On the back wall of Le Bernardin, a restaurant known for its seafood, a 24-foot oil painting of the Pacific Ocean hangs above a well-lit dining room of white-clothed tables neatly set with plates, cutlery, and glasses. It spans four tables. Foamy, sunlit water eddies across the canvas from corner to corner.
"If you have a restaurant with nothing on the walls, there's no energy," explains chef and co-owner Eric Ripert. "Paintings can bring a certain feel."
This particular painting, Deep Water No. 1 by Ran Ortner, brings a muscularity and wildness to the civilized, codified experience of eating in a fine restaurant. There it is—right above the dainty tuna brochette, the carefully spooned caviar—the wild home where the food on your plate started.
Ripert hung the painting during Le Bernardin's 2011 renovation. It comfortably fits the room and helps to project the new vibe he wanted.
"We used to have an old collection of 18th-century pieces. They were beautiful, but they brought a stiffness to the dining room. It felt like the Louvre. Art is essential in our lives and in restaurants. It sets the tone."
Ripert says that what happened was that the restaurant's food and style changed. So did its customer base. It had gotten younger. Ripert noticed a disconnect between the evolution of his restaurant and the feeling created by the old pictures on its walls. It felt, as he says, "stuck in the 80s, when Le Bernardin started."
Deep Water No. 1 feels better suited to the today. "It gives a lot of energy to the room," Ripert says. He felt that energy when he visited Ortner's studio in Brooklyn, so much so that he decided to buy the painting then and there.
"Eric walked into my studio and threw his arms up," says Ortner. "He knew he wanted this painting."
Ortner works in a cavernous room with high, bleach-white walls. Sweeping oil paintings featuring watery scenes (and nothing but water) hang or lean on these walls, and a few tables and desks appear like specks in the white space. Over time, the ocean has become Ortner's choice subject. He believes he can paint the ocean especially well because he surfs.
"I had never seen paintings of the ocean that conveyed the muscularity and the immediacy I feel when I'm paddling out," Ortner says. "It's almost like being in a cathedral. You get diminished by its scale."
Deep Water No. 1 started after a trip to the Pacific Ocean. On that trip, Ortner took 10,000 photographs. One caught his eye for of the way the water moved, and it became the reference for painting Deep Water No. 1. Three panels in a row make up the 6-by-24-foot painting that's barely contained on La Bernardin's back wall. Sunlight and lights from the teakwood rafters warm its cool colors.
"You see some of the same things in painting that you see in food and wine," Ortner says. "You achieve a fortune of contrasts between textures and rhythms."
That may be true. But, on some level, the painting is best when the beholder doesn't think too hard. There hangs a massive painting of the sea, and there below it people are eating some of the best fish around. In itself, that cool relationship should bring some added joy to dinner.
About the author: Chris Malloy is a writer from the Philadelphia area. He has a Master's in Food Studies from Boston University. If you enjoyed this story, check out some of his other work.