Second Helpings

Art of Cooking: Some weeks back in this space, I took a few swipes at a new book, Dining Out: Secrets From America's Leading Critics, Chefs, and Restaurateurs, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page.

I thought the level of pretension was pretty high. What most rankled was the notion that cooking is an "art," and that chefs were therefore "artists." I argued that cooking is a craft, not an art--more like carpentry and tailoring than painting and composing. It requires knowledge, diligence, originality, pride and even passion. But it's not a soul-wrenching statement on the human condition. There are no starving chefs, plotting meals in garrets.

I got support from an unexpected corner: George Mahaffey, who recently replaced Alessandro Stratta at high-powered Mary Elaine's.

Of course, there is nothing more pleasant in life than having an intelligent person agree with you. Still, Mahaffey's views strike me as particularly sensible. Here's part of what he had to say:

Sometimes I find my colleagues way too serious. I never thought that "seriousness" in and of itself necessarily had anything to do with art. I ask myself: Even if I am the world's greatest chef (as, unfortunately, I believe some of my contemporaries may be tempted to imagine themselves), then what am I? I am a good cook. There is so much talent on such a vast scale that "average" members of society possess that it seems a pointless conceit to imagine somehow that being a great chef makes us significantly different, better or more artful than others.

I don't think I need to have my guests thinking about me while they dine. I want them to be enjoying themselves. Unfortunately, in our celebrity-conscious society, it has become important to create this status for chefs.

Though I agree with your commentary that chefs are in no sense different from other skilled artisans, rarely are plumbers or carpenters subject to having their businesses suddenly collapse because they received a poor review. No one is interested in writing criticism about local tailors or carpenters. There is a widely held idea that like dance, theater or music, dining out is a significant form of human pleasure worthy of critical attention. I believe that in the long run, restaurant criticism is good for all of us: you, me and the interested public. Everyone enjoys good food.

Cooking is a real source of conviviality and entertainment. Nothing makes me feel better than making something: a table, a poem, a braise. Doing it is what it is all about.

I think it would be better for my industry if the image of the driven, anguished creator became history. I find it fake and stupid, but young people entering this business seem to be attracted in an odd sort of way to that type of personality in the kitchen, because they think that is how you need to be to excel. In fact, it is really more about hard work, study and patience, not to mention being at the stove, that really counts.

That last paragraph nails it exactly.

--Howard Seftel

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