Eli and Abbie Zabar

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A nice Jewish meal is a timeless thing, as this profile of Abbie and Eli Zabar from our October 1978 issue shows. L’Chaim!

She says: “My best collage is the next one I do.” He says: “My favorite dish is the one I’m going to do tomorrow.

And for Abbie and Eli Zabar, who live each day to the fullest rather than contemplate what might happen years from now, such comments reflect their belief that tomorrow will be as good, if not better than today.

She is an artist whose collages, some no larger than a postage stamp, can be gentle fragments of a misty English countryside or a Nantucket dune rising to a brilliant sea, but just as often are almost frighteningly strong segments of a highway, racing inexorably toward some mysterious point on the far horizon.

Abbie says: “I love highways. Their precision is gorgeous and they are a beautiful example of technology. The slickness and evenness of the paving next to natural foliage really can give me the shivers.”

He is the owner of E.A.T., a fine food shop on Madison Avenue that some people think is a little bit of heaven. Eli’s genius as a cook derives from his ability to make essentially simple dishes perfectly.

“Food is my life, along with my wife,” Eli says. “I used to put down my background – my family was always in food, delicatessens. Now I realize those are really my roots, my origins. Not many people in this country are so lucky as to have this kind of background. It’s a little bit like in France, where food is a tradition and a way of life. IN France, the biggest heroes are chefs, the same as athletes are in this country. In France, every kid wants to be a chef or a bicycle racer.”

“I formulate ideas and come to conclusions about the world by how I feel about food. My sensitivity about everything begins and is conditioned by the interaction of my interest in food and in my work. My tastes have evolved. The more I know and see, the more I reject, and it’s the essence I’m left with.”

Their life together reflects much of the direction and certainty of their separate professions. “I can’t stand anyone who has an act going, rooms that have a schtick,” says Abbie. “And Eli has taught me this is a virtue.” They live in an apartment overlooking Central Park. Abbie sliced walls in half and slanted them slightly so that the panorama of both the park and the city become part of the apartment. The terrace, where ivy and honeysuckle grow luxuriantly over the walls and the cat rests snugly on the woolly thyme at the base of an olive tree, is like a green border that somehow joins the view of the park with the airy, white interior.

“Our apartment is very simple and natural to me and is my idea of what is elegant, comfortable, and luxurious,” Abbie says. “I don’t have any role models. I can see other things I appreciate but they don’t set a role model. I love the idea of walking into this building and winding up in an apartment like this with its loft space.”

“I used to think I was fundamentally lazy and then I realized that there are certain things that just answer my needs and please me. There are a few things that, when they were designed, were right; some that were right back in the Bauhaus that will be right in the year 2000 – Corbusier chairs, six-by-six-inch white ceramic tiles, stainless steel in the kitchen, Luxo drafting lamps, white bed linens and bath towels. We’re probably the only people who go to Porthault for white-on-white, because we like the ribbon binding on a cotton towel.”

“When I design something – a logo for instance – I only use a couple of type faces. I know I can depend on them and I use them again and again in different ways. I like to see how much tighter I can get on something. I think it’s wonderful that Money could do all those paintings of water lilies over and over again. This last bunch of collages I’ve done are of the Nantucket airstrip.”

“I feel as if I could sit all day at that airport and see what happens. The strip involves a very teeny piece of grass. Sometimes you can’t see it because of the fog and sometimes it’s not even green because it hasn’t rained. I love that.”

“I work with paper because I can’t get the image I want with any other media. I truly see the landscape as things in collage.” She likes the small format that she has allotted herself in her collages, all of which project a tremendous feeling of space and depth. She says, “I think it’s a cop-out to paint big. It’s easy to get big space in a big painting.”

She is equally adamant about the presentation of her collages. She uses an exquisitely functional acrylic box, designed in the late Sixties, and within it her collages seem suspended in space with nothing to detract from the curiously evocative second sense that each of them has.

Although Abbie has a show coming up at Blum Helman Gallery in mid-September and it was suggested she frame some of her collages in the wooden frames that are currently in vogue, she is staying with her barely-there acrylic enclosures. “I know there are frames that are more fashionable,” she says. “All the galleries have them and they almost have the ‘initial’ cachet. But I don’t want a fashionable, chic frame. I want the best frame. I don’t want my art to compare with the frame. I just want it boxed so it’s preserved.”

“It’s the same with our traveling. We haven’t been everywhere in the world, but, boy, have we traveled well! We can go back to the same inn in France three times a year.”

They also eat well when they travel, but with a kind of delicious awareness of not only how lovely the food is, but the taste and the imagination that goes into it. Eli recalls thee joy of eating omble, a kind of salmon trout, in “this incredible dining at Pere Bise overlooking Lake Annecy,” or the sautéed foie gras served with carmelized baby turnips at Mionnay. And of Michel Guerard’s pot au feu which the two ate at Eugenie les-Bains, Eli says: “There is no relationship between his pot au feu and any other pot au feu in the world. You cannot put a value on this kind of excellence. It goes way beyond the cost of ingredients; it’s off the scale of things. That’s the way I feel about my work and these places – it’s not a dish, it’s a revelation.”

At home, they eat as superbly, but basically quite simply. It is just that everything is so good. In Nantucket, where they have a charming house that overlooks a freshwater pond, sand dunes, and the sea, it is often lettuce, fresh from the farm; pork chops grilled with thyme and mustard; pasta; and homemade sorbet. In the city, sautéed chanterelles with Beaujolais to start, a tiny rack of lamb that Eli grills on the terrace, followed by some of his incredible cheese and raspberries with crème fraiche. Or sometimes, it is just perfectly cooked pasta with lots of sweet butter and shavings of fresh truffles.

“I happen to love having breakfast with Eli,” Abbie says. “He goes to the upstairs terrace and picks a little cup of fraise des bois and he always says how glad he is I planted them. He has his cup of Melior coffee and I have my cup of tea, and it’s early in the morning when nobody else is up. Eli says that the rest of his day suffers if we don’t have that little experience.”

And Eli says: “My favorite meal is when Abbie and I eat together, either something leftover from the store, or something Abbie has made – pasta, perhaps, and salad. Because of Abbie’s lack of professional experience, she brings a freshness to everything she cooks.”

“In her field, she’s worked it all through. She’s taken her art outward, as I’ve taken my food.”


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