Tuesday 27 November 2007

Artists, or Craftsmen?

This is a subject that has become of increasing personal interest - and gathering irritation - for some time now: Is the process of cooking best understood as the preserve of the Artist or of the Craftsman?

For me, the answer is firmly the latter: cooking is primarily about the efficient deployment of resources to optimal effect, and the ability to judge the correct texture of pastry or pasta dough, or the 'done-ness' of zabaglione or risotto, or the correct point at which to remove a fish or chicken from the oven, or how a freshly-baked loaf of bread should sound when you tap it - all these things are technical skills, learned through experience over time, much as a potter learns to handle clay, or a blacksmith learns how to work with metal. Once you've learned the technical aspects of the process, then - and only then - do you have the technical knowledge even to consider moving ahead and working from that knowledge-base to develop new combinations of ingredients or new methods of production. It is only at this stage - if at all - that any artistry kicks in.........and in my experience, very very few people have the skill or ability to make this leap. (Bruno Loubet does, for sure, and Raymond Blanc, to a lesser extent........and after that, I think we're essentially dealing with people of varying degrees of technical knowledge whose recipes are basically a re-hash of what has already come before, with some slight variation at best.....)

And the reason for my irritation? It's simple - I don't know why, but it seems that in the anglophone parts of the world this distinction between cooking as an Art or a Craft has become completely confused, with sometimes dire results. The process is increasingly viewed as some kind of mystical alchemy, rather than as a precise science, and cooks are encouraged to think of themselves as 'creative beings' rather than as technicians. With an artistic temperament, to match, if a lot of the blah-blah surrounding celebrity chefdom is to be believed. And the end result of all of this is an increasing preponderance of restaurants where the menu is crammed with unrecognisable combinations of things in dishes you've never heard of, and which you're expected to eat with an attitude of hushed reverence for the creative genius behind the whole questionable process. Whilst in Greece, you can go out to dinner with a confident expectation of finding avgolemono soup on the menu, if that's what you want, or in Italy, if your taste is for Spaghetti Carbonara, you can find it........or Paella in Spain, or TĂȘte de Veau in France.........in Britain or the USA, however, you're more likely to be confronted with a 'galaxy' of this, or a 'medley' of that, and end up dubiously picking at an unsuccessful marriage of greengages with Venison, or Wasabi & Campari Sorbet! Heaven forfend that the Chef should actually offer a traditional dish that might also appear on somebody else's menu somewhere else - but with the confidence that his version will bear critical comparison - and the whole experience ends up being a combination of purple prose, over-ambitious egos, and poor food.....

I blame the dead hand of celebrity chefdom, which has encouraged every restaurant cook to see themselves as the future Gordon or Emeril or Jamie, and so rush to distinguish themselves with the creation of 'signature dishes' which, quite frankly, just don't work. Ok, other countries have their foolishness too, like Gualtiero Marchesi with his Gold Leaf Risotto, or El Bulli's 'smoke' souffle - but you're more likely in those countries also to find myriad restaurants where the dishes being produced are an exact replica of what was learned from the generation before, and the generation before that. Which is as it should be.

There's nothing wrong with being a technician rather than an artist, and better an expert technician any day than a lousy artist!

Tonight's Dinner:

Tartes aux Moules

Bistecchie di Maiale, with Cannelini Beans cooked with Pancetta and Sage

Mango Ice Cream


Joanna said...

There's a lot to agree with here ... did you hear Tom Jaine on the Food Programme yesterday (but perhaps you're in Italy at the moment?), being asked to comment on a book which might have been called the Bean Eaters, the MOST wonderful rant about why are we in England expected to be so entranced by Tuscan food, not the best in Italy, not relevant in England, all rather pretentious, etc etc.

I like this rigorous and English viewpoint, just as I like your rigorous attitude to food and cooking ... and your dedication to proper three-course menus.

By the way, we ate your yolkless chocolate egg souffle on Saturday evening, and I am now eternally in your debt. I doubled the recipe for eight, but didn't need to, as it would have done .... but we still ate every scrap

Thank you

Anonymous said...

Straight to the heart of the matter again. You really do deserve a wider audience. More power to your elbow, as we used to say in the good old days when dinner was at lunch time and everyone ate supper

Pomiane said...

J: No, I didn't hear him. Although currently in Italy, the existence of WiFi radio makes Radio 4 a possibility even here - but for some reason I find I don't often turn it on (contrary to expectation before getting the thing!). I suppose the extent to which Brits are entranced by Tuscan food is because it comes as part of the whole Tuscan lifestyle package - sun, and Art, and food and wine, while the peasants sing rustic songs as they winnow the incoming harvest. And like any of those 'perfect' concepts, it doesn't bear close examination. I like the sound of the rant, though...

I believe the Chocolate Souffle came from a book of low carb recipes by somebody called something like Doris Gassenheimer (now there's a name to conjure with!)and she actually called the recipe 'Mocha Fudge Cake'. Clearly somebody with no poetry in her soul.......!

TA: Surely 'Tea', not 'Supper'?

And on the wider audience front, I believe there are all sorts of clever tricks one can use to increase readership - so I suppose the fact that I don't employ any of them must mean that I'm happy with the small-but-beautifully-marked audience that I've already got.....

Anonymous said...

Ha! I'm Welsh, we did things differently. I'm glad that you are pleased with you audience, thank you.