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Mottainai

As I walk towards Tainá Guedes’ kitchen gallery space on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I feel my mind running through images of what such a concept might look like. Once inside though, the abstract mental sketches fade away and I shift my attention to Tainá’s beaming smile.

Located in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, the cubed room is attached to an open kitchen which is more or less cleared out, save for some odd furniture pieces and a collection of muted ceramic tableware lining the perimeter of the space. The dainty dishes are part of Entretempo Kitchen Gallery’s latest exhibition exploring experimental ceramic designs doubling as fermentation equipment in the modern kitchen.

“The table is a very special place where we share a lot of things – not only emotions and feelings, but knowledge.”

Having returned from a conference in Bologna only the day before, Tainá is already busy working on the next thing: setting up for a Russian singing dinner event later this evening. After wandering around the space like a kid in a candy store, I seat myself across from Tainá at a small wooden table decked with cups of cappuccinos and a plate of syrup waffles.

– For the pop-up dinner series, we have different food entrepreneurs, chefs and artists that come in to host unique dining experiences. Most of them have really great ideas and are very much aligned to my kitchen philosophy. It’s nice that I can just be a guest and not have to do everything here like organise or think about the food concept and experience.

As well as holding exhibitions and pop-up dinners, Entretempo Kitchen Gallery offers educational workshops and provides a service that creates food installations for events.The gallery has also launched several Food Art Weeks in various cities to raise awareness on the often overlooked relationship between food and art.

It’s no wonder Tainá stresses that one of her goals this year is to be less of a workaholic. The way she enthusiastically talks about Entretempo, I get the impression she’s the kind of person who believes in the cause so deeply that not giving it her all – all the time – evokes a feeling of guilt or defeat. For Tainá, the intersection of art, food and culture is an expression of our time, surroundings and environment.

– We explore the different connections art can make with food and food with art – that’s the umbrella concept. The reason I’m doing this is basically because I believe food and art have a big impact on our world and it can promote positive changes.

In this day and age, we are constantly inundated by news of environmental challenges and socio-political issues that often seem too daunting and complex for us to personally connect to. Through food activism, as she calls it, the idea is to reach and communicate ideas to people by a means that is connected to every single one of us: food.

– Through art and my food installations, I want people to perceive these issues and understand them in a very different way. Because they’re feeling and experiencing it with other senses, this might open up very different discussions and connect people to the topic on a deeper level, through emotions.

– For me, not only is theoretical knowledge important, but experiencing it for yourself and starting conversations through contact – that’s the way we bring art and creativity into this framework. It’s much more engaging for people.

“Because Japanese culture is an interesting constellation of food, power and sex, which you can see in old Japanese art, I created a panty for Valentine’s Day.”

To provide a concrete example of how combining food and art can tap into the power of changing habits, Tainá excitedly recounts a project from 2013 called “Musical Garden”. Here she worked with kids at a public school in Berlin to plant and care for different kinds of vegetables and plants that were to be transformed into music instruments for performances, and then eventually, into food. When she first met the schoolchildren, they were averse to eating vegetables and most would list frozen lasagna, pasta or pizza as typical meals. However, after seeing and experiencing first-hand how fruits and vegetables are grown and cultivated, the children began developing a deeper connection to their food. The project was awarded the UNESCO Prize for Engagement, she tells me with a grin.

– During that year, we watered and cared for the plants everyday. Some of the kids were even praying that the sun would come out, because our vegetables were not growing. We recited poems and made paintings to learn about growth and the rhythms of nature, and I even brought them to visit an organic farm. After a while, the children began telling their parents and grandparents that they liked vegetables and wanted to cook. Through this kind of experience, they learned about what a shame it is to throw even a small piece of food away and realised what waste was about.

“The fashion people were like,  ‘Huh? Why is a restaurant designing underwear?”

Born in Brazil, Tainá grew up in a home where both food and art were highly valued. As the daughter of an artist, she was thrown into a creative environment at a very young age, constantly surrounded by her father’s friends, which included the concrete poets. Because her father was on a macrobiotic diet, Tainá became well-versed about biodynamics and eating organic early on.

I take a sip of my cappuccino as Tainá slows the stirring of hers and continues to recall her childhood in a gentle demeanour that reveals a sense of nostalgia.

– My father died when I was 11 and it was very difficult for my mom. He had 10 workers in his studio and I tried to help out by cooking…

– It was one of my first experiences cooking and there was a really nice moment when we cooked for the 10 workers and it felt like everybody could share experiences and talk with each other openly. The table is a very special place where we share a lot of things – not only emotions and feelings, but knowledge. It was very special to me.

At the tender age of 19, alongside 11 partners, Tainá–who is half-Japanese–opened a Japanese restaurant in São Paulo, named Nakombi. The idea and challenge was to translate Japanese culture to a non-Japanese audience. There, she worked inside and outside of the kitchen for around nine years and had her finger in many pies.

– I created installations and did exhibitions inside the restaurant to create different dining experiences. And I also created a fashion label for the restaurant.

I can’t help but bring my gaze to the elegant black sculptural bow headwrap she’s donning. Not many people can pull off a bold headpiece with such effortlessness. I’ve never heard of a restaurant making clothing, I think to myself, and without knowing it, she responds to the thought in my head.

– Because Japanese culture is an interesting constellation of food, power and sex, which you can see in old Japanese art, I created a panty for Valentine’s Day. The first collection of underwear was very provocative and many people were against it. The fashion people were like, ‘Huh? Why is a restaurant designing underwear? That doesn’t seem to fit together.’ And, it ended up being very polemic.

With the urge to push boundaries and explore new ideas, it eventually became clear to Tainá that she had outgrown Nakombi. Despite the useful learning experience, she admits that she was getting a bit lost in the job and wanted to do something a tad more meaningful. Ultimately, the chef there didn’t understand nor want to try out the ideas she had in mind, which involved, among other things, bringing olive oil into the Japanese kitchen. Another reason for the departure from Nakombi, was her decision to become a vegetarian.

– The meat consumption in Brazil is kind of criminal. They just eat meat and meat and meat and meat! It’s so cheap and nobody is aware of the damages it has on our environment.

– After a food trip, I began thinking a lot about what would be good for my health as well as my strong relationship with animals. Considering all of these factors – my health, my feelings, my heart, my mind – I felt it wasn’t something for me.

Mottainai is a core concept at Entretempo. The Japanese Buddhist term conveys a sense of regret when something is wasted. Though Tainá had been aware of the term for some time, it wasn’t until she began working at a Japanese restaurant in Düsseldorf, several years later, after her time at Nakombi, that she began to experience the word in a practical way.

– When I met this word, I was amazed. It’s such a complex word and it means a lot.

In Düsseldorf, a city with the largest Japanese population in Germany, Tainá wanted to learn all she could about Shojin ryori, the art of Buddhist Japanese vegetarian cuisine. Everyone at the restaurant that she worked at spoke Japanese, while she did not. Nonetheless, she looks back on that period with fondness. Around that time, Tainá also started studying Tibetan Buddhism.

– I like that it’s holistic. It’s not something that is only present when you’re attending a retreat or in a particular space, rather it’s about having this mindset with you in everything that you do. So always considering humans, nature and everything else as one.

– My mother was very much influenced by many religions, as are many Brazilians, but one thing she always told me was, ‘You know, we have to clean the house, but do it only if you want to do it. And if you do it, do it with love – with all your concentration, being present and making the best out of it.’

I’m not religious, but I’m familiar with Buddhist teachings and nod in agreement. As we turn our sights to the future, Tainá expresses a wish to see Entretempo develop into a sustainable business. She’s now so busy that she barely has time to take on volunteer projects she finds meaningful. Ideally, Tainá would like to find more supporters to provide feedback, help build the community or contribute financially.

– I’m really interested in working more with artists, chefs, scientists and people from different disciplines. The world we live in is so complex and we can’t just think about how the future should be alone. When it comes to food, for example, it shouldn’t just be about exchanging ideas with chefs or food-related companies and politicians, I think it’s very positive to bring people with different visions to think about how the future should be.

I’ve always been drawn to the notion of creativity as a combinatorial force–that cross-pollinating knowledge and inspiration from various disciplines can lead to refreshing and imaginative ideas–so Tainá’s words really struck a chord with me. As our conversation winds down and I gather my things to leave, I can’t help but admire her unswerving determination to bring these worlds together for a larger cause.