Friday, July 29, 2011

COOKING art or craft?

I was in a book shop recently and saw a book by Escoffier called “le guide culinaire” or the culinary guide in English. The strap line for this book was “the art of modern cookery” This got me thinking whether modern cookery or indeed any cookery is an art form at all. I have been asked many times whether cooking is art or craft and it is a difficult one to answer.

I still have a book that was bought for me in 1989 called “the art of Anton Mosimann” (anyone still remember him?) flicking through the pages now, it is very noticeable that the focus of the food is very much a visual one. Mosimann was very much a pioneer of Nouvelle cuisine which dominated the 80’s restaurant scene. Nouvelle Cuisine was about making food lighter and healthier by getting rid of flour based sauces and replacing them with reduction based sauces or jus that are still common today.

Nouvelle Cuisine is often remembered for its small portions even though these small dishes were supposed to be eaten as part of a larger menu. There are lots of restaurants today that serve several smaller courses as part of a larger menu. Brighton’s own Graze restaurant is one such restaurant, as is Maze in London and almost every fine dining restaurant in the country serves a “tasting menu” made up of several dishes. Could it be that Nouvelle Cuisine was ahead of its time?

It is easy to understand the art element of Mosimann’s cooking with dishes that are delicate and colourful. He uses gold leaf and many different coloured plates. It is only when you read the recipe that the craft side of it comes to the fore. Cooking involves years of training and in many cases an apprenticeship is involved. The idea is you learn your craft from a talented chef and then introduce your own ideas and approaches when you have the skill.

Anyone who has made a layered terrine or boned and stuffed a duck will know that the craft element is very important, as is science. A cook has to know why the soufflé will rise when the egg whites are whipped and not when the egg whites are over whipped. Why do egg yolks in mayonnaise thicken when the oil is added?

Art is also less obvious in modern styles of restaurant. Today the onus is very much on the provenance of the ingredients used and by the simplicity in which said ingredients are cooked, in order to show off their flavour best. It is probably fair to say that farmers and growers are considered the true artists today. I also think we need to look at the nature of art itself, surely art is supposed to be a one off and not to be replicated. Surely restaurant food by its very nature needs to be replicated day in day out, a dish in a restaurant eaten on a Monday needs to look and taste the same on a Tuesday and a Wednesday.

My own view is that cooking is mainly craft with a smattering of art, not dissimilar to furniture or jewellery making. Fast food restaurants cater for the mass market as do furniture warehouses. It is only when you go to hand maid bespoke furniture that you see the true craft and I suppose art as well. You only have to look at a really well made hand crafted piece of furniture to appreciate art and craft together.

I also think that art is a personal thing, give 10 chefs the same ingredients to cook the same dish and you will get 10 different interpretations of the same thing. There are chefs like Mark Hix, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Fergus Henderson and Simon Hopkinson who advocate a more simple robust style of cooking and presentation and there are chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing and Tom Aikens who prefer a more delicate arty style. I suppose ultimately it’s the customer who decides which is preferable.

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