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Are Chefs Creative, or Simply Skilled Craftsman?

A Ghirlandaio painting and an Eric Ripert entrée are closer cousins than you might think.

Whether chefs should be considered artists seems to be a hot question, particularly among chefs themselves. “I think chefs are both artists and artisans,” Charlie Palmer says. “However chefs want to perceive themselves, that is totally up to the individuality of the chef.” Ferran Adrià, who has been described as an artist more than any other chef, does not think of himself as one. “I consider myself strictly a cook,” he says. “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.” Bill Buford, the author of Heat, concurs. “I think most chefs are artisans, and that’s a perfectly respectable title,” he says. “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.”

“Of course, I’m biased, and I believe we are artists,” Eric Ripert says. “To me it’s obvious that [cooking] is two things, craftsmanship and artistry. Craftsmanship, in that a lot of people in kitchens are mastering techniques to cook something to enrich the body. You go to bistros and it’s basically copying recipes from a certain tradition or ethnicity.”

“God has subjected man to six great necessities: birth, action, eating, sleep, reproduction and death.”

I have never embraced that idea more than to say that the so-called “culinary arts” really constitute an exacting attention to quality ingredients, rigorous technique and innovative concepts others admire and often copy. I find it impossible to equate the paintings of Giotto or the piano concertos of Debussy or the novels of Dickens with what goes on as a group effort in both the kitchen and the dining room, often, these days, without the celebrity chef present.

Yet many restaurant critics fling around words “artistry” and “genius” for a chef who has mastered a craft and created a beautiful environment with delicious food. More troubling are the restaurant media who now insist that the traditions of what has long been called “fine dining” are no more or less applaudable than an out-of-the ordinary storefront restaurant, even a pop-up, a bakery, dim sum parlor, pizzeria or a taco stand. Indeed, some critics find the very notion of “fine dining” not only out of date (which it definitely is not) but offensive to their sensibility that restaurants should not charge a lot of money for capital expenditures on décor, pastry chefs and deep wine cellars. By this argument, it is the small, cacophonous places with little more than an Air India poster or map of Brazil on the wall, cheap chairs and tables, no tablecloths and paper napkins that deserve the same unqualified high praise as a place with three Michelin stars. (Those stars are, themselves debatable as to what they measure, but that’s another story.)

Myself, I am a cook first, or a craftsman if you prefer. I tell my friends and colleagues, there are only two types of food, good and bad. And this applies to everything from a fried egg to a fine dining experience. A Chef on the other hand is a manager. The chefs purpose is to manage costs, and materials, and lead people. And, yes I believe that at times cooking can be elevated to art, but it's rare and fleeting. Most people really just want good, healthy food presented in a beautiful manner, and to feel that they received good value.

Cheers, and happy hump day!

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