We were handed Zimas upon arrival. There was also a red carpet, a bouncer, a velvet rope, and snippets of parrot sex weaved into scenes from a made-for-TV movie that played on the screen. Golden-skinned potato hors d'oeuvres were served.
These were just some of the surreal trimmings of The Fleiss Feast, the latest installment from Los Angeles Eats Itself. The dinner series, founded by artists Marco Rios and Jason Keller, pairs notable chefs and fellow artists to explore some of Los Angeles' most infamous, catastrophic, and devastating events. This time the focus was on "Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss and the gilded era that made her a household name.
To set the scene, artist Christopher Reynolds transformed a converted warehouse into the luxe surroundings of Fleiss' heyday. The main room was staged to resemble The Beverly Hills Hotel pool, where Fleiss was known to conduct business transactions. A water projection, surrounded by chaise lounge chairs, lit up the center of the space. Umbrella-covered tables and palm trees were spread throughout the venue, which also featured a furnished Airstream trailer—a good place for an illicit tryst. Nineties dance hits (think Amber's "This Is Your Night" and "Be My Lover" by La Bouche) played, mushing the California day aesthetic into the era's thumping club scene.
The idea of facsimile was central for Reynolds, who describes The Fleiss Feast as "part celebration, part dissection." "It was important to do this in a set-like manner, in this kind of Hollywood farce, this Hollywood kind of mirage," he says. "I think that was an important thing for me—not trying to romanticize it. But I think there's something poetic about that not trying to replicate, but trying to investigate."
Still, the details of the representation were meticulously researched, and the allusions spanned from Fleiss' life as businesswoman and after the scandal. Alien 51, her one starring role, played in the bathroom while Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss ran in the reception area; the copulating parrots were a nod to the 20 plus macaws she currently lives with. And then there was the 90s geek stuff, like Hypercolor napkins that were actually washed at Dirty Laundry, Fleiss' laundromat in Nevada, and the collection of popular colognes of the time, from Ocean Blue to EC Uni, in the bathroom.
The menu from chefs Mia Wasilevich and Teresa Montaño also referenced 90s LA and its unapologetic decadence, as well as big moments in Fleiss' lore. The first course, called "The Sting," included powdered buttermilk "cocaine" laced with pop rocks that sizzled when broth was poured on top, while a metal straw was provided to sip the liquid from the bowl. Served in a tin, "caviar" (actually black lentils) was topped with foie gras mousse and a quail egg.
The darker side of the Hollywood madam's world was depicted with actual darkness, in the dim room and in the Caesar salad. Served on a black plate, the salad's croutons were blackened with squid ink, an effect meant to convey the seedy side of Fleiss' enterprise, according to Montaño. Likewise, the Surf & Turf War, a beef cheek and prawn dish "bloodied" with red pepper sauce, alluded to the rivalry between Fleiss and onetime mentor Madam Alex (who used the term "Whore Wars" to describe the fallout with Fleiss).
"I think Heidi's whole business was about—I mean, there's a reason why they're called hookers, because they're trying to hook somebody into that mirage of decadence and that mirage of being important," says Wasilevich. "We wanted to convey that in the food, so it had to be really high-impact. We wanted to hook you in the experience. We lead you down to that slippery slope to the dessert, and after you eat dessert, you just want to shower."
That dessert consisted of chocolate and meringue molded into vaginas and topped with a boozy cherry. House-made push pops were also served.
While a story like Fleiss' is perhaps easy to make light of, many of the topics on LA Eats Itself's agenda are not. As they slowly work their way through a list that includes the Manson murders and the LA riots, Keller and Rios admit that an inevitable tension between examining these traumatic events and the high risk of sensationalizing them—as well as the potential to hurt and offend survivors and victim's families—exists.
Disaster was a likely possibility with the series' inaugural meal, the Night Stalker Supper, which centered on serial killer Richard Ramirez, but the execution was arguably tasteful. The idea for the dinner, and the project as a whole, was sparked when Rios attended a Night Stalker tour and was surprised to see attendees bonding over memories of the summer of 1985, when Ramirez's murder spree terrorized the city and its suburbs.
"The stories were really quite poignant and funny, and I was just sort of fascinated by that," says Rios. "It ended up being one of those mnemonic experiences where I'm sitting there, and all of the sudden, these forgotten memories were triggered. I was really fascinated at how these people were laughing and having this good time around this difficult, tragic experience."
Rios immediately became interested in understanding where taboo and trauma merge with fun and humor. With Keller, he set out to translate his experience with food, a longtime obsession that he's examined as an academic and in his own work.
The chef they chose for Night Stalker Supper was Guerrilla Taco's Wes Avila, a native Angeleno who was a child when the crimes were committed—some very close to his home—and had plenty of his own memories of the time. Avila's approach was to create a menu of comfort food, including his grandmother's meatball taco, to inspire feelings of safety.
For the Black Dahlia Dinner, foods that Elizabeth Short might have eaten before she disappeared were prepared. "[Instead] of just doing a bunch of meals where it's just about body parts, which is, like, the dumbest thing to do, I really thought we should make the meal be her last meal, like playing with P.O.V. It was sort of a narrative of her last night," says Keller.
As for how they plan to address the LA Riots, Keller and Rios, who has personal connections to the uprising, are considering a few options, including highlighting food traditions from the areas most affected or hosting block parties in the those areas. Roy Choi is Rios' fantasy chef for the project.
Keller says they also attempt to mitigate the chance for exploitation by not profiting monetarily from the event. The chefs, artists, and servers are all volunteers, and usually the space and food are donated. But then there's the issue of fulfilling the expectations of paying customers, and Keller admits that makes him uneasy—he doesn't want LA Eats Itself to become just another upscale "foodie" event, nor does he want upcoming dinners to have the glamour of The Fleiss Feast.
"I don't want to have a bunch of people from Hollywood to have fun," says Keller.
To ease this, they're considering making future installments free by personally funding them. The fact that they're thinking of distributing bug out bags for their next event, The Edible Earthquake, and making attendees figure out their own meals will probably help, too.