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     Culinary Artistry
       excerpetd from Culinary Artistry © 1996 by Andrew Dornenburg

    Cooking as a Craft

    Some leading chefs admit that cooking could arguably be called either an art or a craft. Jimmy Schmidt says, "I think it’s safer to call it a craft. To capture the impression or the dynamics of a certain mood or feeling is a lot tougher in food that it is in other media. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not creative."

    Other chefs believe that it starts out as a craft. "Cooking is a craft first," says Terrance Brennan. "Like a carpenter, we learn our trade through hands-on apprenticing."

    From its start as a craft, it can evolve into artistry. "The first few years [cooking] aren’t a matter of style," says Jasper White. "I tell all my cooks when they come to work for me that it’s really a matter of learning how to cook. The techniques and skills are universal, I think, to a certain extent. If I tell my cooks to make lobster bisque and how I want it to taste, the skill that it takes for them to recreate my dish is the same skill that they would need to create their own food. So I really feel that before you reach the point of art, it’s a craft. And without being really highly skilled in the craft, I don’t believe you can ever attain artistry—even if you get a few write-ups in the magazines."

    Joyce Goldstein is also careful to distinguish between those who practice this profession as a craft versus an art. She agrees that "some chefs are artists. And then there are lots of craftspeople. A craftsperson is someone who masters technique and can do a lot of dazzling stuff with technique. And that comes from practice, which is where school really helps a lot.

    "Artistry can come from people with virtually no skills with a knife at all. That’s cooking in the soul—and some people have that and some people don’t. That you don’t learn—that either you have, or don’t have. It’s like being a painter—you can be a very competent painter. You can learn how to grind your pigments and prepare your canvas. You can learn all this stuff—but it’s not going to give you soul. There are some people who have shitty technique, but they paint fabulously. The artistic is intuitive—and that comes from God knows where. I couldn’t begin to tell you."

    How should chefs evaluate their impact? "When you cook, do you reach others with your message?" asks Goldstein. "With lots of technical stuff, diners go, ‘Ooooh!’ But only the culinary artist want to make food that people will remember with their mouths, not only with their eyes. So that when others taste it, they want to taste it again and again.

    "I don’t think you have to be reinventing the wheel to be creative or artistic. Sometimes the most artistic people play with a very limited palate. You pick your palate, you pick your range, you pick what interests you—and then you cook your heart out.

    "How do you measure success as a chef? Well, did you get them in the gut? Did you get them in the heart? And, most importantly, did you get them in the mouth? These should be your goals."

    Cooking as Art

    What does it take to make the leap into the realm of artistry? "How do you learn to become a great pianist? Where does that come from? It’s not just learning how to punch the keyboard," says Bradley Ogden. "It’s something more than that. A lot of it is natural ability—it’s probably 75 percent natural ability. Either you have it or you don’t have it. Some of it can be trained, but a lot of it can’t."

    Gary Danko says, "Cooking is, for me, the perfect balance of art and science. There’s that creative endeavor within you that can think out the seasons and the flavor profiles. Then there’s the scientific part—what is actually going on with the whisk? If I’m blanching broccoli, why is it turning brown in the pan? As you study that, you learn that sometimes if you cook a lot of vegetables in the same water, an acid will develop. And if you cook a green vegetable in that acidic water, it’s going to turn army brown. So these are things you start to learn though science."

    Hubert Keller believes that creativity is rooted in mastering the classics, an argument for mastering the craft of cooking before attempting artistry. "If you have a foundation, you are able to play a little bit," he says. "When you’re learning music at the beginning, you practice scales. Once you learn, you start to play other people’s songs. And once you’ve learned those, if you get really good, you might start composing a little bit. It’s the same in cooking. Once you have a lot of experience, you might start to include a couple of ingredients that might not have been included by [Paul] Bocuse, by [Paul] Haeberlin, by [Roger] Vergé—otherwise, maybe their hair would stand on end! But if you’re in a different country, with a difference audience, and if you feel it’s not just being done to shock, sometimes it can work. You have to have a guideline, though—and then you can go a little bit right or a little bit left."

    In the process of becoming a culinary artist, Gray Kunz says that "there is a point that you are not, and a point that you are. When you’re able to bring your feeling and intuition to a dish—the artist is coming out at that point."

    George Germon and Johanne Killeen are quick to point out, "There are not that many culinary artists. Only a small proportion of chefs fall into that category."

    Part of what characterizes culinary artists is their expressiveness and their ability to cook from their gut. "They have their own way of expressing themselves," says Daniel Boulud. "In food, the expression is more physical and emotional. When creating great food, the taste is always memorable. Buts sometimes it simply falls together."

    Killeen and Germon agree. "We’re most influenced—I don’t want to say intellectually or theoretically, because that’s getting a little bit beyond what it really is—by our gut," says Killeen. "It’s also very dangerous, when you start talking in theoretical and philosophical terms," adds Germon. "It really is almost like the death of a dish." Killeen continues, "In terms of art and artistry and food, it has a lot more to do with your gut than your intellect. There are certainly great intellectual artists, but there are also artists who simply create from their gut. And I think that’s more what we do than anything else."

    What Distinguishes a Chef’s Style?

    Through the myriad decisions a chef makes, including those related to the composition of flavors and dishes and menus, a personal style evolves, reflecting a chef’s particular point of view.

    Mark Miller distinguishes between two prominent schools. He says, "Just as there are writers who use words very creatively and are masters of language, and other writers who are better at telling stories, I think there are chefs who are masters of the language of flavors and other chefs who can tell great stories.

    "I would say that the technical people, the ones who strive for dramatics, are sometimes the ones who understand the words and the use of the words. The chef who think about menus and carrying out compositions are more interested in the interplay between the words themselves and the overall feeling of a story rather than just the effect. You have to be careful here because form, style, and meaning get so integrated, and yet they are so separate in some sense.

    "Certain chefs have a great style; Jeremiah [Tower], Alice [Waters], Joachim [Splichall], Charlie Trotter-—hey all have a lot of personal style in their food. Sometimes a chef who has a lot of style is seen as a more important chef, because he does dishes that have a flair. Personally, I would rather eat Rick Bayless’s food. He understands and can interpret the culture, in a way, through the technique—and he also creates something I his own right. Rick creates Mexican meals, and his restaurant is a reflection of Mexican hospitality and the way he thinks about life—his artwork is in the room. He represents to me an integrity in food."

    As for Bayless, he agrees that a chef’s cuisine tastes of more than its raw ingredients. "Flavor, commitment—customers taste all of this in the food," says Bayless. "They’re tasting the fact that I spent years in Mexico learning from really great cooks how to do all of this, and that I was able to pull it together into the cooking that we do here. I think they taste culture and history, basically, in dishes that have been refined—which I don’t mean in a negative sense, but in a good sense—over generations. That’s the flavor that I think is on our plates here."

    So what is it that creates a chef’s style? "Chefs’ cuisines are a result of their lives," explains Gary Danko. "And it’s important for chefs to be honest with themselves. If you’re honest with yourself, there will be revealed to you a path in life, and cooking happens to be my manifestation of this life. I describe a pyramid that represents the heart, mind, and hands of cooking. The heart needs to be the base emotion—then you need the mind to conceive the dish and the hands to execute it. It’s that pyramid that I try to reflect in my food, and my cooking is a direct result of my life.

    "That’s why it’s so critical for chefs to travel and to study history, art, and culture," says Danko. "The result of this journey is sometimes the lesson that life is really so simple, and that simple things—in cooking, simple flavors—can be very rewarding."

    Gary Kunz agrees. He encourages chefs to understand their own personal "food context." "How you’ve been eating at home all your life will ‘haunt’ you in your life as a chef," he says. "You’ll have images and feelings built in from all your experiences."

    Charlie Palmer says he tells his young cooks to concentrate on what they feel and what they know when they cook. "I tell them not to just do a version of what I’m doing or Mark Miller’s doing or anyone else is doing," he says. "I tell them, It’s got to be you. It can’t be me."

    "Developing a personal style has to do with developing a point of view," Jasper White explains. "I think it takes years to develop that. And it never really stays quite the same. But I think at a certain point you know what it is and you become yourself."

    "There are many different ways to do things," Danko says. "You need to go out and see everybody’s style, and then look inside yourself and ask, ‘What feels and works best for me?’"

     

    Culinary Artistry Culinary Artistry For anyone who believes in the potential for artistry in the realm of food, Culinary Artistry is a must-read. The latest work from James Beard Award-winning authors of Becoming a Chef Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, Culinary Artists is the first book to examine the creative process of culinary composition as it explores the intersection of food, imagination, and taste. Through interviews with more than 30 of America's leading chefs - including Rick Bayless, Daniel Boulud, Gray Kunz, Jean-Louis Palladin, Jeremiah Tower, and Alice Waters - the authors reveal what defines "culinary artists," how and where they find their inspiration, and how they translate that vision to the plate. Readers will discover the language of food, and how culinary artistry manifests itself through all the senses. Through recipes and reminiscences, chefs discuss how they select and pair ingredients, and how flavors are combined into dishes, dishes into menus, and menus into bodies of work that eventually comprise their cuisines. Culinary artistry takes you inside the art of menu planning, where order and presentation are carefully thought out, and shows how leading chefs' menus are painstakingly created. The book also reveals how a menu can communicate a chef's personality and offer opportunities for artistic expression.

     

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