On Chefs as Artist

“With my food, I’m really trying to tell as story.”
Ugh! There is probably no sentence that will make me cringe nearly as much as that one. From cooking shows to newspaper articles, that seems to be the phrase every chef is expected to say, and say it they do. And many, I suspect, believe it.
I’ve long rejected the notion of the chef as an artist. An artist makes a one-of-a-kind work. Sure, it can be reproduced endless times, like postcards of the Mona Lisa, but DaVinci only created one, and that’s the one people clamber to see. No, I’ve tended towards likening chefs to artisans – skilled craftsmen who know the material they are working with, and can create something beautiful out of it. And do it again and again as demand warrants. It is a comparison I first thought of in culinary school, 7 years into my career and already with a lot of impressions.
But, firm distinctions do soften as one ages. Two things led to me making an exception – I dated a girl who was into art, so I was re-exposed to it in a way that was much better than the required “appreciation” classes in high school. I started to see art as often just posing a question or a challenge. Take the famous Campbell’s Tomato Soup print Andy Warhol did. It was an ordinary object, something people passed day-in and day-out in the aisles of their grocery store. By blowing it up and putting it on a wall, a challenge was posed to reconsider this item, its look and aesthetics. He is posing a question. (of course, we’re dealing with art here… that’s my interpretation of what the artist was trying to do, I’m sure there are those that will disagree).
And then I saw “Decoding Ferran Adria”, an Anthony Bourdain special that was filmed to be part of a series that was canceled, and later incorporated into his “No Reservations” series. He was, if not the father of, then the popularizer of, molecular gastronomy, using science and techniques and chemicals to manipulate food into whole new ways. We’d seen some version of that trickle over to the United States, people like Wylie Dufresne and Grant Achatz who popularized it State side, and were followed by hundreds of copy cats. It seemed like a nice trick with the food, but nothing more than that.
Then, in the middle segment, Adria took Bourdain to his lab, where he would work for 6 months on ideas and concepts and try to make them workable in the kitchen. And one that he was working on was with a peach, trying to manipulate it to create a sensation very much like foie gras, the fatty, rich duck liver. And he explained (through a translator there and my memory here), “If I can make this work, then the question is why is foie gras ‘better’? If I can take a 10 cent peach, and make it just like a $100 lobe of foie gras, is the foie gras better just because it is more expensive?”
Bingo! That was the moment. He was posing questions, trying to use his food to challenge the preconceptions of the diners about what it is they are consuming. I finally found it, the chef who was an artist.
It also made me appreciate the whole field of molecular gastronomy, or at least see it in a different light. When Adria and Achatz and Dufresne create something, they are posing a challenge. But like with Warhol, once it is out there, it is out of their hands, and many, many people try to copy it without fully understanding. Putting up a giant Progresso Chicken Noodle soup can is in no way doing the same thing as Warhol; a can of soup wasn’t the point. But that’s the sort of thing the imitators end up doing. They take the cool trick they see one of the leading chefs do, like apple “caviar”, and redo it over and over again, not with any real thought behind it than “hey, look what I can do.”
And so, there are a couple chefs, the highest-of-the-up-on-high chefs, who I might call an artist. But that list is slowly being added to, not because more people are cooking like Adria et al., but rather I find my vision for what is a challenge growing.
Currently, the big names, the trend-setters, are Scandinavian chefs. As a half-Swede, this certainly catches my attention. One I’ve been fascinated with is Mangus Nilsson, through Anthony Bourdain’s “The Mind of a Chef” PBS show (there he is again, A.B., pushing my assumptions about chefs). His restaurant, Faviken, is on my bucket list, an overnight trip up to the northern areas of Sweden. Everything is as local as can be, from the farm or down the street. Some from a little further, but all of the land where one is eating. And he’ll create a dish of crab leg, a touch of butter, and a burnt cream, and that’s it. Or baby new potatoes boiled in water flavored with leaves that had been decomposing under snow all winter, with a touch of butter. Pick it up with your fingers, crush the potato and eat. The aromas and associations from the dish are the challenge to the guest. The food is of a time and a place, very separate from the way people in the modern world acquire their food and consume it.
Hopefully this will be a trend that keeps on growing, or at the very least sustains itself. If this, this surge of chefs who really think deeply about their food and how they can use it to change, or at least challenge, the thinking of their guests, if it is all just a fad, that would really depress me. I’m not one to have a lot of faith that people will gravitate to items that are challenging, especially with food. The vast majority’s focus, in the West at the least, is on immediate gratification and satiation. And there are plenty of chefs out there who make a good living giving people that very thing. But hopefully, there are enough of us out there who can, on occasion, see a chef as and artist and put ourselves into their hands. To say, show me what you have to say, I’m open to it.
Just so long as what they’re saying isn’t called “a story.”

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