Is Haute Cuisine a False Prophet?

innovative cuisineDaniel Duane’s story in the NY Times about haute cuisine in Silicon Valley identifies the central paradox of fine dining.

The fabulous, tech-driven wealth floating around the Bay Area drives chefs to produce increasingly elaborate, innovative food.

But this food is so expensive that most food lovers can’t afford it; and the people who can afford are more into IPO’s than heirloom tomatoes anyway.

Downmarket, where most food lovers reside,  the same expectation of innovative cooking doesn’t come with the same ability to charge exorbitant prices, and so mid-level restaurants struggle to survive and their poorly paid employees can’t afford to live within a reasonable commuting distance of their work.

As one restaurateur explained, “The food has never been better and the business climate has never been worse and so we are speeding toward a cliff.”

The community-forming dimension of the food revolution comes apart from the creative dimension and economics strangles art.

I’m not sure what the solution to this is. On the one hand, some of the expense of high end dining is stage setting and the trappings of luxury. As Duane writes:

Like any artisan whose trade depends upon expensive materials and endless work, every chef who plays that elite-level game must cultivate patrons. That means surrounding food with a choreographed theater of luxury in which every course requires a skilled server to set down fresh cutlery and then return with clean wine glasses. A midcareer professional sommelier then must fill those wine glasses and deliver a learned lecture about that next wine’s origin and flavor. Another person on a full-time salary with benefits must then set down art-piece ceramic plates that are perfectly selected to flatter the next two-mouthful course. Yet another midcareer professional must then explain the rare and expensive plants and proteins that have been combined through hours of time-consuming techniques to create the next exquisitely dense compression of value that each diner will devour in moments. Those empty plates and glasses must then be cleared to repeat this cycle again and again, hour after hour.

As enjoyable as all that fuss is, it is no doubt over-the-top and not really about flavor. Innovative food can be prepared without so much choreography but this is what their patrons demand.

On the other hand, innovative cuisine will always be expensive to produce. And because it must be consumed to be appreciated, unlike art, food cannot be preserved in venues for the ordinary public to enjoy.

But perhaps we’re thinking about edible art in the wrong way, in a way that is not really analogous to the art world. For all the rare, fantastically expensive art created by the masters that we find in art museums, there are countless modestly compensated artists, often nearly as skilled and creative as the masters, who toil in relative obscurity making art for their local community or their Internet community at some distance from the glitterati of the art world.

Genuine creativity and vision are not after all measured only by “wow factor”. Meaning often has a subtler appeal.

So perhaps Duane is right to point to Los Angeles as the new beacon of a genuine food culture:

Sang Yoon, the chef and owner of Lukshon in Culver City, sees it as a difference between hyper-glorification of the chef and the farm in Northern California and, in Los Angeles, celebration of middle-class immigrant culture. “Half the restaurants I go to, I don’t know who the chef is! It’s not so personality-driven,” he said. “In L.A., we can celebrate a cuisine and not rouge it up.

In contrast to the wealth driven luxury hounds of Silcon Valley, cooking for the middle class is more closely tied to culture, sustaining a cuisine that while innovative is less concerned with presentation. Perhaps we should look for creativity within the constraints of community not in tension with it.

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