birds + Richard gallery and Richard B restaurant blur the lines between dinner party and exhibition opening with an invitation to take in art with a side of gastronomy.
ALBUQUERQUE—The current menu at Richard B, the two-table restaurant in Albuquerque’s Ridgecrest neighborhood, is titled “A Good Armchair,” a nod to Henri Matisse, who likened art to an accommodating chair—where “the businessman as well as the man of letters” can relax. Inside the hybrid art gallery and dining space, a bird of paradise tilts in the sun in front of floor-to-ceiling glass looking out to a courtyard where yards of bamboo climb skyward, framing a koi pond. The largest table—custom built by designer Kierian Cunningham with wood salvaged from a Corrales, New Mexico barn—is stationed in the main gallery of birds + Richard.
Both the gallery and restaurant are the inventions of German couple Alex Rockelmann and Michael Kuhn. It’s difficult to pin succinct titles to the dynamic team, though a short list includes curators, gallerists, artists, designers, collectors, and chefs. The pair met in Berlin in 2009, finding a multitude of points of connection—not least of which, their love of art. Not just any art, but art that “takes risks.” This predilection is evidenced in the exhibitions they curate today at their Albuquerque outpost and sister gallery in Berlin, featuring works like slip-cast sculptural ceramics, textiles dyed strand by strand and woven into intricate patterns, participatory installation, process-driven photography, and much more.
The ultimate and unlikely lure that brought the couple to New Mexico? Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway, reportedly down and out and suffering from alcoholism, sought refuge in Cubero, a small town sixty miles west of Albuquerque, where he began writing The Old Man and the Sea. Rockelmann’s brother is a professor of literature harboring “an obsession” (as Kuhn puts it) with the writer. Rockelmann and her brother, who both attended college in the States, road-tripped coast to coast via Route 66. As family lore has it, when they stopped in Cubero, Rockelmann stepped out of the car and—though not a particularly spiritual person—felt a profound and inexplicable connection. “I don’t know what it is,” she announced. “But I belong here.”
New Mexico’s pull never left her. After she and Kuhn wed, they spent their honeymoon traveling through Georgia, Florida, and Texas, making Albuquerque their final stop. In 2018, they did a home swap in the city with their Berlin apartment. During that extended Albuquerque stay, “We felt like we could finally breathe again,” Kuhn describes.
On a whim, they attended an open house for a mid-century home in Ridgecrest, the southeast mesa neighborhood named after its tree-lined main drag. The house, though a bit neglected, possessed sturdy steel bones and a staunch brick facade. “We put a bid on the house, and the next day they accepted it,” Kuhn says. “We thought, well, we own a house here now, so I guess we should live here. It was a crazy impulse, to be honest.”
And so the gallery—an extension of that very same home—was born. Holding their first show in late 2018, birds + Richard has hosted nearly a dozen since. The current exhibition Resting Places, scheduled to remain on view through March 11, 2023, features modern furniture by Cunningham, wood fragment sculpture by Bailey Romaine, and painting by Bill Meuser.
It wasn’t until nearly two years after their first opening that Richard B, the culinary counterpart, took shape.
Rockelmann, the daughter of hoteliers who drew in lodgers with their restaurants, was “born into a kitchen.” In the early days of the pandemic, the art market all but crashed. Looking for a way to flex her creative skills as well as support the community, she and Kuhn started a food delivery service. A pay-what-you-want model made it possible for anyone to receive healthy meals prepared with local ingredients.
As months passed, they eventually started serving meals to friends at a small outdoor table. Soon, someone pinned the budding restaurant to Google Maps, then wrote a review, and before they knew it, reservation requests poured in. Rockelmann and Kuhn’s pandemic project, in just a few months, had evolved into one of the most unique and inventive restaurants in the city.
Spinach gnocchi with foie gras cream, topped with grape juice caviar and fried spinach. Lion’s mane wrapped in rice paper, drizzled with pistachio oil, and topped with kohlrabi. Butterfly pea flower tea. Items like these are crafted for a menu that evolves based on what’s available because nothing at Richard B is sourced from outside of New Mexico. “Nature is ultimately the designer,” says Rockelmann.
Still, the menu remains centered around the art that is presented. Rockelmann uses her curatorial skill to investigate the themes and interview the artists to generate tasting menus of up to sixteen courses. Even the playlist humming in the background is carefully crafted to elevate the art and the food. Taken as a whole, a meal here is a complete and thoughtful sensory experience served up by reservation only on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, and Sunday brunch hours.
“It’s not about the food,” says Rockelmann. “It’s about looking at the art and seeing the parallels. When people come for dinner, I always suggest they do the wine pairing because it opens up new tastebuds. That’s what I think the menu does with the artwork—it opens up different perspectives. You are able to be with the art longer, for an entire evening, where you’re indulging in food and good wine, and you’re indulging visually. And taking that experience home.”
Most of us are guilty of spending thirty seconds considering an artwork before moving on to the next. Or mindlessly finishing a meal, having barely tasted it. And avoiding the tough conversations in favor of the easy ones. Rockelmann and Kuhn’s efforts are an invitation to something different.
“That’s what Richard B and birds + Richard is about,” Rockelmann says. “A place of critical thinking, where you can question yourself, and we can grow together.”