Whenever I hear a chef described as a genius or an artist I feel a certain disconnect. Is it jealousy? Is it the natural territorialism of the artist?
Of all mankind’s remarkable features, two stand out: Art and Language. These are unique to humans. Language is functional, art is pure luxury. Not only can’t we define art, but we don’t really even know why we do it.
Cooking too is functional. We cook to make food interesting, to make it palatable, or to make it edible. Cooking helps keep us alive. But it’s not a pure cultural construct, like language. It’s a biological necessity, sustenance. The higher forms of this process, often called ‘cuisine‘ allow us to consider the experience as artistic achievement.
There are several reasons why we should not.
Art is never just about beauty, just about pleasure. Often it’s just the opposite. But what good is a dinner that doesn’t taste good? What good is dinner that makes you think? What could it possibly make you think about?
Art enters our lives through our senses, but it lives in the imagination. Food exists for the body and is a pleasure of the body. Confounding Art with food denigrates both.
Terry Gross interviews Grant Achatz:
GA: “What we’re trying to do with that food is tell a story, and craft, like, an emotionally rich experience, something that makes people feel, something that, like, walking through a great modern art museum, or listening to a symphony, or watching a great movie, or reading a great book. We’re trying to do that with food.”
TG: “So What Emotional experiences would I likely get from chilled soup of spring lettuces, blueberries and creme fraiche?
“First and foremost it has to be delicious. We can try to craft a great experience, or one that makes people feel sad, or happy, or elated, or whatever it is, but it has to be delicious”.
That’s a good start, make the food delicious. But, why I would ever go to a restaurant and pay for a meal, no matter how delicious, which made me feel sad. Would you?
Emotional experiences, memories which last a lifetime aren’t really so rare. The memory of a great sexual encounter, or a ride on a roller coaster can last a lifetime, and yet we don’t think of those as art.
Somewhere in there is the question of meaning. What exactly that is, is elusive, but we can say with some certainty that it won’t be found at the end of your fork.
Art competes with nature, defies nature. In the case of classical sculpture it’s the idealization of nature, in the case of cubism the re-organization of it, and in the case of abstraction the rejection of it. Cooking is always an enhancement of nature, but nature must remain the subject, and nourishment the object. In cooking, we never improve an ingredient, we only repackage it and juxtapose it interestingly.
The beautiful creations of a good cook are fulfilling in ways that art can never be. Isn’t that reward enough?
Obviously there are artists who also cook. Perhaps the closest in our world is Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, who’s attempts to dominate and transform nature has reached great heights. Adria has invented a form of cuisine which approaches art from two directions, theater and sculpture. But to make sculpture from edible ingredients does not turn cuisine into art, it turns sugar and vegetables into plaster and wire and paint. And the presentation of dishes in an amusing or surprising manner may be fascinating, but the meal at the heart of it is still a meal, though clothed in theater.
Beyond that, I think that Adria, like Frank Gehry in Architecture, or John Cage in music have created an artistic cul-de-sac with their work. Who’s going to do another 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence? Another Bilbao? That’s the risk of being sui generis, but also its reward.
“In cooking, as in the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection.”
Note that Curnonsky, a Frenchman, said “in cooking, as in the arts…”
“Some people like to paint pictures, or do gardening, or build a boat in the basement. Other people get a tremendous pleasure out of the kitchen, because cooking is just as creative and imaginative an activity as drawing, or wood carving, or music.”
This makes it easy. Yes, if we compare The St. Matthews Passion to gardening and making toy boats we can agree: they’re exactly alike. (The idea that artists create art for ‘pleasure’ is an idea of someone who doesn’t understand art.)
D.H. Lawrence once mused about the relative cost of food and art with the remark: “I have five pounds. With this I can by either a leg of mutton, or a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare.” Somewhere in there is the answer to some of the questions we’re dealing with. How is it that of the two, art and food, it is art which is infinitely reproducible, and food which is unique, fugitive, perishable and even more precious? How is it that we can buy a hundred copies of a Mozart sonata for the price of a restaurant meal?
It’s because the art is not in the book, the music on the disc…it’s in the imagination. The food? It’s on the plate, on the palate, in the stomach. And then it’s gone. Of course we have the experience, like the roller coaster ride, but the product must be re-bought.
“Language, which is the parent, not the child, of thought”~Wilde
Art is a term which lives in ambiguity, but don’t let your thoughts blur with the definition of the word.
The Art of War, the Art of Love and similar cliches don’t mean that any of these is Fine art. The higher arts simply are higher, in important ways: meaning, point of view, expression, subliminal associations, etc. However much we cloak it in artfulness, cooking is an expression of nature. Fine Art is an expression of the human condition, and the human spirit.
And that’s why we keep it in Museums and galleries, far away from flower pots and toy boats.