Starchefs ICC 2010: Art vs Craft – Keller, Kinch & Barber Discuss

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The main theme of the 5th Annual Starchefs International Chefs Congress this past September in NYC was Art vs. Craft. There is no question that cooking involves craft and good cooking involves plenty of it. The more controversial question is whether the craft of cooking can aspire to or ever be considered art. While my personal preconception is to say that some cooking is clearly "art," the question really isn't that simple a one to answer. The dilemma comes from trying to define what "art" actually is. The Free Dictionary offers at least one definition of the word that reads:

"the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium."

However, a discussion in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests that it is actually quite difficult to come up with a universally acceptable definition of what constitutes "art" and that "Whether art can be defined has also been a matter of controversy." It is not clear (to me at least) from this discussion that there really is any clear and universal definition of what art is, even among its more traditional considered areas. Still, thanks to the rise of creativity and new forms and styles of cooking, the question of whether or not cooking can be considered art is a legitimate one.

The organizers of the International Chefs Congress sought to address that controversial question with a discussion of Craft vs. Art involving three of the most prominent chefs in the United States today, Thomas Keller, Dan Barber and David Kinch along with moderator Michael Ruhlman. A detailed account of the proceedings follows. Though much of what is written below are actually direct quotes from the discussants, they are offered as paraphrase rather than in quotes. Once again, I am indebted to my son and assistant, L.J. Sconzo, for his yeoman work in transcribing the discussion. Let's see what they had to say:


II. Main Stage: Michael Ruhlman, Emcee – Art vs. Craft in Food

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-argument from Harvard anthropologist: cooking is what makes us human, allows us to acquire many more calories from smaller volumes than we could from raw food, allowed us to grow bigger brains, smaller guts, and helped us to develop our society over the ages. Food is both an essential art and craft

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Thomas Keller, David Kinch, Dan Barber

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David: on rare occasions a chef can be both craftsman and artist. Details, repeating steps, skills, certainly a craft. But in special occasions instead of just feeding people and making them content it goes to another level of wonder at which point it might be considered art.

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Thomas: to me, cooking is a craft. It’s something you do over, and over and over and over again – repetition is one of the things that makes me such a good cook. I enjoy repetition. You look at other occupations, look at a woodworker who makes beautiful products. He makes a beautiful chair, a beautiful table; but is he a craftsman or an artist? He is repeating his steps over, and over and over. You have to respect cooking as a craft. If food becomes art, then perhaps you begin to resent the food because it is too aesthetically pleasing. As chefs and cooks we certainly want to entice our guests, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how good it looks – it’s about the flavor of food, or the craftsmanship of cooking.

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Dan: what’s the chef’s job? Maybe the conception we have of art vs craft is the wrong question. Why is art here and craft over there? Why do we look at the madman genius of a Ferran Adria and put him here and then look at a faithful traditionalist like a sushi chef and put them elsewhere? I think that’s a little too simple – the role of a chef or a true artist is to find that true compromise. The best artists, the most enduring artists who stand the test of time, these are artists who are most talented at restraint. We think of restraint and we think of craftsmen, but I think of the best artists as being those who take things away. Not to the point of minimalism, but in reference to a plate of food, or a scene in a movie, or an extraneous sentence.

A chef has to care about the product and how the customer feels about it – that’s trade. The artist almost cannot care about what his consumers believe, he has to have an incredible hubris, where does that balance come into play in the kitchen?

David: Your job is both to impress and make your customer happy. My job is to find that balance, as though we were just cooking for chefs, its almost like the aristocrats, that joke that comedians only tell to other comedians. It’s about pleasing yourself but also pleasing others. I don’t like being told how to eat, how I’m supposed to eat something, how I’m supposed to feel. It’s a personal experience, plates come out over time. If it’s a good meal it will tell a story, and you should be able to relate to the story in a personal way. This isn’t for every restaurant, but the best ones all tell a personal story.

Thomas: at the end of the day we are nurturing people, they come in to experience the food, and they leave having been nurtured by us. At the end of the day, the craft vs art debate comes down to the perception of the guest. After we’ve established our craft and have become very good at it, we want to take it to the next level with our presentation. Still, to me, it’s not art – it’s food.

Talking about Grant Achatz – he’s pushing the boundaries between what is food and its presentation.

Thomas: I don’t know if that’s "art" or if its "intellectual cuisine." The thing that you’re realizing is whether you like it or not, not whether or not its good or bad. You’re thinking about it, it’s intellectual. The other kind of cuisine is emotional cuisine, like mashed potatoes. You have a reference point to tell whether or not it is good or bad, and have an emotional reference point from the dish. I think we’ve started to straddle both lines – it’s gotten to the point that my customers come to perceive my craft as art. I’ve never considered myself an artist. It’s very beautiful and so it might be perceived as art.

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Dan: (question about new way of farming foie gras in Spain, without gavage) the man who raises these geese is so artful about his worldview and processes that you would never call him a craftsman. I’m trying to duplicate his technique at Stone Barns, my restaurant but we haven’t had much success so far. There are a lot of parallels between what Eduardo Souza (the farmer) is doing and what you’ve experienced with your grass-fed steak. Is it an artistic endeavor? I think it is – the best farmers are those who don’t impose their own ideas on the natural ecologies and choose instead to work with what they are given. This causes their products to far exceed the quality of say a grain-fed steak.

David: The care in tending a quality vineyard, is that an artistic endeavor?

Thomas: I don’t think that’s art, I think it’s just exhibiting a lot of care.

Dan: There are a lot of people who care a lot but don’t create the best food. There’s an aspect there of art.

Thomas: …and competence

David: Food is ephemeral. The memory of great food/a great experience is very powerful. It’s kind of like music – theres a show that you want to go to and so you do, and experience it, but then it is in your memory. It’s not hanging on your wall so you cannot revisit it perfectly. A lot of it has to do with the customer – if it’s perceived as good value and good food then tomorrow is another day. However, if it provokes thought (intellectual/emotional cuisine) and makes the customer look at things differently or look at different ingredients differently then I think there are aspects of art in there. I like to elicit a response. I still get gratification after a very long day of serving people all day long – you have to like it if you’re going to stay in it.

Michael: The customers nowadays are much more educated. Should a young chef aspire to be an artist?

Thomas: I would say no, not at all. Stay away from that – you want to learn your craft and learn to nurture people. if you lose focus of that, then you lose focus of the meaning of cooking. Be a craftsman first, be an artist later.

Dan: Your question reminds me of when I was in Spain, visiting the foie gras farmer. I was in El Prado and looked at Picasso, who spent a year and a half in his university years perfecting copies of a Velazquez painting. 20-30 years later he felt confident enough to revisit the Velazquez and reinterpreted it in his cubist style. I feel that is a good analogy to the chef’s life.

David: That’s an enormous building block – learning how to create delicious food and care about the customer.

Thomas: I think a craftsman’s work can be perceived as art, but I don’t think that is the craftsman’s purpose. It’s up to the consumer.

Dan: The media has a certain role that it plays in shaping people’s perspectives. A lot of the media is fluff, and it’s still largely about the excellence of the craft.

At  this point questions were solicited from the audience.

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Jeffery Steingarten: if you have a restaurant and regardless of what you’ve done in order to create the dishes and the team and so forth, if you’re producing the same thing every night then for that period of time you are not being an artist. Thomas always stresses how the food has to be exactly the same every time. The secret to a great restaurant is uniformity (not his quote). But that is obviously the non-art part, the craft part. When is Thomas an artist? When he’s creating a dish. I think what Dan and David said about pushing the boundaries and doing something that hasn’t been done before, that’s when it approaches the boundary of being an artist. Creativity, good novelty. I think Ferran is an artist, but he turns out his food with 30-40 interns who don’t even get paid. they are doing the same thing over and over, and could hardly be called artists.

Michael: Is it a useful distinction?

Jeffrey: Once we talk about it enough I don’t think we’ll need to talk about it again. If we haven’t gotten any closer than this over the past 25 years then perhaps we should talk about other things, like whether Dan is right about whether a steer should be grass fed, or if he fell too extremely under the spell of Michael Pollan.

Q: What about passion?

Thomas: I think passion has been over-emphasized. I’ve been passionate about a lot of things, but for me the one overriding quality that I look for is not necessarily passion, it is about desire. The strong desire that you have every single day to do a better job than you did the day before. When that passion comes, it’s an amazing thing, but when the passion isn’t there, it’s the desire that gets you through the day.

Dan: Being a true professional means doing the things you don’t feel like doing every single day.

Thomas: I’ve never seen food that I haven’t seen before. I’ve seen it presented in different ways.

Q: Where does innovation fit into this?

David: Food isn’t static, it’s dynamic. It’s innovation.

Thomas: Innovation and technological improvements have all helped us to become better cooks and better craftsmen. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll have art as a result of that. I’m not even sure that we’re creating new things in the kitchen. Every generation has nouveau cuisine. Each generation has new art, new music, new fashion, new food. Up until my generation nobody cared about restaurants and chefs and food.

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While the discussion was great, I was a little disappointed that a stronger rationale for cooking as art wasn't put forth by anyone. I thought Thomas Keller made a good point that young cooks should not go into the profession aspiring to be artists primarily, that they should instead concentrate on the craft of cooking and that if anything, the "art" should follow from that, but I also felt that he was being too modest in assessing his own product. Then again, it is generally better, I think, for others to make that sort of assessment. 


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One Response to Starchefs ICC 2010: Art vs Craft – Keller, Kinch & Barber Discuss

  1. Thanks for sharing this conversation, John.
    It’s more about the way these chefs view their work than it is about discussing art v. craft. Which is good enough for me. I tend to agree with Jeffrey Steingarten, this is a too Quixotic of an endeavor.
    Have fun in Spain…so jealous!!

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