Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Is cooking a creative art or performing art?

A meal at Jiro's sushi bar in Tokyo costs more than the best opera in the world. Imagine that Rembrandt's paintings stolen from Isabella Stewart Gardner's Museum were finally found.  How much time would you devote to standing in line to see them?  2 hours?  5 hours?  I have spent more time trying to get a reservation at Per Se in New York.  But does this put Thomas Keller on par with Rembrandt?  Given how much we worship at the shrine of gastronomy these days, it's no wonder we started to refer to chefs as artists.  When a patron calls a chef an artist, I have a suspicion that they are attempting to elevate their hedonistic obsession with eating out to a cultural activity similar to visiting the Louvre.  Michael Ruhlman wrote about this topic numerous times concluding that chef's job was that of a craftsman, not an artist.  I think that's a pointless discussion about the definition of the terms "art" and "craft" and has little to do with cooking.  The question I find more interesting is how many people in the culinary profession should devote themselves to the creative art of dish design and how many to the performing art of cooking.  I am using the word "art" loosely here.  If you want to call it "creative craft" and "performing craft," be my guest.  

Many creative disciplines have two complimentary components: a composer and a performer, a playwright and an actor.  The role of the first is to create, and the role of the second is to deliver the creation to the audience.  A restaurant is not fundamentally different than a symphony hall or a theater in that regard.  What bothers me terribly about eating out is that we seem to have an overabundance of creative artists and a deficit of performing artists.  It's kind of like showing up to the Boston symphony and finding out that today's program was composed by the first violin.  That first violin might be one of the best violinists in the world, but it doesn't make him a great composer.

My ideal restaurant landscape would look like a combination of Japanese discipline with American ingenuity.  There'd be a few composer types, like Grant Achatz, and there would be many performers of his food who'd be as dedicated to perfection as the sushi chef Jiro.  Their job would be to work their ass off to bring Grant's ideas to life.  I can't tell you how many meals I've had where the restaurant clearly was trying to do the Alinea thing, but failing miserably.  To me that's a waste of effort and talent.  Why not just cook Alinea food directly from Achatz' book and focus on execution instead of trying to create in Achatz' style.  

Carol Blymire's effort in Alinea at Home and French Laundry at Home is admirable.  But I wish professionals were doing that, not home cooks.  They have the equipment and the experience to pull that off successfully.  Just because I could stumble through all of Chopin's waltzes and blog about my experience, doesn't mean that I should.  In contrast to that, Arthur Rubinstein's collection of Chopin's waltzes is a gift to humanity.  Does it diminish him as an artist that he didn't write this music.  Not at all.  He brought it to life.

Of course, this would never work.  At least not in the US.  The disciplines that stuck to impressing their audience with performing skills are dying out and chefs do need to attract customers.  How many people can tell the difference between a top notch symphony orchestra and a mediocre one?   I enjoy music and studied piano when I was young.  But I don't think I can.  I was surprised why my friend Jerome, a professional musician, was cringing during a symphony concert we attended at a local university.  "The second violin was off key," he said.  If I had to guess what percent of the audience could tell, I'd have to estimate it at 5-10%.  But suppose Madonna came out with a new song.  How many people could tell that it was new, exciting, fun, and provocative?  Everyone.  

Creative arts evoke emotions in almost everyone.  You don't need to be a specialist in the field to love or hate a creative work of art.  It's easy to be surprised by it, awed by it, or appalled by it.  It's easy to write a compelling story about it.  When the scallops are cured in beet juice, topped with raspberry jello and pumpernickel foam, it's either awesome or ridiculous.  When they are just perfectly seasoned and cooked to correct temperature, it's whatever.  Performing art is subtle.  It rarely whacks us over the head with innovation.  It's riddled with technical challenges and details.  The only people who can fully admire the successes and judge the failures are other artists in that field.  I cringe when a dish is under-salted, the way Jerome cringes when the second violin is off key.  I am also beside myself with joy when the execution is flawless regardless of whether I am eating a burger or squab with porcini foam.  Performing art requires patience, sensitivity, and brutally hard work.  There is no muse that strikes a pianist with inspiration.  It's thousands of hours of practice to make his work look effortless.  

I wonder how IP laws fit into all this.  If you cook a French Laundry dish in a restaurant, do you have to pay royalties?  Apparently, commercial use of "Happy Birthday" song costs $5,000-$30,000.  What about cooking "oysters and pearls" or a "truffle explosion"?  Might be a fun follow up discussion.


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