“Food cannot express emotion (though a cook may ‘express herself’ and feelings such as love for friends in the act of cooking). Nor can it move us in the way that great art can. … Perfumes and flavours, natural or artificial, are necessarily limited: unlike the major arts, they have no expressive connections with emotions, love or hate, death, grief, joy, terror, suffering, yearning, pity, or sorrow, or plot or character development. But this need not put them out of court.”
Most chefs I’ve spoken with or read about talk about their work as, at best, craft: the goal is not artistic creation but getting a certain number of plates out, on time and to order. Perhaps it is the enthusiastic home cooks who are the real artists today.
Where, in a hierarchy of the arts, would others place cookery? Is it similar to pottery or rug-making, a useful or decorative art? Or are the chefs who aspire to artistic creation wasting their time and that of their customers?
I treat cooking as a living essential and certainly an art. I trained at Sir J.J. School of Art (birthplace of Rudyard Kipling in Bombay, his father was the Dean of the institution) and then came to NYC to study the arts at School Of Visual Arts in Manhattan.
What I created as an artist and what I learned at school and through my artistic persuasion, has also similarly created and taught and inspired me with my cooking. There is hardly any difference in my world between what I do with food in comparison to what I do with paint, ink and pencil. They are all different ways of me expressing myself any given moment in time.
There are artists and then some. Not many labeled as artists consider their creations art. Some do not even consider their art as a form of craft. They either lack that sensibility or perhaps do not know how to give words to their thought. And certainly some do not even think food can be compared or contrasted against the other arts.
I cater, I teach, I cook for friends and family and I share foods I prepare with strangers. My food is accepted by strangers not because of anything I do, but it is what the food shares with them. Every year at the end of Ramadan, I prepare a dessert called Sheer Khurma. I prepare it with the same respect for a tradition that a Indian potter has for the earth and its ability to accept back into it what a potter prepares for function today. My Sheer Khurma is not about food, it is about sharing something ancient, traditional, something emotional and something immediately heart warming. Even before the stranger accepts my package of Sheer Khurma, their eyes are expressing comfort, their mouths are salivating and their words are thanking me for having continued a tradition that is as old as their culture. And all of this even before they take a single bite of this sweet pudding made with vermicelli. Is this not what art does silently? At least the great paintings that leave generations with a lasting impression did nothing different.
Like any art form, the foundation of cooking is based on technique. There is a body of knowledge about the food itself - the vegetables, the spices, the herbs, the sauces - but this information is meaningless unless applied with sensitivity. I use the words sensitivity and knowledge in all of their nuances: knowing when a vegetable like the bitter melon, karela, is perfectly in season; understanding how to remove the bitterness; and, finally being aware of its healing properties. There's a perfect moment to eat karela, just as there's an appropriate time for an Indian raga to be played. There are monsoon ragas, morning ragas, and ragas that are played when the lover has gone. Music, dance, visual arts and food are always respected for their ability to cleanse the soul, and heal.
Cooking (at least Indian cooking that I practice more so than others) has always found a willing companion in art and music. They always seem to go together. Any musical gathering first begins with prayers to the gods and offering of food to them. Just as emotions are a part of music so are they a part of cooking. Thus in India one finds that to evolve ones palate one also studies the appreciation of music and art. In the Indian kitchen one entertains spices or masalas. The seeds, stalks and powders are all found. There are masalas that can set ones palate to receive taste sensations in the most profound ways. There are those that can alter feelings.
And this is only the very basic exploration into what can be a larger thesis for a doctoral study of food as an art form.