Friday, May 14, 2010

Arts & Crafts

I’m a skeptic. Pretty much everything for me has, in legal parlance, a “rebut-able premise.” I’m not going to take as a given that anything is inherently worthy of worship, deference, or even just my being impressed.

Despite my passion for all things culinary, I regard very little of it as an art form–it’s a craft. Unfortunately we’ve de-emphasized the importance of craft in favor of the illusion of art. We want to perceive our memorable gastronomic experiences as moments of ephemeral genius rather than what they actually are: the culmination of years of training coupled with a bit of ingenuity and intuition. The fact is, anyone can cook. Anyone can cook competently with a bit of practice. But it takes years of chopping, slicing and sauteeing before you can work effectively in a commercial kitchen. Coming up with the menu is, in many ways, the easiest part of being a chef. Effectively training your staff to serve that menu consistently to a restaurant full of hungry, demanding diners at 7:30 on a Friday night is the tricky part.

Cooking in a restaurant isn’t cooking in a vacuum. You could come up with the greatest dish on the planet, but if it takes an hour to prepare and can only be cooked correctly one out of three times, it’s utterly impractical to serve in a restaurant. If there’s no way to effectively make a viable margin without charging $80 for your entree, it’s utterly impractical to serve at (most) restaurants.

I worked for a number of years as a bartender in the SF Bay Areaduring the nascent stages of the “mixologist” boom. We came up with a number of interesting, artisan-spirit driven cocktails with fresh herbs and fresh squeezed juices. Of course we just called them cocktails and charged $8 for them because we weren’t retarded. I’m not saying I was the best bartender on the staff, but I was effective and fast. I churned out consistent cocktails quickly, got my customers’ buzz going, and moved (in the words of Jay-Z) it was on to the next one. Perhaps I could’ve spent longer to ensure an exact ratio of bitters to grapefruit juice, but taste is relative and I’d rather be quick and effective than unnecessarily meticulously slow.

And that’s what makes for good craftsmanship, producing a quality product reliably and efficiently. We’re not painting the next Guernica: we’re mixing a fucking cocktail; we’re grilling a steak; we’re making an Albarino. I don’t want to wait twenty minutes for a cocktail, no matter how good it is. At that point, the bartender has failed in his craft. There’s no “worth the wait” when it comes spending $16 on a cocktail.

We should take pride in our craft. Craft is a noble thing and good craftsmanship is exceedingly rare. Good craftsmanship is being replaced by pretense to artistic glory fairly rapidly. Instead of the Wolfgang Pucks and Thomas Kellers who toiled in obscurity and honed their craft for years before achieving well-earned success, we have flash-in-the-pan “celebrity chefs” whose genius is extolled by publicists while their restaurants fail. Or worse, we have failed actors who consider themselves revolutionary because they decided to actually pay attention to what kind of booze they use in their Manhattans.

You’re not a revolutionary, you’re a douche with a Boston shaker.

1 comment:

Randy said...

Less Bobby Flay, more America's Test Kitchen.