It happens all the time. We go to a restaurant for dinner and are so entranced by our food and drink, we forget to take a look at our surroundings. Case in point: La Bete. Have you have ever noticed the artwork on the walls, on the counters, in the bathrooms and on the tables at this nearly two-year old Capitol Hill dining spot? It's the handiwork of owner Aleks Dimitrijevic, who is a classically trained artist in addition to schooled chef. He likens his restaurant to Alice in Wonderland, a duality of natural and artificial, a game of choices, and a fun adventure if you let yourself slip down the rabbit hole. Born and raised outside of Detroit by a Serbian father and Italian mother, the thirty-something restaurateur, who's been in Seattle for six years, has been living his own duality as chef and artist his entire life.
Don't be fooled. Aleks is no poser.
What brought you to Seattle?
My brother, essentially. He was living out here and working at Pilchuck Studios blowing glass and helping as an assistant. I was living abroad and didn't want to move back to either the east coast or Midwest, and since he was already out here, I thought what would be better than to be close and get to a different part of the country that I'd never been before. I'd always wanted to come out here, so I figured if I liked it as much as he did, I'd have no problem with it.
Did you have a job waiting for you when you came here?
No, I came straight from Frankfurt, Germany, basically. I got a job about 10 days after I moved out here.
At Union. That's where Tyler [ed note: Tyler Moritz, whom Aleks opened La Bete with]. I was there for about two months and then I was at Licorous for about 10 months and then Harvest Vine for a little more than a year and then I took six months off; I went back to Munich to help a friend I had worked with in Frankfurt.
How long were you abroad and why?
All total I guess in my life it would probably be a quarter. If you wanted to split it up, Serbia for two and a half years. I was in Spain for two years--a one-year study abroad in college and then two separate six-month stints. I was cooking over there in Cataluña. I spent three years in Germany and then just other random travel.
Did you go to culinary school?
Yes. At the C.I.A. in Hyde Park, New York.
Tell me about this artistic side of yourself.
I always have doodled, even when I was little. My aunt used to buy my drawings. I always liked leafing through art books and kind of had a good early exposure to that just because my parents have pretty impeccable taste when it comes to everything from paintings to rugs to furniture to china to glasses to wine to food to whatever. I grew up in one of those families. Even though they're both physicians and have nothing to do with art. I guess my mom's side is a little more artistic. Her father used to work marble and kind of do mosaic in Detroit.
They do have an eye for it. Exactly. They've always been very good about exposing both my brother and myself to different stuff. We used to go antique hunting when I was little. Some of my favorite things when I was younger were those little Japanese ivory figurines. I used to make them buy those. We still have them at home. So, yeah, I grew up doodling and cooking, as a matter of fact. Since I was really, really, young, those were kind of the two things that I just liked most. I ended up getting my scholarship to college for ceramics, although I was on that pre-med track and then switched after a year to fine arts, art history and Spanish.
So, you were doing the pre-med thing, like your parents. Was that expected of you?
Yeah, and that's why I went to Kalamazoo College, which is really good. It's one of the better liberal arts schools in the Midwest with a really strong health sciences background. After the first year I decided to pursue cooking, which my parents were actually enthusiastic about. That was the time of the Food Network, when Emeril was booming and all that other kind of nonsense. Not nonsense. I respect what those guys have done. Not that my parents weren't already aware of the fact that you could do well with a restaurant, but celebrity chefs were on the rise, which drew more awareness.
I've always mixed it up. College was when I started getting more into mixed media. I like the associative process. Different materials will trigger different memories. Just like with food, there's smell, taste and all that; your brain is wired to build memory based on those senses. I like how they influence what you take out of the piece and the emotion they evoke. Then there's the whole color and everything else that goes along with it, which is why I like food, too. When you get into the really more high-end type food, it's all composition and edible sculpture. [In my art] I like to start with a background layer, just with a specific interest in the material, especially with more of the mixed media stuff and that three-dimensional aspect that it brings to the work and how it changes when your perspective shifts from one side to the other and how light plays off of it and the stuff that makes it pop and disappear.
The type of art you do, is that something that requires a lot of training?
I suppose I'd say I'm classically trained, especially the art history part. I think most of my college years were spent with everything from medieval to mostly baroque and stuff like that. You need some classical understanding of composition. Well, you don't really need it because there's a lot of street art now that maybe they aren't really super formally trained, but it's so different. The use now of like mass-produced imagery, photo copying, computers--you don't really need some of the technical training that maybe you used to, especially to do larger scale pieces. I can't say I don't like the direction it's going, although I think it kind of sucks that it's really hard to make a living at unless you're in advertising or some sort of social media and you just use your skills to promote a bunch of stuff.
No. I've never actually displayed anything other than at home. My mom has a couple of pieces that I did for my senior thesis in college. Other than that, I've always painted things and given them away to friends for the most part.
Has anyone ever offered you money for any of the pieces in your restaurant?
People have asked about it. None of them are cheap, either. They're not $500 paintings, because some of them took me months to do. To get the time and money back on materials, they're going to be more in the four to eight-thousand dollar range.
What are some of your art pieces that are on display at La Bete?
The tables [near the back wall] were styled after Asian silk screen paintings. They're hardwood ply that's routed and inlaid and then cast with resin on top to sort of mimic a river bed. That's why the bugs and the little rocks and things kind of peek out and the silver paint implies those little swirls of water and little eddies and whatnot. I like the metaphor of a river running into the ocean, which is what the theme is of that big watery piece at the end of the tables. It's the siren song.
So, the tables, the paintings, the collage that's on the back bar. The restaurant sort of lends itself to a sort of Alice in Wonderland. That's why on the sandwich board out front it says, "Eat Me, Drink Me." I'd always envisioned like a comic book strip to go along with it. The La Bete part came from a play on the word Belzébuth which is the French word for Beelzebub or that kind of dark, evil side. The idea was to play off the Japanese cartoon Totoro, to have this frumpy, furry, goofy big creature walking hand-in-hand with a little girl sort of skipping and holding a balloon. So, it was a play on that. Tyler found the La Bete reference, which is a little easier to chew as a name. Not to say that I wouldn't like to still do something to play off that idea. I like the fairytale aspect of it. Eventually, I'd like to paint the alleyway next to the restaurant black and do some sort of tree-line in there and use moss paint to do the leafy part of the trees so you'll be walking down a corridor of trees and foliage that's actually a live moss. That'd be kind of fun.
It's nice to be able to show some of that stuff in [La Bete] and like I said, I'd like to be able to sell some of those pieces and get the ones that have been in there for two years off the walls, just because I'm kind of tired of them. Some of them are a little bit more part of the restaurant, but the rest of it I'd like to take down and sell hopefully, because I would ultimately like to sell those to fund a small potter's wheel and a small kiln so I can make some of the tableware for the restaurant.
Do you think there's a common thread between your artwork and your food?
Both are kind of heavily influenced by just keeping things...I like tradition in both art and food. That's why I like international cuisine and exploring. That's why we do the Mondays also [ed note: La Bete serves Indian food every Monday]. We never pigeonholed ourselves into any particular cuisine for a reason. I'm half Serbian, half Italian, I've cooked in Spain and Germany and am French trained, so what am I going to choose out of those five to focus on and why? I'd be just as comfortable in any number of them. It doesn't really matter to me. From an early age my mom and aunt had an incredible collection of cookbooks and both are great cooks. The respecting the tradition part and keeping the learning process going is always nice and you always have new ingredients and new techniques you can appropriate. I can see similarities between cultures and their approaches to certain sauces or cooking techniques, like an Indian curry versus a Mexican mole.
The nature of the place, I'd always wanted to keep it more on the homey side and have that atmosphere. That's why we have the open kitchen where you can chat with the cooks. It totally takes away that wall between the kitchen and the dining room. You're amongst friends.