Cooking as a Craft
Some leading chefs admit that cooking could arguably be called
either an art or a craft. Jimmy Schmidt says, "I think it’s
safer to call it a craft. To capture the impression or the dynamics
of a certain mood or feeling is a lot tougher in food that it is
in other media. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not
Other chefs believe that it starts out as a craft. "Cooking
is a craft first," says Terrance Brennan. "Like a carpenter,
we learn our trade through hands-on apprenticing."
From its start as a craft, it can evolve into artistry. "The
first few years [cooking] aren’t a matter of style,"
says Jasper White. "I tell all my cooks when they come to work
for me that it’s really a matter of learning how to cook.
The techniques and skills are universal, I think, to a certain extent.
If I tell my cooks to make lobster bisque and how I want it to taste,
the skill that it takes for them to recreate my dish is the same
skill that they would need to create their own food. So I really
feel that before you reach the point of art, it’s a craft.
And without being really highly skilled in the craft, I don’t
believe you can ever attain artistry—even if you get a few
write-ups in the magazines."
Joyce Goldstein is also careful to distinguish between those who
practice this profession as a craft versus an art. She agrees that
"some chefs are artists. And then there are lots of craftspeople.
A craftsperson is someone who masters technique and can do a lot
of dazzling stuff with technique. And that comes from practice,
which is where school really helps a lot.
"Artistry can come from people with virtually no skills with
a knife at all. That’s cooking in the soul—and some
people have that and some people don’t. That you don’t
learn—that either you have, or don’t have. It’s
like being a painter—you can be a very competent painter.
You can learn how to grind your pigments and prepare your canvas.
You can learn all this stuff—but it’s not going to give
you soul. There are some people who have shitty technique, but they
paint fabulously. The artistic is intuitive—and that comes
from God knows where. I couldn’t begin to tell you."
How should chefs evaluate their impact? "When you cook, do
you reach others with your message?" asks Goldstein. "With
lots of technical stuff, diners go, ‘Ooooh!’ But only
the culinary artist want to make food that people will remember
with their mouths, not only with their eyes. So that when others
taste it, they want to taste it again and again.
"I don’t think you have to be reinventing the wheel
to be creative or artistic. Sometimes the most artistic people play
with a very limited palate. You pick your palate, you pick your
range, you pick what interests you—and then you cook your
"How do you measure success as a chef? Well, did you get them
in the gut? Did you get them in the heart? And, most importantly,
did you get them in the mouth? These should be your goals."
Cooking as Art
What does it take to make the leap into the realm of artistry?
"How do you learn to become a great pianist? Where does that
come from? It’s not just learning how to punch the keyboard,"
says Bradley Ogden. "It’s something more than that. A
lot of it is natural ability—it’s probably 75 percent
natural ability. Either you have it or you don’t have it.
Some of it can be trained, but a lot of it can’t."
Gary Danko says, "Cooking is, for me, the perfect balance
of art and science. There’s that creative endeavor within
you that can think out the seasons and the flavor profiles. Then
there’s the scientific part—what is actually going on
with the whisk? If I’m blanching broccoli, why is it turning
brown in the pan? As you study that, you learn that sometimes if
you cook a lot of vegetables in the same water, an acid will develop.
And if you cook a green vegetable in that acidic water, it’s
going to turn army brown. So these are things you start to learn
Hubert Keller believes that creativity is rooted in mastering the
classics, an argument for mastering the craft of cooking before
attempting artistry. "If you have a foundation, you are able
to play a little bit," he says. "When you’re learning
music at the beginning, you practice scales. Once you learn, you
start to play other people’s songs. And once you’ve
learned those, if you get really good, you might start composing
a little bit. It’s the same in cooking. Once you have a lot
of experience, you might start to include a couple of ingredients
that might not have been included by [Paul] Bocuse, by [Paul] Haeberlin,
by [Roger] Vergé—otherwise, maybe their hair would
stand on end! But if you’re in a different country, with a
difference audience, and if you feel it’s not just being done
to shock, sometimes it can work. You have to have a guideline, though—and
then you can go a little bit right or a little bit left."
In the process of becoming a culinary artist, Gray Kunz says that
"there is a point that you are not, and a point that you are.
When you’re able to bring your feeling and intuition to a
dish—the artist is coming out at that point."
George Germon and Johanne Killeen are quick to point out, "There
are not that many culinary artists. Only a small proportion of chefs
fall into that category."
Part of what characterizes culinary artists is their expressiveness
and their ability to cook from their gut. "They have their
own way of expressing themselves," says Daniel Boulud. "In
food, the expression is more physical and emotional. When creating
great food, the taste is always memorable. Buts sometimes it simply
Killeen and Germon agree. "We’re most influenced—I
don’t want to say intellectually or theoretically, because
that’s getting a little bit beyond what it really is—by
our gut," says Killeen. "It’s also very dangerous,
when you start talking in theoretical and philosophical terms,"
adds Germon. "It really is almost like the death of a dish."
Killeen continues, "In terms of art and artistry and food,
it has a lot more to do with your gut than your intellect. There
are certainly great intellectual artists, but there are also artists
who simply create from their gut. And I think that’s more
what we do than anything else."
What Distinguishes a Chef’s Style?
Through the myriad decisions a chef makes, including those related
to the composition of flavors and dishes and menus, a personal style
evolves, reflecting a chef’s particular point of view.
Mark Miller distinguishes between two prominent schools. He says,
"Just as there are writers who use words very creatively and
are masters of language, and other writers who are better at telling
stories, I think there are chefs who are masters of the language
of flavors and other chefs who can tell great stories.
"I would say that the technical people, the ones who strive
for dramatics, are sometimes the ones who understand the words and
the use of the words. The chef who think about menus and carrying
out compositions are more interested in the interplay between the
words themselves and the overall feeling of a story rather than
just the effect. You have to be careful here because form, style,
and meaning get so integrated, and yet they are so separate in some
"Certain chefs have a great style; Jeremiah [Tower], Alice
[Waters], Joachim [Splichall], Charlie Trotter-—hey all have
a lot of personal style in their food. Sometimes a chef who has
a lot of style is seen as a more important chef, because he does
dishes that have a flair. Personally, I would rather eat Rick Bayless’s
food. He understands and can interpret the culture, in a way, through
the technique—and he also creates something I his own right.
Rick creates Mexican meals, and his restaurant is a reflection of
Mexican hospitality and the way he thinks about life—his artwork
is in the room. He represents to me an integrity in food."
As for Bayless, he agrees that a chef’s cuisine tastes of
more than its raw ingredients. "Flavor, commitment—customers
taste all of this in the food," says Bayless. "They’re
tasting the fact that I spent years in Mexico learning from really
great cooks how to do all of this, and that I was able to pull it
together into the cooking that we do here. I think they taste culture
and history, basically, in dishes that have been refined—which
I don’t mean in a negative sense, but in a good sense—over
generations. That’s the flavor that I think is on our plates
So what is it that creates a chef’s style? "Chefs’
cuisines are a result of their lives," explains Gary Danko.
"And it’s important for chefs to be honest with themselves.
If you’re honest with yourself, there will be revealed to
you a path in life, and cooking happens to be my manifestation of
this life. I describe a pyramid that represents the heart, mind,
and hands of cooking. The heart needs to be the base emotion—then
you need the mind to conceive the dish and the hands to execute
it. It’s that pyramid that I try to reflect in my food, and
my cooking is a direct result of my life.
"That’s why it’s so critical for chefs to travel
and to study history, art, and culture," says Danko. "The
result of this journey is sometimes the lesson that life is really
so simple, and that simple things—in cooking, simple flavors—can
be very rewarding."
Gary Kunz agrees. He encourages chefs to understand their own personal
"food context." "How you’ve been eating at
home all your life will ‘haunt’ you in your life as
a chef," he says. "You’ll have images and feelings
built in from all your experiences."
Charlie Palmer says he tells his young cooks to concentrate on
what they feel and what they know when they cook. "I tell them
not to just do a version of what I’m doing or Mark Miller’s
doing or anyone else is doing," he says. "I tell them,
It’s got to be you. It can’t be me."
"Developing a personal style has to do with developing a point
of view," Jasper White explains. "I think it takes years
to develop that. And it never really stays quite the same. But I
think at a certain point you know what it is and you become yourself."
"There are many different ways to do things," Danko says.
"You need to go out and see everybody’s style, and then
look inside yourself and ask, ‘What feels and works best for