This Is Not a Tomato

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The “tomatoes” recently served as dessert at the Parisian restaurant Carbonis were not, in fact, tomatoes at all. The work of pastry designer Alina Prokopenko, small mounds of vanilla sponge cake, strawberry compote, praline, and tomato-infused caramel were shrouded beneath glazed, red ganache and topped with the leaves and stem of real tomatoes to complete the realistic look. Instead of using molds, Prokopenko covered each in plastic film and then pressed it into shape. As in nature, “every tomato is different,” Prokopenko says.

The inspiration: the so-called “Loewe tomato,” of course. In early June, the X user Connor Downey reposted a photoset of an heirloom tomato, adding the caption “This tomato is so Loewe I can’t explain it” in reference to the luxury fashion brand behind the fancy tomato leaves candles. Downey’s post, which now has over 98,000 likes, was on the nose. Loewe is known for drawing inspiration from and highlighting the beauty in vegetables, featuring them in fragrances, photoshoots, and on the runway, and just days later, Loewe’s creative director Jonathan Anderson teased the brand’s new clutch — shaped like a giant heirloom tomato. (It was, reportedly, in production before Downey’s post and is not yet available for sale.)

Tomatoes were already trending in the fashion world thanks to last year’s “tomato girl summer” trend, but now that they’re “so Loewe,” those bulbous, sculptural heirlooms — already the splurge of the summer farmers market — have gained an added sense of luxury. Seeing all these tomatoes on social media, “I was like, oh, I want to make a dessert of it,” says Prokopenko, who’s known for trompe l’oeil creations like an “oyster” composed of a madeleine inside a realistic, edible shell and an “ashtray” tartlet served with a meringue cigarette. The trompe l’oeil tomato was a natural next step in making art out of the mundane, and Prokopenko isn’t the only one to do so during this, the summer of the Loewe tomato.

On Instagram, a similar trompe l’oeil dish from the creator @lorneats recently made the rounds. This “tomato” was made up of vanilla mousse and cake that was frozen in a mold (made from an heirloom tomato cast in silicone), covered in mirror glaze, and sprayed with food coloring. The end result is uncanny, as though a real tomato had been dipped in shellac.

Trompe l’oeil food, in general, has been on the upswing. In the past four years, the New York Times has covered trompe l’oeil food’s trending on no fewer than four occasions, featuring cakes, candies, ceramics, and candles that confuse our expectations. As Ligaya Mishan writes of the fake cakes that became synonymous with the early pandemic, that these illusions have taken hold during a time of “bigger and more dangerous deceptions” is unsurprising: It’s a trick that we’re able to see through and a joke we can be in on.

The rise of the trompe l’oeil tomato — which also appears in the form of popular molded tomato candles from Nonna’s Grocer or the tomato-shaped cocottes from Staub, both of which preceded the current Loewe tomato moment — also speaks to the continuing overlap between the worlds of food, fashion, and art. When purses are shaped like food and vegetables make up art installations and bouquets, it’s no wonder that the tomato would become both muse and medium. That, in many places, tomato season is only a narrow window of time might explain some of the desire to preserve its sentiment through imitation: The perfect heirloom tomato is precious, fragile, and ephemeral, even when in season.

Not every rendition of the trompe l’oeil tomato is sweet. A savory take will soon hit the menu at the San Francisco Filipino restaurant Abacá. In Ilocos, the region in the northwest Philippines, KBL is a common condiment, the name of which is shorthand for kamatis (tomato), bagoong (fermented fish sauce), and lasona (onion). Usually served chopped, Abacá’s take on KBL will arrive in the form of a “tomato” that’s served alongside sourdough crisps and smoked salmon roe.

Cut through the bright red coating of tomato-and-Espelette pepper glaze and find a mousse made with tomato and the fresh white cheese known as kesong puti. That mousse surrounds a filling of more intense tomato flavor: tomatoes cooked down with onions, garlic, and Abacá’s own fish sauce. “It’s quintessential Filipino flavors,” says chef Francis Ang, whose background in pastry informs the dish. A mold gives the dish its tomato shape — it has worked double-duty at the restaurant, having previously been used to make a pumpkin out of calabaza squash mousse — before it’s topped off with a real tomato stem.

For Abacá, however, that the dish will hit menus amid Loewe tomato summer is simply a coincidence, according to Ang. Rather, he says, “It’s always fun to recreate something that’s already in its natural state.”

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