When Is a Meal Like a Van Gogh? When the Chef is Telling Secrets

by Dwight Furrow

Atelier crenn

Atelier Crenn A Creation of Chef Dominique Crenn

In the humdrum course of daily life, we tend to ignore most of the objects we encounter. We focus only on what will break down or threaten us if we aren’t paying attention and neglect anything that is in its proper place benignly performing its function. Such inattention is a shame but inevitable. We wouldn't survive for long if we maintained a child's fascina tion with what can be taken for granted.

One of the functions of art is to resist that inattention and sustain, if only at very special moments, a fragile fascination with the commonplace. The history of art is full of examples of works that illuminate the ordinary: The Rembrandt portrait that reveals a little-known character of its subject; or beams of light from an undisclosed source in a Caravaggio that reveals God's presence in an everyday scene. But it is especially true of modern art. The still-lifes of Cezanne, the ready-mades of Duchamp, the bricolage of postmodernism, all exemplify one prevalent theme of the art of the past 150 years—the commonplace is extraordinary.

Van Gogh was especially gifted at wresting revelation from the commonplace. In explaining why he left Paris for Arles in Provence, Van Gogh wrote that he wanted to “paint the South” to help others “see” it. Convinced that previous painters had failed in this task, he painted roughly 328 canvases of the area in a little over two years, a body of work which included 14 canvases of trees in bloom in the fields near Arles, a number of paintings of the Alpilles hills just outside of town, and 12 paintings of wheat fields visible from his window in the asylum, to which he consigned himself after cutting off his ear.

Trees in bloom, distant hills, wheat fields? These are commonplace objects we might superficially admire while on a leisurely walk, but they typically escape our focused attention. Yet, Van Gogh was convinced there is something to see in these objects, which our ordinary modes of perception cannot easily discern and which require an artist of his stature to make visible. (I hope cutting off one's ear is not a requirement for such an ability to see.)

What does Van Gogh see in the fields and hills near Arles that others miss?

Alain de Botton in his book The Art of Travel elaborates:

Van Gogh CypressThe oddly constructed cypress tree that looks like a “flame flickering nervously in the wind,”

The “taut…alertness and contained energy” of olive trees, Gogh_olive-trees

And the “diffusing rings of light” that transform the night sky into a Proteus, incandescent garden. Van_gogh_starry_night

Van Gogh's brush turns crops, trees, land and sky into a field of loops, zigzags, and curlicues as if paint were an inexorable flood marking each crevice of reality with its rivulets and eddies. While most artists who had painted Provence succumbed to its bucolic loveliness, which lends itself to moods of quiescence and serenity, Van Gogh sees a seething, transformational vitality everywhere which is captured by the swirling brush strokes and sharply contrasting color schemes.

We know that nature is like that; even the most peaceful scene is fraught with feverish, organic energy below the surface. But to capture the motion of stillness peculiar to Arles, Van Gogh could not be a naïve realist. He could not pointlessly paint what the casual observer would see–no one would be interested in that. He must peer into depths and get the viewer to follow him there. All artists are tellers of secrets, an idea first elaborated by Plato who thought the best art should lead us to directly apprehend a reality behind the appearances of everyday life. But to let us in on the secret the artist must exaggerate, diminish, and deform–a fact that Plato was unable to countenance. All painting is, in a sense, caricature because each artist must decide which of the infinite details of nature to bring to the surface or push into the background while remaining true to the subject matter. Artists interpret what they see and hear, and thus bring new meaning to it. But that interpretation is, by its very nature, the product of artistic decision, not a mere imitation of the given. A craftsperson provides us with an expertly rendered imitation of a scene with proper color, perspective, and line. By contrast, artists uncover secrets visible only with the guidance of inspiration.

How do the edible arts fit this picture of the artist as teller of secrets? Just as Van Gogh revealed the secrets of the landscape near Arles, culinary artists reveal hidden dimensions of ingredients and dishes, dimensions that previous cooks overlooked that create a new way for that dish or ingredient to be. The idea is not merely to create a fantastic concoction or to add a new flavor note to a dish. It is to capture the essence of something that has hitherto gone unnoticed and to impress upon the diner that there is something here to be explored and understood. Unlike craftwork, works of art reveal some new treasure that solicits our attention and demands the kind of studied focus we give to the visual arts or music. A chef who has mastered the craft of cooking will prepare food that squeezes every bit of flavor from her ingredients. By contrast, the chef who is an artist will challenge a diner and provoke an arresting, illuminating taste revelation.

The best examples of such culinary works of art are dishes by chefs who make use of fundamental molecular transformation—such as Exploding Ravioli by Grant Achatz or Ferran Adria’s Smoke Foam. But one needn’t have mastered the process of spherification or own a centrifuge to create works of culinary art. This dish, a relatively simple stew of cauliflower, citrus, and ginger by Chef Gray Kunz qualifies as well because it re-contextualizes a humble vegetable and transforms our understanding of what it should taste like.

Works of culinary art, it should go without saying, must be pleasurable as well as revelatory. Pleasure is the seducer that makes knowing the secret worth our efforts. But the chef's intense focus on giving pleasure is not peculiar to the edible arts. A musical work or painting that is flat and inexpressive will fail as art as surely as a watery, under-seasoned bisque. We would not be discussing Van Gogh today were it not for his voluptuous brush work and color palette.

Of course, thinking of a chef as your guide to the mysterious might be disconcerting. Unlike paintings, we take food into our bodies and reflexively recoil from eating something puzzling or strange. Chefs are peculiarly intimate guides to whom we entrust our physical health and financial comfort–a disappointing painting in a gallery or museum is more easily ignored than a bad meal in a restaurant, especially at the prices charged by our temples of gastronomy. Thus, although innovation and pleasure are essential, a chef’s search for new sensations takes place against a background of familiarity anchored in food traditions, which are shaped by the culinary artist to reveal new dimensions, but cannot stray too far from diner’s expectations.

Does this rootedness in tradition make cooking too conservative and hidebound to qualify as art, which in our world is expected to break new ground? No. Finding these hidden dimensions in something familiar and ordinary is the essence of creativity in the arts. A secret once revealed is like a stray note in a jazz solo that sends it spinning in unpredictable directions. Creative cooking may be rooted in food traditions but these are vital, living traditions large enough to accommodate hellbent chefs stoking their fumes of fancy in search of culinary ecstasy. Mark Twain wrote that “if to be interesting is to be uncommonplace, it is becoming a question, with me, if there are any commonplace people.” The culinary artist thinks this might be more appropriately applied to her ingredients.

For more ruminations on the philosophy of food visit Edible Arts.