Sunday, June 4, 2006

Culinary Artistry

A flight from Boston to San-Francisco needs a good book – Angels and Demons or Harry Potter type page turner to numb my mind with cliff hanging excitement and help me get through 6 hours of sitting. But this time, I didn’t plan far enough in advance and wasn’t prepared with the properly addictive novel. Desperate to grab something that had a cover and enough pages to keep me occupied, I stuffed Culinary Artistry into my backpack before running out the door at 4:30am to catch my flight.

Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page is the book our chef at CIA recommended as a reference for combining ingredients. While most people buy this book for lists of ingredients that go well together, its true heart is the philosophical discussion on cooking. Is cooking a trade, a craft, or an art? That’s the question the authors are trying to answer by interviewing today’s leading chefs. Their premise is that food is a physical experience that has an ability to move us emotionally. Isn’t that what art is?

Of all the art forms, food is most similar to music. Before the recording technology was invented, music was a fleeting art form. It couldn’t be captured like a painting or sculpture. It required a composer to come up with the score, a performer to play it and an audience to appreciate it. One of the reasons we have stronger reactions to food and music is that we are a captive audience. If we don’t like a painting in a museum, we can move on, but if we are in the middle of a bad concert or dinner, leaving is a little tricky. Whether we like to or not, we are forced to go through the whole experience. If you ask a random person whether they prefer Picasso to Miro, they might not even have an opinion. But few people won’t be able to tell you what kind of music they like or what their favorite flavor of ice-cream is.

Remember the scene from “When Harry met Sally” when Jess says “Restaurants are for people in the 80’s are what theater used to be for people in the 60’s.” As mass market turned to restaurants for entertainment in the last 20 years, the restaurants jumped at the opportunity to meet this demand. But this restaurant craze is as much about the food as going to the symphony is about the music. Let’s be honest -- for 98% of the people it’s about dressing up, people watching, sitting in a pleasant atmosphere, and feeling pampered. We’d like to think that restaurants these days are so much better than they were 20 years ago. The food has definitely gotten taller, ingredients got more exotic, plates acquired interesting shapes, open kitchens became the new stage, and bathrooms got so artistic that no one knows how to flush the toilet anymore. But did the food actually get better?

I don’t believe most people can tell how often they are eating mediocrity in pretty wrapper. I don’t say it with rebuke, but with sympathy. How many people do you think notice that adagio of Beethoven’s 9th symphony was a tad rushed? Most people in the symphony hall probably weren’t even thinking about the adagio that was unfolding in front of them. They were making shopping lists in their head or thinking about that annoying co-worker. It’s really quite understandable. The difference between an ordinary performance and a great performance is ridiculously subtle. It takes years of listening to appreciate. Not surprisingly, the people who play an instrument themselves (even as amateurs) have a higher sensitivity to other people’s performance.

Reading Culinary Artistry felt like discussing these topics over tea with Daniel Boulud, Joyce Goldstein, Alice Waters, and other great chefs. The usual questions came back to me. What am I trying to do with food? Why am I doing it? I never expected that the answer will come to me in midair between Boston and San Francisco. I always thought it would happen in the kitchen with the sweet smell of caramelizing onions or a whisper of a gently simmering soup. But instead it happened on a United flight 6307. Life is funny that way.

I view cooking as a performing art. Glen Gould and Vladimir Horowitz, did not compose what they performed, but if they were not artists, who is? Cooking, like music performance, is both a craft and an art. It is a craft because it takes great physical skill and dexterity – what we call a technique. And it is an art because it takes soul. True culinary art lies not in invention of new ingredient combinations or cooking methods, but in interpreting those ingredients. Our job is to wake up that captive audience, to move them, and to make them see an ingredient or music in a whole new light. The goal is not to shock them. The goal is to help them understand.

Food media (from food network to food blogs) has done so much to generate excitement and interest in the world of food. I’ve been trying to find my place in this world of beautiful photographs and finger-licking stories for some time. It just didn’t seem to fit. Visual esthetics is not what inspires me about food and I can only produce a decent story once in a blue moon. What suits me more is teaching people how to cook. I didn’t invent roasted bluefish with crispy potatoes or seared striped bass. But it’s in those moments when I see the look on my students faces and they say “So this is what bluefish should really taste like!” that I know what I am doing with food.


Ivonne said...

A truly compelling review, Helen! I'd never heard of this book but it's now on my wishlist thanks to you!

Helen said...

Hi Ivonne,

I couldn't believe this book has been out since 1996 (when I was still a freshman in college eating ramen noodles). It's the most thought provoking food writing I've ever read and I am surprised I've never seen in mentioned in the last 10 years.


Tanna said...

I am on my way to the book store now. I'm beginning to suspect I maybe in for a surprise when I visit your site. Thanks so much!

Andrea said...

I enjoyed reading your thoughts and book review. I made note of the title of the book and will seek it out. Thanks.

Chef Jim said...

Just found your blog as it was reccomended to me for your Salt article, very well done by the way. I've always been a believer that cooking is akin to art, thus I named my Personal Chef Business:
TRAVELING CULINARY ARTIST! Great review of the book!