The Art of the Meal

Sole with Mushrooms and Shellfish
Sole au Vin Blanc (Sole with Mushrooms and Shellfish)
This shellfish-sauced dish is adapted from artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's The Art of Cuisine (Henry Holt and Company, 1966). Toulouse-Lautrec used Dover sole, but any fillet—tilapia, turbot, or even salmon—will work.Ingalls Photography

I'd always associated the 19th-century French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec with cancan dancers and ladies of the night, two of his favorite subjects. But in 2010, when I was living in Toulouse, France, I stumbled upon a cookbook he'd written. Entitled L'art de la Cuisine, the book, published posthumously by his friend Maurice Joyant, is filled with bizarre recipes, illustrated menus, and Lautrec's own sketches. As I pored over it, I realized that Lautrec was also passionate about strong cocktails, extravagant meals, and, perhaps most of all, the element of surprise.

In his atelier on rue Caulaincourt in Montmartre, Lautrec cooked extraordinary feasts, often coupling the meal with some crazy antic. Once, after having seen a man boxing a kangaroo, he was inspired to prepare the exotic marsupial for his friends. When he couldn't find kangaroo in Paris, he had his butcher sew a pouch onto a sheep. Another time, after an expansive dinner, he told guests he would be taking them out for dessert. That “dessert” turned out to be a feast for the eyes only—a viewing of paintings by Degas. Frequently, Lautrec would dress up as a samurai or flamenco dancer for his dinners.

Sans costumes, and pouches, I decided to try out a couple of Lautrec's recipes on some friends. I opted for his sole au vin blanc, pan-seared flatfish simmered in a white wine and butter sauce and served with mushrooms, shrimp, cockles, and mussels. To accompany it, I made Lautrec's most notorious cocktail, a concoction of absinthe and cognac he called the tremblement de terre, the earthquake.

Scary-strong cocktail in hand and meal plated, all that was missing was that element of surprise. I achieved it with another Lautrec move—putting goldfish in glass pitchers on the dinner table. The message:_ Don't even think about drinking water tonight._ Now, can I get you another cocktail?