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Thank You for Coming: Building Community with Art and Food

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It's a sleepy Wednesday evening in Atwater Village. At Thank You for Coming, a new restaurant that is also an artist residency space, a scattered mix of young adults have come in for dinner. The people behind the counter look a bit stressed, working hard to cook and serve tonight's meal following a long day of shopping and preparation. On tonight's menu are ginger fried rice with a fried egg on top, kale and tomato soup with white beans, choice of ginger verbena or rose petal tea, and for dessert, either a white "fecundity" cake or a spicy chocolate coconut pudding.

It might sound like a typical crunchy-granola menu, served by what looks like a co-op restaurant to a low-key crowd of quasi-hipsters. But TYFC has much more going on than that. Tonight's menu has been rigorously researched and designed by Jennifer June Strawn, a writer, filmmaker and photographer who is their current artist in residence. For her one-month residency project, she has chosen to work with the theme of Superstition and Sustenance -- exploring ways in which superstition manifests in beliefs about the food we eat.

Resident artist Jennifer June Strawn shows off her "fecundity cake." | Photo: Courtesy of Thank You For Coming.

The auspicious month of January has given Strawn the opportunity to engage with four different sub-themes. Week 1 looked at prosperity and good fortune for the new year with a menu that included black-eyed pea stew with fresh greens, yellow dal with money rice, rosemary cornbread, and rice pudding with almonds -- all staples of a lucky new year's dinner in the American South, where Strawn is from. Week 2's menu protected diners against evil and unwanted influences with "shielded" foods like caramelized Brussels sprouts, potatoes and cabbage, and hot cross buns, while Week 3 dealt with health, longevity, and methods of divination with khao soi noodle soup, egg white and corn divinations, and spearmint or sage tea. Week 4, whose menu is described above, was a "full moon special" that looked at fecundity, romance, and the promise of love.

Opened in December, TYFC seems to represent the latest incarnation of the longstanding affair between art and food, seen throughout the spectrum of art history in frescoes, still-life paintings, performance art, and social practice works depicting or utilizing food. But in reality, it is grounded in a more grassroots nexus that casually but passionately encompasses the worlds of sustainable farming, cooperative living, community-based activism, and yes, fine art and design. It's a fertile mix of influences that feels like it might be on the verge of birthing something new.

The place is operated by a large extended network of artists, gardeners, teachers, scientists, designers, and others, who all anonymously contribute their time and their various skills. Because the ideal of communal responsibility and credit is strong here, it takes quite a bit of prodding to get them to admit that there is a core group of friends that was primarily responsible for starting and running the place -- Laura Noguera, Jennifer Su, Cynthia Su, Jonathan Robert, Jordan Cohen, and Stefanie Lynch.

A communal meal at Thank You for Coming. | Photo: Courtesy of Thank You For Coming.

More than a year ago, the group began brainstorming the concept of Thank You for Coming. Some of them had visited or been involved in other alternative, community-based restaurants together, such as PieLab in Greensboro, Alabama and SAME (So All May Eat) in Denver, Colorado. They had also collaborated on local pop-up endeavors like The Cantry, a two-week trading post for goods and services that also hosted family-style dinners, and Secret Garden, in which they opened temporary BBQ pizzerias in the homes of friends with vegetable gardens, from which they sourced the ingredients for the food that was served.

With TYFC, they were interested in establishing a permanent space so that they could create an extended experience over time with a variety of resident artists. They were also interested in building a community through the space and its activities. The group meticulously went through the process of drawing up a business plan, securing funding, getting a restaurant permit, and passing Health Department inspections with an "A" rating. They did the renovations on their cozy Atwater Village space themselves, built their own furniture, and contributed chairs from their own apartments. Out in back, they have started a milk crate garden which they hope will eventually provide ingredients for their meals.

A milk crate garden has been started in Thank You for Coming's back lot. | Photo: Courtesy of Thank You For Coming.

TYFC opened its doors last December 5 with their first residency project, a theatrical endurance performance by the multi-disciplinary artist Cristina Victor titled "L.A. Novela Special." On the material plane, the group clearly has its act together, but philosophically, they prefer to remain fairly amorphous, not wanting to commit to any particular pedagogy or marketing spin. As they stated in their original business proposal, "Our emphasis has always been on process, and the collaboration and education that coincides with it." As such, TYFC is probably best described as a progressive cooperative restaurant that employs an array of artists to structure its offerings, accumulating a highly diverse following along the way.

February's resident, the artistically-inclined alt-rock band Japanther, is perhaps the perfect embodiment of TYFC's grassroots, shape-shifting ethos. For their project, the group plans to recreate a Depression-era automat that vends "food, songs, adventures and art objects of all sorts" for only 69 cents each. It will be fun, but it will also touch on some serious economic issues; as group member Ian Vanek explains, "Automats provided public dignity for pennies on the dollar. In 2013 these same questions about value, quality and service are highly contended. For example the advent of the $1 slice of pizza in New York City. When NYC pizza shops started raising the prices past $2 a slice it drove customers away. So $1 pizza shops started popping up all over the city. We only hope to playfully enter this conversation and by no means have the last word." Visitors will also be encouraged to create 69-cent objects or experiences for sale, thus enabling a dialogue on consumerism and commerce.

While TYFC has the capacity to nurture a wide variety of creative, artist-driven projects, it tends to be grounded in an ongoing quest to build community. As Strawn remarked, "TYFC is informal and encourages interaction on so many different levels. I've met so many wonderful people here, and we've had suppers where customers felt so comfortable that they helped us clean up afterwards. It's a wonderful way to create a healthy community."

 Lunch time at Thank You for Coming in Atwater Village | Photo: Courtesy of Thank You For Coming.

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About the Author

Carol Cheh is a writer and curator based in Los Angeles. She is the founder of Another Righteous Transfer!, a blog that explores LA's performance art scene, and Word is a Virus, a monthly Art21 column exploring the intersection be...
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