A Dumb Debate about Cooking as Art

food as art I took exception to Corby Kummer’s attack on tasting menus and chefs as artists last month. Food writer Michael Ruhlman also pushed back:

I get hysterical over a lot of things, but the tasting menu isn’t one of them. If I don’t want to eat that way, I don’t go to the restaurant.

Ruhlman’s article includes some sensible comments about the debate over whether creative cuisine is an art. He quotes a bit of nonsense from Andre Soltner:

“I always say this to the young chefs and mean it: The customer is excited, he says you are an artist, but we are not, just craftspeople with a little talent. If the chef is an artist, he doesn’t succeed. Why? Because he is inspired today but not tomorrow. We cannot do that.” —Andre Soltner (quoted in Forbes, May 2012)

Has Soltner never heard of performance art? I suppose painters need paint only when inspired. But musicians, dancers, and other performance artists have to turn on the inspiration when the stage lights go up. They don’t get to choose.  That is what it means to be a performance artist. Chefs are no different, but that tells us nothing about whether chefs can be artists.

Ruhlman then notes:

Chefs who consider themselves artists are indeed setting themselves up for failure, as Soltner cautioned any cook who would listen. Only once they have become a superlative craftsman (Grant Achatz comes to mind, raising the dining experience to a kind of performance art) should they even attempt to raise food to the level of art.

This is exactly right. No artist can succeed unless they master their craft first. Musicians must build dexterity and learn composition; most painters must learn to draw, understand color, paint mixology, and perspective; dancers must acquire flexibility, strength, coordination, musicality, and expressiveness, etc.

Anyone who thinks artistic creation is about only inspiration, emoting, or idle brainstorming hasn’t spent much time around genuine artists who devote much attention to their craft as well as their art.

The fact that artistic cooking requires precision, concentration, and flawless execution does not distinguish it from any other art.

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