In Kitchen Confidential, the bestselling chronicle of the food industry’s colorful underbelly, Anthony Bourdain warns of the mayhem and mediocrity that can occur “when the chef starts thinking of himself as an artist rather than a craftsman.”
This is not, needless to say, a universally shared opinion, but it did get us thinking. ArtPrize will soon arrive to engulf the city in its annual conversation (slash philosophical freakout) about what is and isn’t art, and the world of food inserts itself readily into this debate. Can food be art? Is a chef an artist, a craftsperson or both? Is the kitchen producing a beautiful meal simply an assembly line, or something closer to Andy Warhol’s Factory?
In search of clarity, Revue asked some of the area’s top chefs to explain what in the restaurant world, if anything, qualifies as artistic. (The field, after all, is called the culinary arts, not crafts or sciences.)
Participating in this conversation were:
• Jeremy Paquin, head chef of Grove
• Zach Pisciotta, co-executive chef of Reserve Wine & Food
• Lucas VerHulst, co-executive chef of Reserve Wine & Food
• Katy Waltz, pastry chef for Brewery Vivant
Here’s what they had to say.
Can food be art? Why or why not?
VerHulst: More so the plating of food, for me, is an art form. I tend to define quality cooking as a craft over an art. Putting out repeat quality dishes exactly the same every time — same sear, salt content, viscosity, temperature — these are skills that must be honed over time. However, composing a dish can absolutely be an art form, balancing different flavors, textures, colors and temperatures into one single harmonious composition is one of my favorite parts about cooking, and allows for the greatest creative expression I have in my life. I’ve never been a painter, I can’t draw very well, and I take the worst pictures, but I love to conceptualize composed dishes.
Waltz: There is no simple definition of what art is. Art is whatever you perceive it to be. Yes, I believe a few dishes I put out to be art, but not all. I do not consider my everyday birthday cakes to be art — craft, yes — but a 3-D sea turtle on a white chocolate coral sculpture, I would call that art.
Paquin: A plate is just like an artist’s canvas or palette. It is all about putting components together that accent each other and as a whole complete the ‘picture.’ (It’s) an art in the technicality of what goes well together and how you use all of the ingredients to make a finished product.
Is a chef an artist, scientist, craftsperson or some mixture thereof?
Waltz: Cooking is a combination of art, science and craft. As a pastry chef, science plays a major part of my every day. Sour doughs and yeast products are a great example of science in the kitchen. You are dealing with live organisms that you need to feed and keep happy or they will die on you. Science is needed to manipulate food to do what you want it to. Craft is the knowledge and experience needed to use that science to your advantage. Art is the finesse you add to elevate food into an experience for a target audience.
Paquin: I think most chefs would consider themselves artists in some degree. Obviously you have to have some sort of artful touch in presentation, but most chefs would consider themselves, as I do, more blue-collar and craftsmen. We can be equated to house-builders: you have to have the foundation and if you’re missing one piece, it is all going to fall apart.
Pisciotta: A chef is in fact an artist, but he is also a mad scientist and a skilled craftsman. She/he is all three simultaneously, and that’s what sets them apart from the rest.
How might thinking about food as art change the experience of eating it?
Pisciotta: It calls upon you to really pay attention to what is put in front of you, and in a way it kind of demands a conversation. It wants you to think, to ask questions, and complete yourself without even realizing until it’s too late. It can almost be like a first date in a way. You’re getting to know each other a bit, you open up, and by the end of it all you think to yourself, ‘Could this be the one?’ Either way, it’s affecting you beyond the stomach. It’s affecting your heart and your mind.
Which of your dishes would you recommend for someone who wants to experience food as art?
Waltz: Brewery Vivant’s chocolate board, featuring white chocolate poppy seed pot de creme, dark chocolate cake and milk chocolate cheesecake truffles.
Paquin: Grove’s sous vide duck breast with onion soubise, onion mostarda, radish, crispy potatoes, charred onion and onion ash.
Pisciotta: Reserve’s cavatelli with squash, zucchini, eggplant, cherry tomato and fennel.
VerHulst: Crudo plate with black bass, tomatillo, fennel, cashew, lemon verbena, steelhead roe, beet emulsion.