BY SARA MOONE
PHOTOS BY PETER ACKER
Matthew McLendon, the associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Ringling Museum, says he learned to cook for the same reason a lot of folks did: To feed himself in college once he left behind his parents’ dinner table. But he gained a certain edge while studying abroad in Italy—by observing how it was done in the restaurants.
“There was no concept of preservatives at that time,” McLendon says, “and it was my first experience of eating truly fresh food all day, every day. Shopping not for the week, but for the meal. And of course, how do you not love Italian food?”
The purity of fresh ingredients prepared in simple combinations showcasing their quality and flavor inspired McLendon to experiment in the kitchen himself.
“That was hugely influential, because it taught me that cookbooks are very necessary and important, but they’re reference books,” he says. “I will follow a recipe the first few times, but after that I think you just have to have the freedom of improvisation and creativity.”
These days, with his work at the museum, McLendon admits that quality time in the kitchen can be hard to come by.
“When I have the luxury to spend an entire day in the kitchen I’m very happy, but that’s a rare luxury,” he says. He also confesses that he’s terrible at cooking for one—so when he does step in front of a stove, he makes the most out of that happy place by cooking for others.
“It’s a real expression of caring, and of interest in others,” he explains. “I guess curating for me is ultimately about interest in others, and about sharing. I always think of curating as the ultimate show-and-tell. . . . I guess cooking is the same way—it’s sharing, and that’s what I ultimately love about it.” McLendon makes another connection between his passions for the culinary and visual arts:
“The strongest thing I think you could learn as a cook, and the strongest thing I think you can learn as a curator . . . is editing. Cooking is an editorial process: I made it this way this time; this worked, this didn’t work,” he describes. “Curating is much the same way. I start out with an overall plan, and then carrying it through to exhibition is a process of taking away and editing. . . . Sometimes more is more, but frequently it’s not.”