Greenport Dock #2” mixed media work, which featured knife palette strokes of white paint rising above a dock print. The resulting Coconut Chocolate Mousse with tall white chocolate spears and chocolate salted clementines, was the perfect visual and culinary finish to the evening.

And it wasn’t just the diners that left with a new appreciation for art and food. Even the chef was moved: “Obviously culinary is its own art,” Morris noted. “Everybody has a story to tell and their own way of doing it. I think I may linger in front of others’ work longer, looking for that message now. I think it’s that inexplicable thread that makes us all connected and human.”

Writer Lauren Parker lives in NYC and Southold. Follow her at @laurenparker77

Jennilee and Jess Morris in the kitchen. (Credit: David Benthal)
A toast to a great meal. (Credit: David Benthal)
Jess Morris in the kitchen. (Credit: David Benthal)
Tomatoes blistering over the grill. (Credit: David Benthal)
Jess and Jennilee Morris, from left, Hoblin and Rosanelli during the successful event. (Credit: David Benthal)
The menu. (Credit: David Benthal)