How do you measure happiness? That’s the question Cara Cruickshank wants to explore with the latest installment of her long-running immersive art project dubbed Cafe de la Culture, a themed international salon series where conversation and cuisine go hand-in-hand with interactive visual and performing arts experiences.
“I really like to choose topics that are based around questions no one has a definitive answer to, because that invites the audience to enter with a sense of discovery,” Cruickshank says. “And nobody can predict exactly how the conversation is going to go, which allows for a much deeper and more authentic conversation.”
In the so-called “happiest city in America,” the topic of the upcoming Cafe de la Culture salon — happening at a secret South Boulder location revealed with purchase of a $75 general admission ticket — takes on a special valence for the director and producer who splits her time between Boulder, Paris and New York’s Hudson Valley.
“Boulder is seen as a utopian kind of town, and yet there are shadows to every community. I know plenty of people here who struggle in their own sense of well-being and happiness,” Cruickshank says. “I just thought this would be a nuanced [topic] to explore for the new year.”
But there’s a lot more than conversation in store for the upcoming salon, whose roots trace back to a local 2011 event focused on the ideas of the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. In addition to deep dialogue on happiness with diverse panelists, visitors to the Jan. 14 happening can expect a bevy of live music, traditional dance performances and visual installations from local artists. And since it wouldn’t be a true Parisian-style salon without celebrating the art of food and drink, Cruickshank has lined up featured chefs Aaron Lande and Ky Uwate of Blackbelly, Dan Hayward of Savory Spice Shop and Slow Food Denver, and Sole Mingo-Ordonez of Highland City Club and Peggy Markel’s Culinary Adventures.
“Cara first contacted me just to cook. But as we talked, I let her know I had been playing with some of the musicians who were already on the show, as it were,” says Lande, a former professional concert violinist who toured the world with acts like Smokey Robinson and Mannheim Steamroller before taking on his current role with one of Boulder’s hottest restaurants. “Then we kind of thought maybe I could do some music, too. Then I sent her one of my art pieces, and she was like, ‘You’ve got to show this, too!’ So it just kind of snowballed.”
Lande has blended these elements of his life before, when he would serenade guests with violin and Middle Eastern percussion as the personal chef at the McCauley Family Farm in Longmont. But he says the upcoming Cafe de la Culture salon — where Lande will craft a series of farm-to-table entrées, perform darbuka drum and violin, and exhibit a collection of visual works — represents a whole new level of synergy for the multi-talented Boulder native.
“It’s a little more extreme this time. But food, music and art are so interconnected for me. It’s the way I connect with people,” Lande says. “I feel like food is a language everybody speaks. Music and art are a little bit more personal. But I think no matter where you’re coming from, or what walk of life you’re from, great food is great food — and it’s something we can all come together around.”
To that end, hungry Cafe de la Culture participants can expect a menu that’s distinctly Colorado. The evening will feature a full slate of courses from Lande and company (with a wine pairing package available), featuring local produce like winter radishes and cabbage from Lafayette’s Red Wagon Farm, along with a showcase of the Centennial State’s most plentiful grain from Golden Prairie Millet in Weld County, the largest purveyor of certified organic millet in the United States.
“With each part of my dish, I’m trying to celebrate a small local farm that is really doing stuff the right way,” Lande says. “We’re not getting stuff from across the country, or across the world. This is what ‘right here’ tastes like.”
This hyper-local quality also spills into the salon’s slate of performing artists and speakers. In addition to serving up a unique taste of the Front Range, the Cafe de la Culture lineup includes panelists like Yuzo Nieto, executive artistic director of Denver’s Radical Arts Academy and bandleader of the Pink Hawkes; performers like Flamenco dancers Liliane Kupper and Paula Coffman, accompanied by guitarist Jerry Hunter; along with paintings and sculpture by Ricardo Nanton, Lisa Nevot, Scarlett Kanistanaux and more.
For Cruickshank, marrying these elements of cuisine, culture and conversation comes back to the Parisian salon tradition typified by Gertude Stein’s 27 rue de Fleurus in the early 20th century, where writers and artists would spend entire evenings sharing ideas and discussing the issues of the day. As her guests unpack the meaning and measurement of happiness during the upcoming Cafe de la Culture event, Cruickshank hopes they will follow this European tradition by slowing down and savoring the good stuff in life.
“The invitation is to step into the door, let go of keeping track of time, and let the evening unfold as it does, with space for spontaneity and discovery,” she says. “Bring your curiosity and see what unfolds.”
ON THE BILL: Cafe de la Culture. 6-10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14, secret South Boulder location (revealed upon registration). $75 general admission; $65 students and seniors. Packages available here.