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August 4, 2021

There’s also art on the plate at ‘Van Gogh Alive’

There's no limit to the degree of artful immersion possible at 'Van Gogh Alive' - even your lunch, created by Adelaide-based French expat chef Julien Cepeda, is inspired by the works of the famous Dutch painter.

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  • Words: Johnny von Einem
  • Pictures: Morgan Sette
  • Image 4: Jack Fenby

From the moment you enter Van Gogh Alive, the immersive art experience raised at 88 O’Connell in North Adelaide, life begins to feel surreal.


Van Gogh Alive
88 O’Connell Street, North Adelaide 5006
Mon—Thu: 10am ’til 9pm
Friday: 10am ’til 10pm
Saturday: 9am ’til 10pm
Sunday: 9am ’til 6pm

The sky above is laden with Vincent van Gogh’s Almond Blossom, punctuated by a slot-sculpture tree pulled from Café Terrace at Night – a painting you can sit within, just as you can perch inside The Bedroom, in another corner.

Brushstrokes can be seen on walls and furnishings in every direction, giving the entire setting a feeling of living within a video game, which only intensifies as you travel deeper into the exhibition.

Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night portrays a coffee shop on Forum Square in Arles, France, and its large-scale 3D replica in Van Gogh Alive is a place where ticketholders can stop to take pause either before or after diving into the animated works of the artist.

It is also an actual café, run by an actual French chef.

The Victorian company behind Van Gogh Alive, Grande Experiences, brought on chef Julien Cepeda to design and execute a menu befitting of the faux-French environment.

His food is intended to be enjoyed either as a casual, seated dining experience, paired with Taittinger Champagne or pint of Asahi (impossible-to-miss sponsors of the event), or in takeaway format, for the better convenience of attendees.

Julien has lived in Adelaide for the last two years, in Australia for the last 10, and prior to settling here he’d travelled and worked in England, the US, and New Zealand.

Creating food and beverage experiences that pair well with extremely stimulating environments is not new to the chef, having worked for Camel Trek Australia, where he would cook over open fire in the Australian outback.

Julien has been through the exhibition a couple of times now, and he has a good idea of what ticketholders need after having experienced Van Gogh Alive.

“It’s more about soothing people,” he laughs.

“Just that sitting down and taking a breath, thinking about what you saw.”

Chef Julien Cepeda. This photo: Jack Fenby


Aside from the stipulation of drawing from French influences and making food that is takeaway-compatible, part of what drew Julien to the job was the creativity allowed in the brief.

“Having no menu down, every day I just come in and cook what I want. I really enjoy that creativity,” he says.

“And being an exhibition, we don’t really have repeat customers. There’s that thing where I can change every day if I want to and start over fresh.”

Julien works from a shipping container kitchen at the back of the VGA structure, where he keeps, as reference, an “old French [recipe] book from 1948”, which serves as inspiration for the menu – alongside his own nostalgia.

“[I’ve been cooking] French food for a very long time, because I was born French, but never in that takeaway sense, because it’s not really a French thing,” he explains.

“It’s still influencing me every day, in the sense that I think about a dish that I grew up with, flavours that I grew up with.

“For example, I’ve done duck a l’orange; I remember having duck a l’orange when I was a kid.

“So, it’s taking that influence and turning it into a takeaway mode and Australian feel.”

Van Gogh Alive‘s café. This photo: Jack Fenby


The menu for this week features a slow-cooked lamb shank and fig pie, quiche Lorraine, duck fat potato and honey-roasted ham baguette, and a vegan caramelised garlic and roasted pumpkin soup.

For those with only time enough to stop for coffee and cake, there are lemon madeleines, sour cherry clafoutis, tarte aux fraises, hazelnut and chocolate tartes and salted dark chocolate and hazelnut brownies to choose from.

Julien’s cheffing career has taken him into many acclaimed kitchens and faraway locations, but it’s spaces imbued with art, like Van Gogh Alive, where the chef loves to create most.

“I worked at art galleries quite a lot, because I just love working in this environment where every two weeks there’s a different exhibition,” he says.

“You get influenced by the painting, by the artists. Even though this is [only] about van Gogh, what the people managed to build with it is just absolutely incredible.”

Van Gogh Alive can be found at 88 O’Connell Street in North Adelaide, and is open seven days.

Find out more and book a ticket here.

Something to help you digest your experience. This photo: Jack Fenby

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