Can a plate of food be considered a work of art, in the traditional sense? And by extension, are the world’s best chefs on a parallel plane with history’s best artists? This was the question I asked myself while watching the Netflix series, Chef’s Table, the third season of which launched 17 February. Created by David Gelb, each episode tells of the biography, philosophy and culinary chops of some of the world’s most-renowned chefs, from Massimo Bottura to Alex Atala to Female Chef of the Year, Ana Roš, to lesser-known, but no less accomplished cooks, like Jeong Kwan, a Korean nun who cooks only for fellow nuns and guests at her Buddhist monastery.
My initial foray into this subject was for a feature article in the Village Voice, for which I conducted interviews with about a dozen luminaries of the food world, both chefs and critics. As an art historian, I was curious not only whether chefs and critics considered some chefs to be artists, but also whether a plate of food would satisfy the standard upon which Renaissance fine art was judged. This was based on a 15th century appropriation of the ideas penned by Aristotle in On Poetics, in which he suggested that a successful work of art (and he was writing about poetry and drama) should satisfy three criteria: It should be good, as in well-executed and exhibiting skill; it should be beautiful (aesthetically or morally); and it should be interesting, thought-provoking.
In order to test this theory, let’s choose a single dish. Of all the episodes of Chef’s Table, the one that most stuck with me visually, with its Tarkovskyian aesthetic, was on Argentine chef, Francis Mallmann. The Mallmann episode features a gruesome, slow-motion raising of three crosses in the snow, to which flayed bodies are tied. While the dish is called asado, and the bodies were formerly lambs, there is an unmistakable waft of Calvary about this sequence. It was immediately reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s 1954 Figure with Meat and his 1933 Crucifixion. But Mallmann’s claim to fame came in 1995, when he prepared his now-signature “Potato Dominoes,” as part of an all-potato feast for the Academie de la Cuisine, where this ingredient is not considered of the elevated stature of a high-end chef’s usual arsenal of foie gras, caviar, lobster, black truffle and the like.
Let’s apply Aristotle’s requirements to this dish, to see if it holds up.
Is it good? One would hope that all cooks, chefs and Chefs can prepare a good potato, so perhaps this is not much of a test. But of course, if the peers of the realm around the tables of the Academie de la Cuisine found Mallmann’s “Potato Dominoes” to be exquisite, then it’s safe to say that yes, it is indeed “good,” well-executed and exhibiting skill on the part of the creator.
Is it beautiful? It is a photogenic presentation, like a cascade of fallen dominoes, each square perfectly cut and aligned with the next. The same dish with round-cut potatoes, the way we would expect, even if lined up just so, would lack the artistry—it would be too straightforward an aesthetic of an ingredient that already risks being considered too straightforward. But squared is new, eye-catching, and signals that the dish is doing something different. It is, indeed, a beautiful thing.
Is it interesting? A portion of potatoes doesn’t sound inherently interesting. It’s not cooked in a bizarre way. It’s not deconstructed, smoked, foamed, or blown up. But to know the story behind it, the gutsy decision made to serve it where it was first served, this makes it interesting. Mallmann’s moment in the Hall of Fame for high-end chefs, invited to prepare a meal for his international peers among the Academie de la Cuisine, was won not through wagyu beef or sea urchin, but through a dish that is of his native Argentina, which feeds the poorest, not the porcelain-plated elite. Yet he managed to elevate the humblest of ingredients, so humble that were I to write “humble potato” my editor would accuse me of cliché, to heights that the best chefs in the world could not imagine. The star dish, the one they were all talking about, was a row of cooked potatoes. That, it is safe to say, is interesting. Revolutionary in the fact of doing it, rather than how it was done.
According to this art historian, a great dish can indeed be considered a work of art. But what did the professionals think? Here is a selection of responses from my many interviews.
Janez Bratovž, chef at JB in Ljubljana.
“I think that you can learn all the techniques, but you must have something inside you that is something more, something that can’t be taught. If you don’t have that, you can never be a truly great chef. The most important thing is that you love what you do. If you could with your heart, that can be felt in the food.”
Cindy Pawlcyn, chef at Mustards Grill in Napa Valley, California.
“Food is nourishment to me, not art. There is food that has gone too far to the ‘artistic’ side, that is too weird for me to be food.”
Charlie Palmer, chef at Aureole in New York, and more than a dozen other establishments.
"In terms of artistry, I think chefs are both artists and artisans. Moreover, however chefs want to perceive of themselves, as artists or artisans, that is totally up to the individuality of the chef. However, they want to perceive of themselves, that is totally fine."
Ana Roš, 2016 Female Chef of the Year, chef at Hiša Franko, in Slovenia.
“We are artists. And we are craftsmen. We do use our creativity and our hands. The success of a chef is when his hands can follow his mind. We think art and do craft.”
Bill Buford, author of Heat and former editor at The New Yorker.
“I think most chefs are artisans, and that’s a perfectly respectable title. But within the context of an artisan profession, there are people who are able to come up with such imaginative and creative leaps, that it’s hard not to regard it as an artistic achievement.”
Bettina Jacomini, Editor-in-Chief of Fine Dining Lovers magazine.
“There is great cuisine and there are great chefs. Great chefs serve emotions and when it happens, it’s such an intimate experience… They sublimate matter into feelings: is that not art?”
David Gelb, creator of Chef’s Table and director of several films, including Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
“Chef don't work on their own. You know they come up with an idea. They develop it with their staff. And then say how do you know you can take the army to you know produce the food of this quality the quality of people and how they in their dining room. And they have to do everything they. So. For me it's almost like a performance art.”
Eric Ripert, chef at Le Bernadin in New York.
“Of course, I’m biased and I believe we are artists. To me it’s obvious that its two things, craftsmanship and artistry. Craftsmanship in the see that a lot of people in kitchens or in restaurants people are mastering techniques to cook something to enrich the body. You go to bistros to have lunch and dinner and its basically copying recipes from a certain tradition or ethnicity. Then you have some chefs who are artists and have a vision, and those chefs are creative. They’re creative by inventing new techniques, by using new ingredients in new ways, by creating new flavors and consistencies and so on. As a chef from New York, I would say that inspiration comes from your surroundings. If you are artistic. Best of all in New York, awe have so many different ethnicities, so many ingredients and different techniques, the way to express that in cooking is by creating a certain fusion. The surroundings are fusions of ethnicities and cultures. I believe that a chef in the middle of a region that doesn’t have too much diversity will be more inclined to create with what he has in his surroundings. It can be of one culture. But ultimately, cooking is an art and the surrounding is an art.
“If you look at Michelangelo, obviously he was on his own. However, he didn’t do the Sistine chapel by himself. He would still be painting it today if he was. He had a team of students with him, and he learned from Ghirlandaio. It was a tradition of artists having students, to be able to do all those projects. In a kitchen, as you can imagine, by yourself, you cannot do much. A menu in a restaurant is pretty vast, with a lot of preparations. And you’re not serving five or six people, but fifty, a hundred at the time. So you need an organization in place, people who have been mentored by you, who can duplicate what you need to do, who can help you. It requires mentoring and dedication on all its parts.”
Ferran Adria, chef at El Bulli.
“I do not think of myself as an artist, I consider myself strictly a cook. That does not take away the fact that there are elements in the production of certain chefs that trigger aesthetic emotions similar to those triggered by certain works of art.
“What happens is that it is usually thought that a different quality value is added to a chef, if the artist tag is granted. If we start from the beginning, the chef is a person whose job is cooking to feed people. We know there are many kinds of cooks, just as there are many kinds of places to eat, public or private.
“In the age of civilization, to the wealthier and favoured social sectors, the so-called ‘culinary art’ was born, a cooking trend that aspires to not only feeding, but also surprising, pleasuring and arousing emotions. This trend has gone through history from first in courts of the ruling classes, and from late eighteenth century, also in restaurants. There are restaurants today that follow this ‘culinary art’ trend, and others offering popular cuisine. But pay attention: Both can be high quality. The offerings of some chefs, generally those who make culinary art, can suggest reasons for consideration, for aesthetic emotions, for conceptualism… similar to those artists produce.”