Just as Van Gogh revealed the secrets of the landscapes near Arles in his paintings of Southern France, culinary artists reveal hidden dimensions of ingredients and dishes, dimensions that previous cooks overlooked that create a new way for that dish or ingredient to be. The idea is not merely to create a fantastic concoction or to add a new flavor note to a dish. It is to capture the essence of something that has hitherto gone unnoticed and to impress upon the diner that there is something here to be explored and understood. Unlike craftwork, art works reveal some new treasure that solicits our attention and demands the kind of studied focus we give to the visual arts or music. A chef who has mastered the craft of cooking will prepare food that squeezes every bit of flavor from her ingredients. The chef who is an artist will challenge a diner and provoke a revelation that will be arresting, illuminating—and ultimately pleasurable.
Works of culinary art, it should go without saying, must be pleasurable as well as revelatory. Pleasure is the seducer that makes knowing the secret worth our efforts. But the chef’s intense focus on giving pleasure is not peculiar to the edible arts. Music or painting that is flat and inexpressive will fail as art as surely as a watery, under-seasoned bisque. We would not be discussing Van Gogh today were it not for his voluptuous brush work and color palette.
Thus genuine culinary art creates something in addition to pleasure—a revelation that not only tastes good but is arresting and illuminating.
Even relatively simple dishes can be revelatory such as Rod Butters’ Grilled & Smoked Pacific Salmon with rhubarb broth, and rhubarb jam from Raudz in Kelowna BC that revealed rhubarb’s affinity for smoke, or Chef Massimiliano Alajmo’s Risotto with Saffron and Sorbet of licorice and rosemary from Le Calandre near Padua, Italy that brought out the licorice note in the saffron.
For more on the philosophy of food and wine visit my Monday Column archives on Three Quarks Daily