Reflections on food as art ...
If restaurant publicists and chefs are to be believed there are an awful lot of artists out there baking bread, rolling pasta, making sauces and tossing salads !
The argument over whether or not food and cooking is art has been waged for many years now by people who have nothing better to do. Is a chef an artist or craftsman ? Strangely enough such an seemingly irrelevant question will often engender the hottest debate amongst a group of food professionals. It would seem to me that the it is not a black and white question, like most things in life it is all a shade of gray.
First and foremost is the definition of artist. If you consider that a true artist must be free to have an original artistic inspiration then the very nature of the job of a chef who must reproduce his or her work consistently night after night precludes the chef from being an artist and firmly places them in the category of artisan.
However if the term artist is broadened to mean the creation of an item from other mediums that results in a unique product that gives sensory pleasure then yes a chef may be an artist……. of course using those criteria it might be argued that Enzo Ferrari or indeed your local talented plumber is also an artist. If you rely on the aesthetics of food, beautifully arranged, delicious food full of wonderful tastes and textures perfectly prepared then it certainly could be considered art. But who is the artist, the chef who created it or the chef who cooked it ?
Of course anyone involved in the ‘real art world’ would decry this definition as simplistic and that a chef could not be an artist because of the inbuilt desire to please his guests. A real artist wishes to express his own vision whether it is pleasing or not. A chef who did not offer his diner something nice to eat would not be a chef for long but artist that produces an ugly painting or installation is still an artist.
But is it fair to all the chefs of the world that the only senses that are not afforded the designation of have an artist cater to them are taste and smell ? Certainly the composition of a new dish by a chef is akin to the creation of music or painting, it requires the same mastery of the subject, skill and inspiration. The disciplines required for painting and sculpture are closely mirrored in the professional kitchen. The performance required by a great restaurant is no different from a performance of a great ballet or concert.
With the recent availability of high-tech cooking equipment and the molecular gastronomy that this had led to, it certainly highlights the scientific nature of cooking. In the past, cooks learnt to perform certain tasks to achieve certain results without really questioning why they were doing what they were doing. When Harold McGee wrote his book ‘On Food And Cooking’ in 1984, I am sure he didn’t realise what am impact it would make on modern cooking techniques.. This book by a young American professor from Yale explored the scientific reasons behind the methods that cooks routinely used, like searing meat or whipping egg whites. Mr McGee devoted seven hundred pages in plain, simple language to tell us about the science of the kitchen. What it achieved was to open the eyes of a new generation of young chefs that were questioning the culinary principles they had been taught. Cooking after all is a series of chemical reactions and scientific principles. It is only after using these scientific methods and processes that we enter what can be considered the artistic part of cooking, that is arranging the food to make it look attractive.
There are no definitive answers to these questions, even if we believe a chef can be considered an artist, certainly not every snotty nose kid that dons some chefs whites can be considered one, so who decides ? Luckily this is all irrelevant to the enjoyment of food and restaurants by us mere mortals. Let the philosophical debate rage amongst those who care but all I know is that artist or artisan producing great food is bloody hard work.