The Art of Tsunami

It runs in the family

Photography by Nathan W. Berry

Cooper-Young’s Pacific Rim-inspired restaurant, Tsunami, recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary with a menu update and total refresh of the interior. While Chef/Owner Ben Smith’s artistry in the kitchen is well known, many may not realize that nearly everything in the restaurant—from the art to the interior design—was created by his talented family (wife, Colleen Couch-Smith; father, Dolph Smith; sister, Allison Smith; and oldest son, Brendan Couch-Smith).

We talked to Ben and Colleen to find out more about the art of Tsunami and the Smith family tree of artists.

EM: What was the first piece of art installed in Tsunami?

Ben: My sister, Allison Smith, gifted the restaurant with a piece of work, Bait and Hook, that graces the east wall of the main dining room.

The Michael Crespo fish painting on the north wall (The Pool of the Fallen) was a piece that was initially on loan to us from David Lusk Gallery. When they came to take it back, I asked to buy it because none of us could imagine that wall or this space without it there.

EM: Why was it important to incorporate art in your restaurant?

Ben: Art in the restaurant has always been a part of my concept, even before I had a concept. When I was attending the Culinary Institute of New York in the mid ’80s I had a class called Menu and Facilities Planning (or something like that). The final project for that class was to create a business plan for a restaurant. It was a very intense and detailed project. My team designed a restaurant which we named The Seasoned Palate (a play on the word “palette”). I was in charge of dining room layout and design, logo, name, etc. Part of our concept involved a rotating collection of art in the dining room.

Art is an important part of Tsunami’s ambience. It has always defined our space as different and unique from other restaurants. Colleen and I have to spend a lot of time in this building, and we want to feel comfortable here. Part of that sense of comfort includes being in a space with art that resonates with us and our sensibilities. Also, I am surrounded in my life by artists—my dad, my sister, my wife, my son.

I’ve always been cognizant of the creative struggle of balancing one’s sense of creative vision with the need to make a living.

That is a theme that I think all creative people share, whether it’s music, visual arts or culinary arts.

Colleen: We’re always drawn to eclectic, nontraditional art. I think it sets the tone of the space. Our goal has always been to make our customers feel like they are guests at a dinner party rather than a stuffy restaurant. Having interesting work on the walls is often a great icebreaker in conversation. I pick art that has a story to tell and will draw the viewer in.

Mon 30 July 2018 (nwbTsunami0273.jpg) Photo by Nathan W Berry. Tsunami is celebrating 20 years of being in business.
Mon 30 July 2018 (nwbTsunami0276.jpg) Photo by Nathan W Berry. Tsunami is celebrating 20 years of being in business.
Mon 30 July 2018 (nwbTsunami0274.jpg) Photo by Nathan W Berry. Tsunami is celebrating 20 years of being in business.

EM: What was your artistic vision for the new interior of the restaurant?

Colleen: I had been wanting to refresh the space for many years. For inspiration I picked a color scheme that felt like the classic wall maps from grade school. Obviously maps are a bit of a theme here so it was an easy concept to connect. Once the initial color trials were narrowed down, I just started painting. I would literally show up early, get my gear out and work as long as possible, and then pack up before the shift would start. Once I started painting, the other design elements popped in my head. I scheduled the larger projects last year around holiday closings. The bar was done over Memorial Day and the ceiling of the main dining room around Fourth of July. This year we decided to close for the entire week around the July Fourth holiday to do the south dining room. I definitely took a more modern approach to that room. While I pulled elements of the bar and main dining room into the design, it definitely has a different look and feel to it, yet doesn’t seem out of place. I made the new light fixtures, but I don’t consider that art. I wanted to pay tribute to Allison’s beautiful fixtures, yet bring in the modern element needed in that space.

EM: Did you learn papermaking from Dolph and Allison?

Colleen: Dolph was retired by the time I entered MCA [Memphis College of Art], so it was Allison who taught me papermaking. Dolph let me make paper in his studio after I graduated from MCA and eventually gave me all of his papermaking equipment. He said I came to his Ripley [Tennessee] studio to make paper more than he made paper himself, so it made sense to send it all to me in Memphis. I still cry a little every time I work in my studio over that tremendously kind gesture.

EM: How does art influence the food at Tsunami?

Ben: Art has always influenced my food. I learned from my dad the importance of negative space in a piece of work. He used to tell me,

“Sometimes what’s not there is as important as what is.”

I’ve never forgotten that. I think negative space applies to every art form. If you think of the plate as a canvas, you have to figure out how to make the canvas part of the final piece. Many chefs (and painters) feel like they have to fill up the entire space with something. Sometimes it works, but often the plate or the canvas just looks too busy. As a chef I am also constantly aware of color and contrast on the plate. That has to be a consideration early in the creative process with food. Having said that, there are plenty of times when I have gotten too focused on flavors and textures when conceptualizing a dish, and it’s not until I put it on the plate that I realize I have created a completely monochromatic entree.

Andy Goldsworthy is an artist that I have always been enamored with. I can’t help looking at his work and thinking of ways to make my food look like his work. I think the coolest gig ever would be a collaborative dinner with Andy and myself. And someone to add a soundtrack to the event.

Mon 30 July 2018 (nwbTsunami0188.jpg) Photo by Nathan W Berry. Ben Smith in the kitchen at Tsunami Restaurant. Tsunami is celebrating 20 years of being in business.

EM: What can we expect from the next generation of Smiths?

Colleen: Brendan [age 23] is definitely an artist. Between his photography and recent paintings, he is making his mark. But I am most impressed with his daily sketchbook entries. As his mom I’m obviously biased, but as an artist and former teacher I am especially impressed. It is admirable to have that kind of dedication to your practice, and it is paying off for him. My other children are also creatively inclined and I’m excited to see what they do. Ian [age 16] is interested in architecture, which I think will be a great combination of his brilliant mind and his creative skills. Ayden [age 13]  is interested in fashion design, and her drawing style has the trademarks of a strong graphic designer. It will be interesting to see what she does with those skills. She has amazing knife skills too.

It comes as no surprise that supporting local artists is of utmost importance to Ben and Colleen. In October paper artist Brantley Ellzey will be the first to show his work in the new south dining room. The annual Holiday Artist Market, which showcases various artists and artisans, is planned for November 25, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Meet the Family

Chef Ben Smith, co-owner of Tsunami with his wife, Colleen Couch-Smith, graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in 1996 and is the food artist. Ben opened Tsunami July 1998 after working in numerous restaurants in New York, New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, California and finally back to Memphis. Art has always been a part of Ben’s restaurant concept, even back when he was first dreaming of having his own place.

Colleen Couch-Smith, co-owner of Tsunami, manager, artist, interior designer and curator of art in the restaurant, received her BFA from Memphis College of Art (MCA) in 2000 and was an adjunct teacher of papermaking at MCA 2012 to 2016. Colleen’s art and interior design work are showcased throughout Tsunami from current renovations including painting, upholstery, the beautiful map bar top, handmade wallpaper, light fixtures on both sides of the restaurant and Tsunami’s office floor, which is made from recycled conveyor belts.

Dolph Smith (Ben’s father), artist, papermaker, painter and educator, received his BFA in advertising design in 1960 from MCA back when it was the Memphis Academy of Art. Dolph taught drawing and painting for 30 years at MCA, retired in 1995 and in 2004 was awarded an honorary doctor of fine arts from MCA. Dolph’s art once hung in Tsunami’s main dining room, but was replaced by his daughter Allison’s art. He has made Tsunami’s guest books since the restaurant opened; they are on now on number five.

Allison Smith (Ben’s sister), artist, paper maker and jewelry designer, received her BFA from MCA in 1987 and her MFA from the University of Illinois in 1991. Allison stepped into her dad’s position at MCA as paper and book arts professor from the fall of 1995 to the spring of 1998. Allison’s work Bait and Hook lives in the main dining room of Tsunami.

Brendan Couch-Smith (Ben and Colleen’s son), artist and photographer, received his BFA with a concentration in photography from MCA in 2016. Brendan’s work Music to My Ears hangs in the restaurant dining area. (He shows under the name Max Malcolms.) Brendan says, “In my photography, I capture and create an image as close to realness as I am willing to. Outside of my photography, aspects of realness are bent to the verge of random, more-or-less abstract concept and thought.”

Margot McNeeley lives in Midtown with her husband and two dogs. She is the proud owner of a photograph by Brendan Couch-Smith, lamps by Colleen Couch-Smith, a wire sculpture by Allison Smith, a small construction by Dolph Smith and many years of great food by Ben Smith.

Nathan W Berry is a photographer born and raised in Memphis. With a background in architectural imagery, his love for adventure and art began at an early age while exploring the nooks and crannies of the urban landscape. Over the years, he has become equally comfortable photographing everything and everyonefrom organic farms and farmers, to corporate kitchens and CEOs. When he doesn’t have a camera in his hands, you can find him running trails.