Thursday, November 12, 2009

Classifying Art and Politics for Cooking


Let me begin with a slight disclaimer. There are many journalists, op-ed columns and talking heads that can argue this topic more eloquently than I can. And, I’m entirely happy for their righteous selves because I don’t want to incite the type of all encompassing national debate that - for example, is taking place between Michael Pollan and the Evil Empire (in his eyes at least) standing before him. I don’t have enough saliva or patience to withstand the hours it’d take.

I do want to discuss a more sensible paradigm of food, art and politics within restaurants. Basically, it all started when a recent discussion at a Linecook 415 podcast really got my brain stuck on this idea of a chef’s “freedom” with their food. Within this abstract sense of freedom (whether most chef’s really have it or not), I had somehow started to extrapolate and examine a relationship between interpreting food menus as an artistic or political argument.

The principle questions that I would pose are:

How often is dining an extension of an individual’s sense of art or the result of their politics? Or both? Are they always best as a marriage? Does the presence of food politics stifle food art?

I don’t have to blink before I can come up with two very prime examples of food politics in this city: Chez Panisse and Cafe Gratitude. Both are representative of a specific lifestyle and or philosophy that is very derivative of some form of politics – whether it is by their own choice/admission or not. But, as a diner, I can see the value of Chez Panisse based on my politics. For almost the same political reasons, I find absolutely no value in dining at Cafe Gratitude. Sorry, but I’m a “give me a foie torchon or give me death” kind of guy.

From the perspective of food as art, we have some great examples of artistic interpretation in Alinea, and to a certain extent, Montreal’s own Au Pied Du Cochon (APDC). Alinea is America’s best example of a restaurant who creates, manipulates and molds an ingredient for the purpose of presenting food as artistic interpretation. Alternately, APDC can be argued to have every bit of much artistic merit with their sometimes ridiculous interpretations of Montreal’s regional French fare (like the Foie Maki roll, Duck In A Can). In both cases, art can be more openly seen as a component of their identity and byproduct of their freedom. They have the creative license and ability to do anything they want, which in turn, gives them artistic merit. There may be governing styles, but there are no rules, restrictions or politics for the creation of their food like there would be for Chez Panisse (cooking out of the backyard) and Cafe Gratitude (hosts the yearly PETA conference). Everything, it seems, is fair game.

Having distinguished a some examples for what can be considered art or politics, there are obviously blurry gray lines all over the place. I’m sure the food at Chez Panisse can also be considered as artistic, but for the most part, it is widely considered as the home of “figs on a plate.” Every dish there may have artistic merit, but the cooking is not classified as artistically progressive by many people’s standards.

Let me put this in another way of thinking: impressionism is beautiful and artistic in its own merits, but there’s an issue when everyone is painting in the same style. The paintings, colors and subjects may be different, but ultimately you are constrained to looking at sometimes wonderful, sometimes exciting or sometimes regurgitated impressionist work. The question is: what happens when you’re looking for something from the Modern Era? Where’s the Picasso and Dali?

An overarching argument can be made about whether or not food politics are suppressive to food art. Can a food community (owners, chefs, diners) with strict ideals shaped by their politics (e.g. the local 100 miles restaurant radius resource list) be the contributing factor for starving creativity? I am aware that money is the driving factor in any type of discussion for culinary freedom, but it’s a catch-22 when you consider that personal [and food] politics can starve creativity – which, in turn starves a business.

This might be an asinine discussion that probably applies to a minor percentage of restaurants and concepts out there, but this is where my interests lie at this moment. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a chef who doesn’t dream of a world of creative autonomy, and more importantly, a diner’s patience and trust.

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