Steven Devereaux Greene, executive chef at Herons at the Umstead Hotel and Spa, a peaceful and secluded boutique property just north of Raleigh, N.C., is fond of saying that any new idea has probably been done before. But last year, when the James Beard Award semifinalist conceived what is now known locally as “the Art Tour,” he knew it was unique.
“I came up with the idea to integrate some of the beautiful art in the hotel in our dining experience,” says Greene, a South Carolina native and occasional painter (he likes to use kitchen tools such as spatulas to apply acrylics to canvas, just as he’d sauce a plate). “I’d never seen this before in my travels.”
The Umstead is owned by local billionaire businessman and philanthropist Jim Goodnight (cofounder and CEO of SAS Institute) and his wife, Ann, who is responsible for curating the hotel’s fine art. Greene’s $150 Art Tour is an eight-course tasting menu, artfully pairing newly created dishes with works from the 95-piece collection.
Recently, Greene sat on the back patio of the hotel and talked with Fortune about the Art Tour, a three-hour, multisensory production, which, he says, never leaves diners bored—or hungry.
Fortune: What inspired the Art Tour?
Greene: Usually people who are coming here to dine aren’t just eating dinner; they’re looking for an experience. I wanted to do something that was a little different. I thought it would be fun to get inspiration from the art pieces and create something unique to the property. It adds an extra element of entertainment. We do whimsical and playful.
Tell me about the process when you create a dish inspired by art. Does it start with the art or the ingredient?
Usually it’s a little more organic. I’ll walk around to the art, and then I’ll sit down and try to gain inspiration. Sometimes it mimics the look, like when our pastry chef did pulled sugar to look like our custom Dale Chihuly blown-glass sculpture. Other times it might not mimic the look as much as a texture or feel.
Lynn Boggess has this cool style where he uses acrylic, and he uses so much paint that it comes off the canvas because it’s so thick. He does all nature paintings. One is vibrant green and has a lot of texture, and I wanted to have that same feel of textures of green. I came up with a dish that reminded me of that painting, and we serve it on a green plate. When you take a bite you kind of connect with the art. I know that’s kind of weird.
And it’s not enough to just look good.
Yes. Taste first. Usually I have my own style of flavor-bouncing or creating dishes. I don’t really stray from that. I take base ingredients and make sure they all tie in together. It’s almost like jazz music. If you play this B7 chord, it doesn’t sound as good as B major. But if you tie it into something else, it harmonizes and makes sense.
What are some of your favorites?
One of our signature dishes comes from a sculpture in the spa called Nest With Three Eggs [by artist Flo Perkins]. We serve it as a canapé to start. We do a pickled quail egg stained with butterfly pea blossoms. Then we hollow out the egg and stuff it with bacon mousse and set it on shredded phyllo dough called kataifi that looks just like a nest. We have these custom wood bowls by Jason van Duyn, who harvests his wood locally and also makes bowls for our 62-degree poached-egg dish with grits from heirloom red corn that we grow. So we set the quail egg in the bowl, which looks like a natural habitat.
What’s the most unusual ingredient you’ve used for this menu?
Unusual for most people is not unusual for me. Sea grapes are one of the more unusual things I’ve brought in. It’s like salty seaweed caviar.
Do you have “aha moments” when you finally figure out how to interpret a work of art?
I couldn’t figure out an entrée for this season. You can’t just have courses here and there without any synergy. You need a progression; you want peaks and valleys in your flavor profiles. The entrée idea came to me at night. Charles Walker’s Washington Park series—XLIV, XLV, XLVI—is three paintings side by side, all similar but all different. That inspired me to do three preparations of a dish, so each person gets lamb three ways—lamb loin, lamb belly, and lamb consommé. When I thought of this in the middle of the night, I picked up my phone and took notes.
How long does it take you to come up with a new season of the Art Tour?
Sometimes I’ll start working two months out. We have all menu concepts done a month before rollout, which gives the servers time to study. We give them multiple tests before they step on the floor.
Your servers are becoming docents.
They like it. It gives them another arsenal to work with. The guests don’t know what they’re getting beforehand. There’s a small easel with stock cards for each course, showing a photo of the painting or sculpture. Then the server explains the inspiration and connection with the food. Some people see food as art anyway. After dinner they can walk around the hotel and see it in person.
When you look at fine art now, are you always thinking about what it looks like on a plate?
Yes. The most challenging thing—more so than not being able to manipulate an ingredient—is keeping it new. So I’m trying to pull new ideas from the same paintings without it seeming forced. I’m thinking, if I run out of art here, SAS has a tremendous art collection. Or I could focus on, for example, 14th-century Renaissance France. The North Carolina Museum of Art is just down the street.
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