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Editor’s Letter: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Chef

Frame > Frame Stories > July 2022: The Art Issue > Editor’s Letter: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Chef
Tony Roko
Artist Tony Roko paints a portrait of Frame Editorial Director Mark Kurlyandchik in his Plymouth studio.
Photos by Joe Vaughn.

Once upon a time and a not-very-good time it was, an airborne coronavirus pandemic exposed just how essential restaurant industry workers were to the fabric and well-being of our communities.

This after being largely written off by American society with the dismissive adjective “unskilled” for years.

The hypocrisy in the way we’ve treated the service industry is something Plymouth-based painter Tony Roko wanted to highlight. Better yet, he would raise money for the very workers he aimed to pay homage to.

“I was just inspired by the devotion of the industry workers,” Roko says. “It was unbelievable that they were risking so much, because it’s not a job that you think of in terms of high risk. I just thought it was really brave of them. I wouldn’t even step out of my fucking house and these people are shuffling carryouts and interfacing with people.”

Roko started his own unlikely career from humble roots. In the early 1990s, Ford pulled him off the assembly plant line to paint murals around its properties, launching a 30-year career as the automaker’s resident artist. Meanwhile, outside of the plant, Roko became known for his unmistakable portraits, which often blend the haunting human forms of Modigliani with the joie de vivre of The Lost Generation’s Paris and a brilliant color palette inspired by Detroit’s industrial heyday,

Roko also made a lot of chef friends along the way.

Before Jay Leno and Lady Gaga ever commissioned his work, Detroit-area chef Luciano DelSignore was a Roko collector. When DelSignore’s Bacco Ristorante in Southfield underwent a renovation in 2015, the chef commissioned Roko for 11 pieces of work to hang in the space.

“At the time it was the hugest moment of my career,” Roko recalls. “It was like the thing that I dreamed about — the restaurant commission.”

Through the years, his work graced the walls of many dining rooms, including the Detroit Club and Apparatus Room in downtown Detroit and Grove in Grand Rapids, to name just a few. It’s also appeared on Atwater Brewery’s beer cans and bottles and as labels for Savant’s to-go cocktails.

But Roko’s Restaurant Relief initiative took it a step further, donating a portion of proceeds from paintings inspired by the service industry to the very restaurants they were drawn from.

“When I depict a service worker, I’m trying to depict them taking pride in their work and being professional and skilled, mixing drinks with their eyes fucking closed, rather than someone that was urged by their parents to get off the couch and get a job,” Roko explains. “It’s disheartening to me when I see people belittle service industry workers and treat them with lack of respect, because what they do is admirable. To me it’s a highly skilled workforce and that’s what I wanted to represent in the series.”

Because restaurants need artists to lend life and personality to their spaces, and artists need restaurants as places to showcase their work, the two worlds often overlap.

“Chefs and painters are like cousins,” Roko says. “And even the patrons cross-pollinate so nicely. Foodies love art and vice versa.”

This month’s Frame Stories is a celebration of that cross-pollination. Welcome to The Art Issue.

Tony Roko
Artist Tony Roko paints in his Plymouth studio.

Are chefs artists? Can food be art?

They can be, argues visual artist and former sushi chef Mike Han in this month’s engrossing Q&A, but it all depends on the context and richness of the messaging.

“A burger can be a burger,” Han says. “A burger can also be art.”

So can a wine label.

We spoke with former landscape architect Jackie Bos about her artistic process designing the labels for Bos Wine bottles, which often hold hidden messages and deeper meaning than the typical label.

In our Pro Tips section, Frame’s own creative director and veteran photographer Joe Vaughn offers some timeless advice for taking artful food photos.

For this month’s feature, arts writer and CultureShift co-host Ryan Patrick Hooper profiles “Southwest” Freddy Diaz, whose most visible canvases are the walls of numerous southwest Detroit restaurants.

And we round out the issue with a profile written by Alex Washington and originally published in the Detroit Metro Times of Detroit artist Phil Simpson, whose trademark smiles are popping up in some of the city’s most visible spots.

We hope these stories leave you smiling, too.

— Mark Kurlyandchik