Art & Botany: A Restaurant with Gourmet Sunlight for Plants

Art & Botany: A Restaurant with Gourmet Sunlight for Plants

August 23, 2012
Photo by: Crocker Museum of Art

"Photosynthetic cuisine needs to be domesticated, at home in people's gardens. As our plants grow more civilized, perhaps they can further civilize us."—Jonathon Keats

Last summer, American artist Jonathon Keats launched a pop-up restaurant at Sacramento's Crocker Art Museum. There were no chairs, plates, or chefs. At the world's restaurant for plants, the patrons were the roses, and the menu was filtered sunlight. 

At Keats's Photosynthetic Restaurant, plants are nourished with cocktails of individual wavelengths, instead of the normally full spectrum. Filters control the sunlight that reaches the plants, offering a tasting menu designed to enhance a plant's energy and experience. “Honestly I’m surprised that nobody else has done this." Keats remarks In the show's press release, more than a bit waggish. "For nearly a half billion years, plants have subsisted on a diet of photons haphazardly served up by the sun and indiscriminately consumed, without the least thought given to culinary enjoyment.” 

The Photosynthetic Restaurant: Gourmet Sunlight for Plants. Photo credit: Crocker Museum of Art.

The Photosynthetic Restaurant installed in the rose garden. Photo credit: Crocker Museum of Art

Fittingly, the restaurant looked like both an art installation and a science experiment. Above the roses is a canopy of colored acrylic filters, mounted on copper poles and arranged at varying heights and angles. Over the course of a day, the sun's light passes through the succession of filters—blue in the morning, perhaps, red in the afternoon, green in the evening. This syncopated adjustment of light frequencies translates as a menu for the garden—a series of different courses (wavelengths) distilled from the sun's full light spectrum. “Red light tends to boost carbohydrate levels in plants, whereas blue light is beneficial for building proteins. You or I might get a carbohydrate boost by eating a plate of spaghetti. I can provide the same sort of experience to plants by tilting their intake of sunlight toward the red end of the spectrum,” Keats told Discovery News.

If the absence of "curated" cuisine is one thing that separates plants from humans, the Photosynthetic Restaurant seeks to narrow the divide. "Jonathon's recipes are formulated with careful attention to culinary principles that would be familiar to anyone from Apicius to Julia Child," says Scott Shields, associate director and chief curator of the Crocker.

Keats also designed a cookbook, The Photosynthetic Restaurant: Gourmet Sunlight for Plants with three menus. First, a power meal of enhanced proteins (blue light) and carbohydrates (red light). Second, an avant-garde recipe that "disrupts expectations," as Keats tells The Atlantic in a Q&A. He juxtaposes a violet light that plants are accustomed to seeing at the end of the day, with a orange mid-day light. "I’m playing a little bit of a sensory trick on the plants, in the same way that chefs preparing haute-cuisine throughout history have played tricks on their human diners." Finally, in a third menu, Keats creates an analogue of a habañero pepper spice by adding far-red light to the menu. As Keats explains, "A plant perceives far-red light as a signal that there are other plants nearby, because the far-red part of the spectrum reflects off the leaves of plants. If you’re a plant, you don’t want others getting too close because then your sunlight is occluded, and so plants have a sort of fear response to the far-red part of the spectrum." 

The cover of Keats's cookbook; Keats & his acrylic panels & roses at the Crocker Museum of Art. Photo credits: Jonathon Keats (left), Crocker Museum of Art (right).

While Keats's project does reflect on the physiological effects of separating wavelengths—how it affects a plant's growth—he is not a botanist, so it was Keats the philosopher led the inquiry. He wanted to create a botanic analogue to a familiar experience. "Adapting a common human activity to the plant kingdom—without anthropomorphizing the plants—is a way to explore an aspect of human behavior that we otherwise take for granted." 

Keats's TV dinner for plants, a project following Photosynthetic Restaurant. It's "a meal that can be served to your houseplants on television," says Keats. "I filmed the sky through different colour filters and then made an hour-long movie that plants are able to consume. I’ll be exporting to Italy first — in a couple of months my TV dinners for plants will be available at an art centre called PaRDes in Venice."