Is Food Art: Notes from Pastry Chef, Michael Laiskonis

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, where Yael Raviv served on the panel. 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 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 and participated in the launch of the 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.

What follows is the Laiskonis’s slideshow from the panel. as well as some post-panel thoughts.

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Michael’s Post-Panel Notes

As a chef-practitioner, my position on the subject at the outset was less about an academic definition of art, but how chefs at the highest level of the craft might utilize different creative processes toward the pursuit of original or inventive dishes.

I guess to answer the initial question – ‘is food art?’ – sometimes yes, but most often we are better served to regard cooking as a skilled craft, and in even broader terms, simple sustenance. Rather than answer that question directly, I’m more interested in the intersection of art, craft, and science and how the pursuit of refinement and creativity in gastronomy is often tethered to ‘modernist’ cooking techniques and technology. I argue that with such technology we as chefs are in a sense freed up and have been able to divert more of those ‘intuitive’ aspects of cooking toward the aesthetics of a dish. That same underlying science can also be used to refine what we already know as well as assisting in the invention of new dishes and techniques.

The given time was short, so I didn’t go to deep into the creative process, but I did bring up an area that has been of particular interest to me – what might happen if we were to apply the language of other artistic disciplines to cooking? Can we borrow methods and devices from painting, music, or architecture to better build a dish? I also spoke briefly on the notion of having a story behind a dish, as well as the important role of nostalgia.
At the end of day, the session was very short and only offered an opportunity to scratch the surface of the subject. I don’t know that any of my opinions were changed, but I did come away thinking that while one can’t necessarily apply formal artistic criticism to cooking, that shouldn’t prevent someone for looking at food in an artistic way. Perhaps because we cannot analyze a painting in quite the same way that we assess the qualities of a plate of food… well, perhaps that answers the question for some. For me, the interest remains in how chefs harness creativity and less in how we might compare the end results to established art forms.


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