Fruit of His Labor

Ever uttered the hackneyed phrase %26ldquo;It looks too good to eat%26rdquo;? Well, in the case of the lavish buffets and tables groaning with the likes of galantine, oysters on the half shell and roasted wild turkey created by culinary artist Henri Gadbois, you%26rsquo;d be wise to take those words literally. You see, although Gadbois slaves away in his River Oaks kitchen, creating everything from sliced baked ham to pumpkin pie for his holiday table, his culinary creations are faux. Yes, he painstakingly makes food that%26rsquo;s pretty as a painting %26mdash; often re-creations of priceless museum works %26mdash; but it%26rsquo;s completely inedible.

At the sprite young age of 80, retired Lee High school art teacher Henri Gadbois has found a new career as proprietor of Faux Foods, crafting tromp l%26rsquo;oeil pieces for museum and historic-home displays. He%26rsquo;s often commissioned to make arrestingly realistic replicas of food served from the 18th century to the present day. This retirement career started in 1988 when his wife, Leila McConnell (a painter herself), became a docent at Bayou Bend, Ima Hogg%26rsquo;s historic residence turned museum that%26rsquo;s run by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Gadbois joined her two years later, and it was just a matter of time before his fellow volunteers discovered his talent for rendering fruits, vegetables and all manner of meat into appetizing renditions made of plaster, acrylic-painted earthenware, poly resins and water-based wood putty.

%26ldquo;I was a sponsor of the Key Club at Lee High School,%26rdquo; Gadbois recalls, %26ldquo;and we sold grapefruit as a fund-raiser. The trophies I cast at the end of the year were grapefruit awards made with a realistic-looking fruit atop the trophy.%26rdquo; As his skills and historical food knowledge broadened, humble Red Ruby grapefruits gave way to coffin pastry, a staple in most 18th-century kitchens. %26ldquo;I think it was in 1988 when Bayou Bend was planning a big fund-raiser for the restoration of the museum, and they invited a curator from Winterthur,%26rdquo; the soft-spoken artist recalls. %26ldquo;They decided to have their first Yuletide, and they needed a coffin pastry (a flour and water paste container). Martha Washington had evidently created a big coffin pastry filled with all kinds of poultry. Now, you never ate the pastry itself; it was just a vessel to cook what was inside. Before there was such a thing as a casserole dish, they used flour and water to actually make a dish, and it usually featured that design element on the outside of the vessel to indicate what was cooking inside %26mdash; a fish, a bird, etc.%26rdquo; And from this first coffin pastry, Gadbois has painstakingly created a groaning board of historical, fish, fowl, poultry, fruit, vegetables and sweets for museums across the land.

Gadbois works at home in both his kitchen and the large studio the couple added onto their home in 1968, diligently researching the historic recipes he%26rsquo;s asked to recreate. %26ldquo;I always start with the real thing,%26rdquo; he says. %26ldquo;I make a cake or any recipe from scratch so it%26rsquo;s as realistic as possible, then I make resin and silicon molds %26mdash; ones that harden in three minutes. Even for meat.%26rdquo; From there, he casts a ceramic piece that he then painstakingly sands with the tip of a small Dremel drill to render details and textures, such as the mottled edge of a wheel of brie cheese. Later the surfaces are gessoed and painted to render everything from beautifully tempered chocolate candy to the variegated skin
of a persimmon or plum.

Museums such as Bayou Bend, Mount Vernon, Strawberry Mansion (Philadelphia) and the Army Museum (Carlyle, Pennsylvania) regularly commission Gadbois%26rsquo; food reproductions, which he turns around in about six weeks. If you%26rsquo;d like to acquire some of your own Gadbois pieces, each of which bears the artist%26rsquo;s stamp, log onto It%26rsquo;s here the artist can be convinced to part with his stockpiles of gingerbread, plum pudding, quince, pomegranates, Jefferson crab apples, acorn squash, roasted dove and all manner of fruits and vegetables that will make your holiday guests do a double-take.



Artist Henri Gadbois at home in his art studio.

Peaches and pomegranates are just a few of the permanent seasonal fruits Gadbois crafts to look like the real deal.

If that pecan pie looks too good to eat %26hellip; don%26rsquo;t. It%26rsquo;s completely made of painted ceramic.

Besides the large, light-filled studio Henri and his wife Leila share, Gadbois%26rsquo; garage is filled with even more materials necessary to craft his faux foods.

In the case of the faux oysters, Gadbois actually starts with a real oyster shell.

Step one: Before anything is cast, Gadbois heads to his home kitchen to make the real thing first. This serves as the basis for his mold.

In his studio, Gadbois gazes out into the adjoining courtyard.

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