Art or Craft? An Essay on Food by Michael Laiskonis


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In early September, the SoFAB Institute presented a panel discussion asking “Is food art?” at the New School in New York as part of Culinaria Query, The national inquiry comes to close in New Orleans on October 10, 2013 with a special presentation by Ken Albala. For information, please visit this page.

Michael Laiskonis, Creative Director of New York City’s Institute of Culinary Education since 2012, was one of the panelists at the New School in New York City. Previously Executive Pastry Chef Le Bernardin for eight years, his pastry philosophy manifested itself in a style of desserts that balanced art and science, and contemporary ideas with classic. Awarded Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2007 by the James Beard Foundation, his work also helped the restaurant maintain three stars from the esteemed Michelin Guide and four stars from the New York Times. In his five year tenure as Pastry Chef at Tribute in Detroit, Pastry Art and Design twice named him one of the “10 Best Pastry Chefs in America”.

Laiskonis has been featured in numerous web, print, television, and radio appearances internationally. He was named Bon Appétit’s 2004 Pastry Chef of the Year and Starchefs.com declared him a Rising Star in 2006. His consulting projects have included a collaboration with the Ritz Carlton hotels in Grand Cayman, Washington DC, and Philadelphia through Ripert Consulting, as well as several pastry shops throughout Japan, and most recently, advisory positions with major food companies and independent restaurants alike. In 2008, Laiskonis became a featured contributor to Gourmet.com and participated in the launch of the Salon.com food page. His writing has also appeared on The Huffington Post and The Atlantic, as well as several anthologies, including The Kitchen as a Laboratory, published in 2012 by Columbia University Press. He has also joined the ranks of chef-bloggers with two websites documenting his work, Notes from the Kitchen and Workbook.

The following is an essay by MIchael from the book, Notes from the Kitchen: A Journey Inside Culinary Obsession (Tatroux, 2011) from Jeff Scott and Blake Beshore.It  is the first book of its kind to accurately portray the daily creative life of a world-renowned chef in a visceral, cinematic format. Never before has a cookbook focused more intently on who a chef is as a person and why they place their culinary passion and obsessions before almost everything else in their lives. Thanks to them for permission to reprint this essay.

Photo courtesy of Notes from a Kitchen

Photo courtesy of Notes from a Kitchen

Art of Craft?

Michael Laiskonis

Whether cooking manifests itself as an art, as a craft, or somewhere along a continuum, is a perennial debate among the foodie intelligentsia. The context of a meal surely determines its worthiness as an art form. A simple supper at home most often lacks the assumed measure of intent of a multi-course affair at a multi-starred restaurant. When asked directly, many chefs brush off the notion of expressionistic cooking, preferring to see their work as a dexterous yet humble craft. Although an all-encompassing definition of the word “art” makes room for mere mastery of skill, that mastery alone does not necessarily imply creations that stimulate the intellect and stir the emotions.

Though cooking engages all five senses in a way no other art can, it’s often marginalized outside the sphere of the finer arts- painting, music, and literature-, mostly due to its quotidian nature. Placing food in this context is both limiting and liberating. Imbuing our food with symbolism and profound meaning is a tenuous exercise, yet there does remain a capacity for the chef to communicate and connect with a guest on a more visceral, emotional level, consciously or not, through nostalgia and sense memory. Fine art is deemed “good” or not, and a dish can succeed or fail on its own subjective merits. Perhaps objections arise when unfocused pretension fails to deliver pleasure. Novel preparations and concepts, when applied to food, can detract from the experience when lacking restraint or fundamental technique.

Semantics aside, whether or not the work resulting from hours in the kitchen is considered art is never a great concern for me. My fascination with the intersection of art and cooking lies deeper than analogies that draw superficial representations. I like the idea that cooking exists within a special realm of functional art, aesthetic pleasure we can consume and experience with all of our senses. Of even more interest to me is moving beyond mere metaphor to explore the subtle methods we might employ toward refining and elevating the experience. I seek to widen the scope of source material from which we create new dishes.

In the pursuit of pleasure all chefs seek inspiration from nature and from the qualities its products bring to the plate. Our cooking is informed by a direct sense of place as well as by an imaginative fusion of many ingredients. Cooking depends upon, and is defined by technology–the means by which ingredients are transformed. But is there another deeper, silent language of food? Can chefs unlock its potential by becoming fluent in the vocabulary of other crafts and artistic disciplines? Can these devices serve chefs in expressing ideas that transcend mere deliciousness?

Infectious Creativity

Without a base of solid skills creativity is meaningless, yet through creativity and inventiveness (and developments in science and technology) we stumble upon new techniques. The same is true of the other arts. You can’t write a piano concerto without knowing first how to play piano. And while good-tasting food trumps all, there is a certain pressure to be creative. It comes not just from our peers but also from a fair portion of the dining public. At this point in history it feels like there is precious amount that has yet to be done; is there not a finite number of melodies to be sung or plots to be written or flavor combinations to taste? Yet there remains in all creative disciplines enough variation and rearrangement to keep us quite busy. But where do these new ideas come from? How exactly does the creative process work? Is there just one answer to that question? I do know, or at least I’ve come to ponder, how it might work for me. Surprisingly, it’s not when I’m thinking about food; it’s when I view the rest of the world through the lens of food.

Being immersed in the world of food, it can be quite refreshing to learn about someone else’s job and experiences. I love stories from the world of foreign relations or high finance. I even like talking to my dentist about what he does. But it’s those who trade in culture, the creative folk among my friends, that interest me the most: the actor, writer, musician, and filmmaker; the sound engineer, architect, record producer, and painter; the film critic, photographer, jewelry designer and interior decorator. I’m fascinated by the mechanics of these disciplines. The processes behind such endeavors are like foreign languages. I may never learn to speak them fluently but I like knowing some basic key phrases. And somehow I feel immersing oneself in a culture of creativity rubs off in unpredictable ways, no matter what you do in life.

At heart I’m also a fan of culture. I tend to frame everything I see in a sense of aesthetics, even when walking down the street. Maybe I’ve always had to seek out my own entertainment because my tastes tend to run far from the mainstream. I never swallowed what was served up by conventional outlets, so for me it became something to hold on to, something closer to my soul. Though food and cooking have eclipsed my interest in art,  I still see artistic possibilities in every facet of life. How does all of this find its way back to food? How can an appreciation for Sonic Youth or Thelonious Monk, for Stanley Kubrick or Hubert Selby, for Edward Hopper or Man Ray, possibly influence my cooking?

I have absolutely no clue.

I know they do because they have kept my mind and my senses fertile over the years, just  as cooking has. So the question begs itself. Can we express the same sense of emotion in food with the same language as other art forms? We can certainly trigger sense memory and convey nostalgia through food. I think I’ve seen more attempts at culinary irony than I can shake a spatula at. Is it just a question of taste and a pretty plate? Does that next step, that little extra, ineffable nuance, define and separate the very best cooking from mere food preparation? Walking to work yesterday I began to think of artistic devices that would be interesting if they could somehow be applied to cooking. I’m not talking about mere plating technique or the direct representation offered by a work of art, but about more theoretical concepts…

Music: how might one express the culinary equivalent of a minor chord? Can flavors take on a rhythmic syncopation? How about a ska-like backbeat? Would you filter a dish through a distortion pedal? How would you go about “unplugging” an already amplified ingredient? Does the song still work if the instruments are out of tune?

Writing: can two different ingredients rhyme with each other? Does the dish or menu provide a narrative? What forms of punctuation can we use to good effect: periods, exclamation points, question marks, ellipses? When we cook, are we telling a story in third person? Can the ingredients speak in first person? How can we express a metaphor without cuteness or irony?

Painting: how does one create chiaroscuro, or contrast, in tones? Can you build flavors to create a painterly application of texture? Is it possible to practice culinary pointillism? Is a quick sketch less valid than a laborious masterpiece?

Architecture: do you create space? How do we assemble our supporting structure? Is the design ultimately dependent on the building materials? How does the food interact with its environment, with the plate, with the table?

Design: have you taken into account a sense of comfort, of utility, and of ergonomics? Can flavor be aerodynamic? Is the dish a one-off, or suitable for mass production? Can food sell itself in a graphic sense?

Theater: as a chef, is it possible to slip into character? …to become the ingredient? …to see the dish from its own point of view? Do flavors listen to and play off each other in the form of a dialogue?

Photography: is a dish just a random snapshot in time? Or is it a static, deliberately posed portrait? How might we shift focus and create a depth of field? How might we open or close the aperture in our cooking? Can a dish express a slow time lapse exposure? Do you prefer to cook in color or black and white? In digital or film?

Fashion: How does that garnish or sauce “hang” on the food? Does the fabric of the dish ”breathe”? How might you tailor an ingredient for a specific client? Do you take it in or let it out? How important are accessories?

Tiny Dots

I find myself in a dilemma over tiny dots. And thin lines. And smears, bubbles, and dusts.

I’ve mentioned the importance of the essential and the subtractive method of isolating the vital from the unnecessary in a dish. Yet I’m still guilty of committing the tiny dot of sauce, the part of the dish that most certainly adds more to the design and composition of the plate than to its overall flavor.

I certainly don’t think such flourishes are altogether bad, I’m just beginning to question my reliance upon them more often. As a young chef, I would boast of how many components we were putting on the plate–a drop here, a sprinkle there, a line of sauce that might start at the center of the plate, but then ventures off the rim into space. Indeed, the style I’ve been immersed in at Le Bernardin for over seven years has left its minimalist mark, but that’s still relative. I still tend toward heavy-handedness; looking at a dish with only three components, I immediately start to second-guess myself like I’m forgetting something. Maybe it’s a confidence issue. Perhaps, given the nature of pastry, where everything is already finished as opposed to cooking on the line, our job during service is simply to make it all look good.

It ultimately comes down to the refinement of an idea, which like everything else might mean different things to different people. It continues to evolve. For better or worse, fashions and trends will continue to push us in this direction or that. In the end, I believe that good food is good food, but if it looks amazing, the same dish just might taste that much better. As long as the element doesn’t detract from the composition, every drop of reduction or smear of puree is valid. Maybe my quest is not ultimate minimalism, but rather the sense of deliberate intent to make the right choices and to make everything count. If those artfully placed dots of sauce make the dish better, then it’s all good. And if they don’t, well, I guess that’s ok too.

An Appreciation of Craft

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve slowly come to heed the advice that is often thrown around, that to truly stay fresh in the kitchen it helps to have interests outside the insular world of cooking. When you’re young, cuisine can easily become an obsession. Every spare moment off of work is devoted to reading cookbooks, checking out blogs, or watching re-runs of “Iron Chef” (the Japanese version, of course). Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly an evolution that I went through that I see in younger cooks every day. I will often jokingly reprimand a cook for their interest in sports. A few months ago one of our line cooks opted at the last minute to cancel his plans to attend a class taught by Alex and Aki of Ideas In Food, in favor of going to the Yankee’s opening day game. To this day, I still tease him about it. But really, I do get it.

For starters, you can get burned-out. Second, relationships, family, and a social life are important too. We already work the worst hours imaginable, not to mention most holidays. Sometimes creativity and stamina are only fully recharged when you’re able to walk away from work, or at least change the channel in your head for awhile. Sometimes too much information is impossible to digest properly.

So these days I’m not as prone to flipping through, let alone subscribing to, every possible food publication.  I click through a regular a diet of food-related blogs, but not obsessively. With foodie culture still strong in the mainstream, particularly on TV, I can really only confess to watching the occasional episode of “Top Chef” with its clichéd drama.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t always think through the filter of fine dining. Especially being married to someone in the business, we pretty much live our professional lives “24/7,” but I’ve come to appreciate the diversions. As a huge underground music fan back in the years B.C. (that would be “Before Cooking”), I lamentably fell out of touch with that “scene” once I started working in kitchens. For the last year or so, however, thanks to the age of digital everything, I’ve been rebuilding my collection of tunes from the “old days”, and in the process have discovered cool stuff from the current millennium as well! Finding such pleasure in something so far removed from pastry as punk rock has been beneficial. The same goes with seeing old movies, going to museums, and reading books where the sentences don’t contain gram measurements or baking times.

A few years back, I needed some travel reading- I admit that being stuck on a plane or train is usually the only time I actually read stuff printed on paper- but I passed on the latest issue of Saveur or Food and Wine, and picked up a copy of Wallpaper, a nice design magazine that I hadn’t seen in some time. Granted, everything I look at does in some odd way go through that food filter, especially visual content like architecture and design, but this was intended for pure escape. What immediately caught my attention was right there in the first few pages. In his Editor’s Letter, Tony Chambers discusses a new book by sociologist Richard Sennett, titled The Craftsman. As Chambers presents it, Sennett describes how in today’s society greater value is placed on intangible skills like leadership than on manual skills that require time, training, and discipline. The book argues that both individuals and society would be better off if such skills were given greater respect and appreciation.

There certainly is no better way to achieve a sense of accomplishment, pride, and self respect than to transform a lump of raw material into something of aesthetic value, practical use, or yes, even of gustatory enjoyment. Sennet claims that we’re in an age where personal fulfillment through artisanship, or simply put, through hobbies–whether through knitting a sweater, building a chair, or baking a cake–is at an all-time low. I’m not sure if the book looks at any generational watershed, but as I fall in the Generation X category, I definitely see a strong desire for such fulfillment in my peers. Either we’re still trying to escape the “slacker” image of our youth or we’re the last generation to be nostalgic for the analog life.

I’ve been thinking about the idea a lot, and about how it ties in to what we do. Of course, I thought, that’s why chefs are chefs! Just last week we had a stage in the kitchen looking to land a spot on the team. After introducing her to what we’re all about I finally asked what her story was and why she chose this path. She gave, to my mind, the best possible answer: “I like to work with my hands and make people happy.”

When I started out, I didn’t even know that such thing as celebrity chefdom existed, let alone that it was something I might come close to being a part of. What seduced me was the craft of cooking and being able to immediately survey each day’s production. I found that accumulating knowledge and skill appealed to me, as it still does.

Even more, it was, and still is, the ongoing accumulation of knowledge and skill that I found appealing. You can never know how to do everything and you can always learn do something better and faster.

This was further driven home a few days after seeing that piece in Wallpaper while setting up the pastry kitchen for a consulting project in Philadelphia. Since we found ourselves with some spare time, I offered Monica, our pastry chef there, some simple petit four ideas. After an afternoon of busting out items like pâté de fruit, nougat, and chocolate-candied nuts, I realized how much fun I was having. Such skills aren’t exactly lost arts yet, but in a climate of accelerating creativity, understanding and being able to tackle the classics is still important. Those who know me know that I embrace a lot of today’s forward thinking; with more tools and techniques at our disposal, imagination becomes the only boundary. Still, a lot of the skill associated with “molecular” cooking is limited to knowing how to use a digital scale, a blender, or a thermometer. In contrast, I don’t know anyone who successfully made their first macaron by reading a recipe in a book.

Some things are all about feel; usually those are the most rewarding. Few people make chocolate cigarettes anymore, for example, but I could lose myself for an hour or so making hundreds of them. Once you learn it your body remembers the coordination needed and your eyes tell you when the chocolate is set just so. Making a single crêpe isn’t all that difficult, but working six pans at a time requires attention, rhythm, and timing. In the end, while I get a kick out of producing a few cups of delicate “spherification,” I’d be more proud of a tray of perfectly baked choux puffs. But I try not to think in terms of duality, like modern vs. traditional or sweet vs. savory. It’s all just cooking. I often cite Pierre Herme as an inspiration is because, while he continually reinvents himself and sets the bar higher for the rest of us by keeping tabs on the “new,” he can work the  “old school” better than anyone. I don’t pretend to be an expert at anything. Nearly everyone on the planet buys their puff pastry. If I was in a jam and had to make my own it probably wouldn’t be that great. It’s been years since I’ve done it but at least I know how to do it and with practice I’m sure I’d get better.

In his book, Sennett estimates that to master a skill or craft requires 10,000 hours of training and practice. That’s roughly five years of 40 hour work weeks, which sounds about right. One thing that hit me a couple years back, as I found myself straying away from day-to-day production, was that though my staff uses my recipes and I trained them to execute each one, eventually they end up making things better and faster then me. At first it was a blow to the ego, but then I realized I’m doing my job well by allowing those around me to develop their own skills. But when I can roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty myself, I remember why I get out of bed every day.

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2 thoughts on “Art or Craft? An Essay on Food by Michael Laiskonis

  1. Pingback: Cooking, Art and Greek Yogurt | Pitch PRfect

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