Grant Achatz, chef-owner of three-Michelin-star restaurant Alinea in Chicago, considers food “the ultimate form of art,” and he steadfastly concedes that art can be anything that triggers emotion. “With food, it’s not just about aesthetics,” Achatz says. “What if you could taste the Mona Lisa? What if you could smell the perfume she was wearing or touch the black fabric of her dress?”
Alinea’s 18-course tasting menu certainly elicits an emotional, sensory experience unique to each devourer. If art is a language, as Achatz asserts, he and fellow chefs have the ability to communicate through each dish. Distinct from much of existing art that the onlooker can only observe, food is consumed and thus involves all five senses. Taste, Achatz says, is what definitively allows him to elevate food to the level of art.
Unlike Achatz, pastry chef Caitlin Freeman of the San Francisco MOMA and Blue Bottle Coffee considers the matter of taste more as a means of craft and commerce than an art form. Though Freeman creates beautiful pastries directly inspired by pieces of modern art, including Mondrian cake slices and a Matisse parfait, she envisions herself and her pastries as a conduit through which she can make art more accessible, not as an artist. “I go to work every day and make sweets for people,” says Freeman. While she finds creativity in her daily work, “What I do isn’t glamorous, like I imagine the life of an artist.”
In the same vein, Andy Ricker, chef-owner of pulsing (mostly) Northern Thai restaurant Pok Pok in Portland and New York City, says, “There’s definitely beauty in the food we create, but I wouldn’t call it art.” Ricker considers himself a pragmatist and a curator. “Chefs are craftsman,” says Ricker. “We are taking raw material and building it into something used by the consumer.” Learning how to make each menu item in its country of origin, Ricker returns from frequent trips to Southeast Asian― trips to embark on faithfully reproducing these dishes within the confines of an American restaurant.
Chef Richie Nakano of Hapa Ramen in San Francisco asserts that making food cannot be analogous to making art. “An artist conveys something through their art that can’t be taught to another person,” says Nakano, whose pop-up food stand is turning brick-and-mortar in early Spring 2014. “But I can teach someone to cook just the way that I do, given enough time, dedication and willingness to learn. And that is the craft of food.”
Nakano sees creating food as a departure from art both in emotion and taste. While he and his team strive to create the best product possible, sourcing farmers’ market-driven ingredients, these are only logical steps to perfecting his craft. “There is no magical element in our kitchen. Every decision should come from logic, not feeling,” says Nakano.
On the matter of taste, he does not view tasting as an individual experiencing art through the senses. “Things either taste good or they don’t.” While there is some element of subjectivity, “most people can agree if something tastes good or tastes like shit.”
Perhaps the chef can only define his or herself as artist or craftsman, conduit, or curator. And perhaps only the diner, the person paying the $600 tab after an 18-course meal, or waiting in a 20-minute line for a hot bowl of soup, can define what transcendence through their food tastes like. What makes Nakano get up and go to work every day is not the hope that someone will have a supernatural experience with a bowl of his ramen. “What I want is to have someone sit down, eat that bowl, and feel great for the rest of the day—to feel comforted and satisfied. I just want them to say, ‘That was fucking delicious.’”