Steve Durbin brought up the question of how do artists cook a while back, but I was not able to comment as much as I would have liked then; furthermore, I came across, again, some famous old thoughts on the subject, and I thought I’d share them with you.
First though, I’ve just been promoted from Sous Chef to Executive Chef at the resort where I work. Unfortunately, I’m always working now at least twelve hours a day. It’s my own fault, the long hours, for I fired all the lazy hacks on my first day on the job. I will have only focused professionalism in my crew even if it means pulling shifts for a time.
Involved as I am with the menu planning and presentation of our banquets for the coming season, the relationship between a practical, applied art, like cooking, and a more ethereal art, like painting, has been much on my mind. It’s been only on my mind and not expressed in art work because of my long hours.
I would not regard the following observations to be completely definitive statements for all art, merely facets of a diamond, and one possible diamond at that. I offer no images in this post, only ideas. But they are some good ones, I think.
Those who have studying cooking will most likely be familiar with Auguste Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire. Among chefs, it is considered probably the best treatise on the subject ever written. Not merely a book of recipes, though there are many recipes, Le Guide covers the essential principles from which recipes are derived; moreover, Escoffier permeates his text with useful applied philosophy.
Here is an example taken from the Cracknell and Kaufmann Translation.
In the introduction to the Second Edition, published in 1907, Escoffier discusses a conversation that his master Carême related. Carême was talking with one of his colleagues who “complained bitterly of the unrefined habits and uncouth tastes of his master.”
Carême’s colleague had decided to quit his job rather than violate the principles of “high class cookery which he had followed all his working life.” However, Carême indicated that his colleague was quite wrong, for “in matters of cookery there are not a number of principles, there is only one and that is to satisfy the person you are serving.”
An unimaginative or overly literal person might object that such obsequious groveling to the whims of the client can only diminish one’s art. To this tired and foolish argument Escoffier makes an elegant proposition.
“We might be criticized for falling so willingly to the whims of our guests and that by going to the extreme of simplifying our methods of presentation and service we are debasing our art and turning it into craft. This is not so because simplicity does not rule out beauty.”
Escoffier then quotes his first edition:
“We are convinced that the ability to give the highest possible distinction to the most humble items by presenting it in an elegant and correct form will always be the result of technical knowledge.”
Regarding technical knowledge, to toss off any of a number of hundreds of possible examples, when I see oil paint diluted beyond its capacity to retain it’s cohesion, when I see seven brush strokes where one would serve, when I see awkwardly reworked forms rather than graceful lines, I know what I’m looking at.
So I’m with Escoffier completely on that point. Given technical skill, it is possible to please the world. Simplicity does not rule out beauty.
A big leap now.
Apparently I have taken the cause of the casual observer as a cause célèbre. This seems to be the challenge I have posed for myself as an artist. I just can’t do decent work without passion, and I passionately feel that the regular person has been dealt a bad hand by artists over the past century, and it’s time we took a little responsibility. If their “tastes” are boorish, well whose fault is that? Who, after all, but we artists are responsible for setting standards?
Certainly I have no desire to win the hearts and wallets of a few pretentious day traders in New York. I look at the goings on at Sothbys and I’d like to see the place burn.
Certainly I’d like to see any number of international monetarists hung from gibbets. Chasing after their money or the fame they can bring is disgusting.
Arthur volutely described this viewpoint as “Populism” in a recent comment, but throwing a word at what I’m talking about is like spitting on a waterfall.
Other observers have noticed that Impressionism was the first truly middle class fine art form in history. At the Louvre, it has been long noted that among the print sales, if it isn’t a Leonardo, it’s likely an Impressionist image.
So someone likes fried chicken?
As a cook, I learned how to make many exotic dishes, but as a businessman, I learned to re-form my craft for the sake of the market. It was either that or bankruptcy. I personally cannot afford the luxury of just doing my own thing in life. I personally will not suffer at a job I dislike for the sake of money either.
The chicken can be organic. The herbs can be fresh. The oil can be sparkling clean and mono unsaturated. The batter can be handled with consummate delicacy. It need not be deep fried, just browned in the oil then slow roasted in an oven. And the presentation can be delightful. Perhaps a few green onions sliced on a long bias which are used to send an asymmetrical line across the plate…
Oh, I could go on. But I think I’ve made my point.