Is Cooking an Art or Craft?

Molecular Chef In his wonderfully eccentric cookbook Eat Me, New York chef Kenny Shopsin writes:

I think the difference between art and craft is that in craft you care what the person consuming your product thinks. I’m a craftsman, and I believe that in many ways it is a more noble profession than being an artist.

I doubt that this is true as a generalization. I know plenty of artists who care about what their audience thinks. This is a matter of individual temperament. But there is something right about Shopsin’s distinction. Chefs, after all, are in the instant gratification business. We consume their work, quite literally, and in a relatively short period of time. The aesthetic qualities must grab us quickly or they will be missed. And so the chef must know and aim at what will immediately light up the diner’s palate.

Most artists and musicians create more enduring works that can be sampled over time, returned to, puzzled over, etc. Understanding may come in stages after lengthy reflection—they need not grip us instantaneously. Artists and musicians have a bit more liberty than chefs to create works that lack immediate appeal.

The distinction between craft and art has nothing to do with an aim to please. Rather, a craftsperson is making an artifact that serves a purpose. It will be used for something, decoration being among the most common of uses. That means that the nature of what she creates has already been conceptualized and formulated—the end result must serve its purpose well. Thus, the craftsperson must have a clear idea of what the finished product will be when beginning a project.

Art has a different starting place and a different aim. Works of art typically don’t begin with a fully worked out conception of what the finished product will be because they don’t serve a practical purpose. Artists are usually trying to clarify a vague intuition or vision. There aim is to explore an impression, perception or idea using a sensuous medium. The end may not be clearly in sight because the point just is the exploration.

“I like to surprise myself” is something you hear artists say often. And artists often talk about starting off in one direction and during the process finding themselves making something quite different with its own momentum.

The British philosopher RG Collingwood thought this is what distinguishes art from a craft. While the craftsperson, if she is skilled, knows what she wants to do; the artist “does not know the end in the beginning”.

I doubt the truth of Collingwood’s generalization as well; I doubt that there is one method of creating art. Some artists work with clear intentions; others not so much. But regardless of the creative process deployed, successful works must be open to reflection, exploration, and interpretation outside of known boundaries. Their horizon cannot be shut down by a relentless focus on serving a practical purpose.

So can chefs be artists? It is a challenge because they must simultaneously produce immediate gratification while maintaining that openness to reflection, exploration, and interpretation. The fleeting, transitory nature of food makes it an unlikely candidate for an art object. But this is a practical challenge, not a logical roadblock. The best chefs—Adria, Keller, Achatz, Redzep-manage to create food that is gratifying and an exploration as well.

But because cooking often requires great precision and thus planning, the creativity may not be in the execution but in the conceptualization.

Should we consider food among the conceptual arts?


    1. I just ran across this blog some three years after this comment was initially posted… but I disagreed with it at such a deep level that I had to comment. Cooking that is not art is NOT worth eating. Unless one sources the finest grown ingredients, executes their preparation with the most careful attention to physics, chemistry, palettes, textures, etc. and finally, carefully displays the creation for the subject, they are not cooking but merely providing calories for digestion. Pshaw! Rather, food that is really worth eating only comes from the artisan who believes sustaining mankind with food is a not a rote, bane, or automated activity, but rather the providing of a meal is the artisan’s gift to humanity. You are decidedly wrong, my friend, and shamefully ignorant of how beautiful food can be for your inner soul! May you be inspired someday soon by the food artist and repent of previous claims!

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