Produce Will Never Look the Same Again

With a small knife and a big imagination, Joost Elffers creates a vegetable zoo from ordinary items

PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD

By Joost Elffers

Stewart, Tabori & Chang

112 pp., $19

They say that genius is never understood in its own time. It's hard to see how that could be true about Joost Elffers.

For anyone who has ever made a smiley face with a squirt bottle of mustard on a hamburger or seen Elvis in an avocado, Mr. Elffers has taken the seed of that idea and planted it in his remarkable creativity.

His is perhaps the most basic of art forms, astonishing in its simplicity. Nature provides both the tools and inspiration for his work. According to the Dutch graphic designer, all you need to do to see the world as he does is flip on the switch of perception.

"I try to teach people to look at their environment in a new way," says Elffers. "I am a designer, so I look for the shapes in all things. For me, the food is not a sideline, it is only one part of this way of looking at things."

That way of looking was ingrained early - both his parents were artists - and Elffers studied at the Arts Academy at The Hague. But it was not until 1976 that he turned much of his creative energy to food. The interest grew from a fascination with the displays and garnishes used by Japanese sushi chefs.

"They are master cutters.... But they are intimate with nature and have respect for it," he says.

For Elffers, that intimacy has played out in the countless creatures wrought from peanuts, peppers, pumpkins, and other fruits or vegetables. He is adamant that all the food he uses as art is eventually consumed, for the art is inseparable from edibility.

Indeed, the creative interim stage between soil and stomach is not a transformation of the food, so much as a highlighting of its natural features, he says. "You always see the pear and the mouse at the same time."

Most often, Elffers says he starts with the nose, then lets the creature take shape around it. And in his book "Play With Your Food," Elffers not only showcases his impressive gallery of yam noses, bean eyes, and corn-kernel teeth, but also shows readers how to make their own melon masterpieces. This is an integral part of his mission - proving that art is accessible.

Far from the prim and proper art galleries that foster awe for a far-removed artist, Elffers's works are intentionally honest, earthy, and replicable.

With many forms of art, "there is a hierarchy of the artist and the audience, there is a sense of intimidation," he notes. "I like to empower people to use their own creativity."

This is especially important with children, Elffers adds. Few 10-year-olds are ready for the Mona Lisa, but if you open their eyes and thinking with things they can understand and duplicate themselves - like the food creations - a new world of creativity opens up.

"Then," he says, "you can take them to a museum."

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