At one of Indianapolis’ premier cultural institutions, art is more than a painting hanging on a wall or a sculpture on a pedestal.
Outside of the galleries and gardens of Newfields, people are increasingly finding creativity in culinary endeavors.
The sublime flavors of the simple cup of tea, the explosive color of fresh fruit cut to resemble sashimi or the bright punch of a springtime saison-style beer offer new experiences to art lovers coming to the home of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
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“The way people experience culinary art and the way they experience visual art is the same,” said Josh Ratliff, director of culinary arts at Newfields. “The art itself is different, but the guest experience with those arts is the same. If we can bring food and beverage to the highest level we can, people will treasure the art more.”
Culinary arts have become a growing focus at Newfields, so much so that the institution has created its own department devoted entirely to the artistry behind food and drink. For the past three years, the pastoral beer garden has welcomed thousands of people to try specially crafted local beers and other unique drinks. The Winterlights holiday celebration has become as much about the hot chocolate, s’mores and mulled wine as the stunning light displays.
The newest experiment is a pop-up tea house located just outside the main galleries that immerses people in tea culture and inspired food and beverages as a gateway to its slate of Japanese-centric exhibitions opening throughout the year.
“If you can just have a cup of tea after having seen a world-class set of art, that’s good enough for us. You can go outside, drink a beer, there’s a bit of catharsis available to people, respite, restoration after seeing all of this art,” Ratliff said. “It’s a cool little piece of culinary art that helps you digest all of the complex, dense things that you were challenged by or inspired by at the museum.”
The roots of the culinary arts department were planted years ago, as the vision of director and CEO Charles Venable included more curated food and drink experiences to appeal to a wide variety of guests.
“The extensive market research we did here at Newfields showed dining out and going to bars were by far the most popular use of leisure time in the central Indiana region and it gave me the courage to finally accomplish this goal,” Venable said in a press release.
Ratliff was hired in 2015 initially as the director of hospitality, charged with handling all of the food, beverages and guest services events hosted at Newfields. He is one of Indiana’s few certified sommeliers, and he has always had a passion for how people approach food and wine.
The beer garden was his first big project. Since that time, Newfields has focused on trying different experiments and experiences that centered on food and beverages.
“Our research is saying that, yes, this community wants food and beverages. But do they really? It’s one of those things where it’s really unheard of in the museum setting, and we wanted to actually make sure it was something that was really a hot topic for our guests. And it’s proven to be,” said Mattie Wethington, spokesperson for Newfields. “Now it’s, what can we do better? What can we do more?”
Ratliff is joined in the culinary arts department by Lindsay Jo Whirley, the operational manager in the department who was hired by Newfields in 2018. In September, Whirley became one of only two certified female cicerones in Indiana. Cicerones are trained in helping people select and recommend beers, playing a similar role to sommeliers with wine.
“That was a big focus coming here, because we want to be knowledgeable for guests. It helps them have a higher level of experience,” she said.
The beer garden has become Whirley’s pet project. Her eight-person team at the beer garden have carefully created a menu of beer, wine and other drinks to create the perfect setting. Sun King Brewing has created a special beer for the garden, Among the Leaves, a bright spring saison.
Other local offerings include selections from Metazoa Brewing, Daredevil Brewing and Ash & Elm Cider. The beer garden will also feature German lagers and other unique offerings.
“Just like the tea house is that missing culinary piece that compliments the galleries, the beer garden is the perfect piece to compliment the horticulture and the grounds,” Whirley said.
Though the beer garden has some refreshing twists added to its already winning formula, it is a feature that Newfields has done in the past and established to be a success.
Pop Up: Tea House is a new kind of venture entirely. The idea was to create a series of seasonal food and beverage concepts to bring culinary arts closer to the galleries, both in terms of subjects being featured in the galleries as well as physically near the artwork. Museum officials reconditioned an unused space on the second-floor balcony, looking out over Newfields’ airy main entrance pavilion.
People can look out to see the blooms designed by the collective Studio Drift for their hanging artwork “Meadow” open and close over guests.
“This was kind of a blank space that we used sometimes for things such as cocktail hours, but it wasn’t used for much. It actually caused a little bit of confusion with guests, because they weren’t quite sure what to do when they got to the top of the escalator,” Wethington said.
Newfields is presenting “Seasons of Japan” throughout the year, a celebration of the art and culture of Japan that features everything from fashion design to samurai swords.
A look at tea — central to Japanese culture — seemed like a perfect match for the culinary arts department.
“We had a critical mass of Japanese plans in the galleries. We don’t do annual themes very often, if ever, here. But once something catches fire in a collaborative environment, people have all kinds of ideas,” Ratliff said. “In a lot of ways, Japan is the most important food culture in the world. There’s so much to choose from.”
Ratliff and others put together different styles of teas: blooming, distilled, brewed and traditional. Teas such as ginger ginseng, Pacific Coast mint and gen mai cha are separated into bright-and-soothing and bold-and-complex categories.
The menu consists of other unique tea drinks. A matcha beer will feature a condensed shot of matcha tea in a pint of Sapporo Japanese beer. The Tea House Cocktail contains barley shochu — a distilled alcohol — with tea syrup.
“We thought about how to showcase the best Japanese tea examples, and how do we tell the bigger story of tea, from India to China to Japan to Britain,” Ratliff said. “Everything is kind of designed to expose you to the idea of tea, and you can go as deep as you want to go.”
Food options will include fruit cut to look like sashimi, house-pickled Indiana vegetables and a “Magic Apple,” a fresh apple marinated with dry tea.
The tea house will operate until June 1, at which point the space pivots to a noodle house. The most popular teas and drinks will be paired with traditional Japanese ramen and other noodle dishes.
“The point of the noodle shop is just to show that it’s chicken noodle soup from Japan, and it’s really good, and we’re going to make it with as many Indiana ingredients as possible,” Ratliff said.
Ratliff, Whirley and the rest of the staff in the culinary arts department have plans for even more unique experiences with food and drink throughout the Newfields campus.
“What we’re doing, at its core, is giving someone something tasty and delicious,” Ratliff said.
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Culinary arts at Newfields
Pop Up: Tea House
What: A immersive tea experience bringing together different elements of Japanese culture adjacent to the Indianapolis Museum of Art galleries.
What can you get: An expansive list of teas from around the world, tea-centric cocktails and beer, as well as small food plates using fruit, local vegetables and other Indiana-sourced items.
What: A curated beer, wine and beverage experience in the Newfields gardens, with food such as soft pretzels and charcuterie.
Where: 4000 Michigan Road, Indianapolis
Hours for both: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.