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A great chef vs. a culinary genius


Wesley1
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"Einstein (in my mind one of the very few people in history that should be considered as geniuses)"

I agree with you that some of the early posts put the bar for genius a little low; but this raises it, shall we say, considerably.

I read a review by a journalist of a discussion between Susan Sontag and Jonathan Miller. He said that it was "pseudo intellectual." These two would impress me and many others as intellectuals of a considerably high order. Which leads to the question of what would constitute an intellectual discussion and, perhaps an even better question, would this journalist have recognized it if he saw it?

Perhaps the more a phrase is used, the more temptation there is to refine the definition to exclude people.

Trouble is you can wind up defining something to exclude virtually everyone. If this happens, we define genius as "Albert Einstein." As he already has a name that we are free to use, this leads to semantic redundancy. In this case, we might as well drop the term genius from our vocabulary as it becomes a hollow concept.

Perhaps we may need to agree to disagree and just admire some of the fine work that has been created in the field and those who are truly original in their concepts, approach, and execution.

Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"The Internet is full of false information." Plato
My eG Foodblog

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I don't think we disagree, it is more of a semantic determination issue I would say. As I said, I retain and will keep retaining the word genius for very few people (Einstein, Davinci, mozart, Dali, Gaudi, Darwin, Newton etc...), but always being appreciative of exceptional people in their respective field.

I would not go against claiming that Blumentha, Adria, Keller (to name a few current uber-chefs) have redefined modern cooking. But the field of haute-cuisine has very little relevance in the life of everyday life, and even less people can appreciate their craft.

And how about Hevre This, Kurti, McGee? Aren't they the ones that laid the methods and principles chefs that are considered as geniuses use? Are they geniuses as well?

I like the chef/orchestra conductor parallel. One can be an exceptional chef/conductor. But the genius comes from the methods-ingredient/composer-orchestra.

Anyway, this is a thoroughly enjoyable discussion, was very glad to see the views of others.

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Now we've got most of the semantics out of the way, I'd like to ask a somewhat controversial question.

If you look at a number of the top chefs around the globe (eg. Trotter, Blumenthal, Tetsuya), they have all been essentially self taught rather than coming up through a conventional training regime.

Is there something about conventional training that leads people to execute techniques very well but potentially not be as creative?

Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"The Internet is full of false information." Plato
My eG Foodblog

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Now we've got most of the semantics out of the way, I'd like to ask a somewhat controversial question.

If you look at a number of the top chefs around the globe (eg. Trotter, Blumenthal, Tetsuya), they have all been essentially self taught rather than coming up through a conventional training regime.

Is there something about conventional training that leads people to execute techniques very well but potentially not be as creative?

I would hazard a guess that great chefs simply can learn their craft more efficiently from other sources. Culinary school may be great for the average student but if you have real talent, it may be faster to teach yourself and to seek out great mentors instead.

PS: I am a guy.

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Very interesting post, with very valid points. Regarding the definition of genius, you correctly identified the first part of the definition (task complexity) but you did not see the second part (impact in human life)

I didn't consider that part of the definition because it strikes me as a bit contrived. I've never heard genius defined by that standard before. You could be describing "a person of greatness." But I don't believe that geniuses, in the conventional sense (who in many cases seem to be socially awkward computer programmers, with off-the-charts cognitive abilities and bad personal hygiene), are generally obligated to be a great men or women.

In this case the dictionary captures my sense of conventional usage:

genius |ˈjēnyəs|

noun ( pl. geniuses )

2 a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect : one of the great musical geniuses of the 20th century.

That standard here is "exeptional" ... which can be interpreted pretty broadly.

Ok. End of semantic droning. Back to food.

Notes from the underbelly

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What's with all these psychologists and neuroscientists here? :-) I'm a neuropsychologist as well.

The standard, posed by some above, that "genius" must "change humanity" or be on a scale of a breakthrough of something like the theory of relativity is too narrow and sets the bar absurdly high. To me, a genius chef is someone who invents something, revered by others, that is new and that had not been thought of before. A genius produces novel, high quality food on some kind of regular basis.

I've probably met 2 chef geniuses in my life; they are obviously quite rare.

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I was recently talking to the Pastry Chef at my work about my future plans in the food world, mentioning how i longed to join those working in the best kitchens. I mentioned a number of example places, the obvious Keller, Boulud, Trotter, Ripert, as places of interest, because of their high level of standards and quality.

   

    To this, im pretty sure, he laughed to himself. He began telling me that a restaurant cook like myself was very different from those in the upper realm of the food world. He told me they were "crazy" and "insane" and that they in fact must think the same of us (restaurant cooks).

   

      Now i should have asked him, and i am afraid i missed out on the opportunity for a good conversation, but i didn't. But what exactly was he talking about? are they really that different? Isn't the only difference the quality of both product, leadership, service standards? I know there is a certain level of originality involved that some chefs cant match, but beyond that; what is the fundamental difference? And how much different is cooking in one these kitchens as opposed to working in a nice restaurant?

Im looking forward to hearing peoples thoughts.

                                                        Thanks, Wes

That's the difference between an average kitchen and a top-end one. To be a high end chef you don't need to be a genius or even all that smart, you just need to work harder than everyone else.

And yes, people who work in those kitchens are crazy. I used to be one of them, going all-out 15 hours a day 6 days a week, until I realised if you just work smarter instead of harder you can make just as much money (or more), and actually have a life outside of work.

Not to mention, I came to a realisation that the best meals in my life haven't been in high end restaurants, but in simple meals with good ingredients. Nowadays, I'm more than content to work in good, small restaurants, and have time for family and friends.

As for what constitutes genius, a true 'genius' in this business is someone who is constantly changing, evolving and creating. Personally, I'd put very few chefs into that category. The only one I can really think of in the current generation of chefs would be Pierre Gagnaire.

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  • 3 weeks later...

i think foodies have a kind of romanticized image of meal creation... it seems that people overestimate the importance of innate talent, pallete and creativity, and underestimate trial and error, logical+methodical approach, willingness to study the vast library of work that is cookbooks/internet. i'd be willing to bet Adria has a much more mathematical approach than you think when it comes to meal creation.

i also think that if stephen hawking or some other top notch mathematician/physician would devote any considerable time to cooking (say, 5+ years), they'd be miles ahead of the people considered "geniuses" today - even if you would assume the physician had a very mediocre palete.

ofcourse i don't have much to back me up - just the limited experience from my own cooking ventures. it just doesn't seem to me that it requires TRUE genius to come up with Oysters & Pearls or Bacon & Egg Ice Cream.

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i think foodies have a kind of romanticized image of meal creation... it seems that people overestimate the importance of innate talent, pallete and creativity, and underestimate trial and error, logical+methodical approach, willingness to study the vast library of work that is cookbooks/internet. i'd be willing to bet Adria has a much more mathematical approach than you think when it comes to meal creation.

i also think that if stephen hawking or some other top notch mathematician/physician would devote any considerable time to cooking (say, 5+ years), they'd be miles ahead of the people considered "geniuses" today - even if you would assume the physician had a very mediocre palete.

ofcourse i don't have much to back me up - just the limited experience from my own cooking ventures. it just doesn't seem to me that it requires TRUE genius to come up with Oysters & Pearls or Bacon & Egg Ice Cream.

sorry, but where's the romance?

Standing over a hot, steaming pot, working away in the back.... romance? For me the romance is when I'm sitting in front, with lipstick on and a real glass glass of wine.

I can't imagine that any of the top, great chefs do not pay homage and tribute to the chefs and creators that went before them.

Can genius be interchangeable? Even after 5 years, can Steven Hawking do what Grant Achatz does? Probably not. And I'm not saying Achatz is or isn't a genius, only that genius is not necessarily commutable from one area to another.

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sorry, but where's the romance?

Standing over a hot, steaming pot, working away in the back.... romance?

You could say similar things about almost any creative pursuit. It's not just foodies romanticizing chefs; it's outsiders romanticizing any creative process. Granted, not all endeavors involve miseries equal to the hot line, but as life choices many come close.

Being an artist/writer/composer/whatever involves a lot more toil and repetition and tedium and failure than most fairy tales acknowledge. And who can blame them? If the fairy tales were accurate, no one would like them.

Notes from the underbelly

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Meh, foodies.......you'll never get it. And the pros out there who go along should be ashamed. But then again I'm guessing you don't know any better.

Not a ton of pro chefs on here - the ones that do - get frustrated l;ike I do - but it is all in good fun and sometimes some good stuff comes out of it - I have bouced some ideas off the group and so on -

I also think people have a false sense of the COMMERCIAL FOOD BUSINESS - and especially on this site. It is funny - my father is retired after being a blue colar guy for 45 years. I talk to him about every day or on the drive home from shift unless it is past the late news...anyways, he starts telling me about the Foodnetwork show that had what really happens to the tv shows and the REAL CHEFS that make the tv chefs look good - he was so upset he said he was going to delete it off his remote - I almost died laughing. I had a guy that rounded with us and I think he had a sense of reality. Cooking fancy stuff at home or following a recipe is you being a Foodie - Two kinds of chefs the young ones that work a hard shift and go out and party until dawn sleep a couple hours and hit the line - the second is the older folks who work smart, hard and make it happen to go home to the wife who saw you last week or your cats who come in watch you brush your tired teeth because they miss you too - doing the cat rub on your legs you can't feel along with the lots of things from hair to toe nails are tired, cut bruised or burned - cats don't care - the real chefs they are drinking a glass of wine and unwinding on the internet on sites like this OR reading or emailing fellow chefs about the day or watching thir spouse sleep beide them = so foodies - and chefs are 2 seperate things - you know, I would not change my chef life for the world

Edited by Jakea222 (log)
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Meh, foodies.......you'll never get it. And the pros out there who go along should be ashamed. But then again I'm guessing you don't know any better.

erm... so who do you cook for?? I assume you cook for people who like discussing your food and food in general, who appreciate your effort. I read your blog, you seem like quite a modern chef, with elaborate techniques and hi-end cuisine. Who are you targeting with your cooking? like it or not my friend is the "foodies" you are striving to satisfy, not the Mikky-D and TG Fridays consumer. So you should be a bit more modest on your criticism about the people who actually support your profession.

Edited by RedRum (log)
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I think you might find some real differences between "foodies" who do a lot of fine dining as a passion, and serious amateur cooks who study and practice and push themselves and create recipes based on a personal vision.

Most of the professional cooks work at a very low level ... because most of the restaurants out there serve food at a low level. For every French Laundry there are thousands of Denny's, burger shacks, taco joints, diners, etc. etc. And each is staffed with professional cooks. Some of them may know an aweful lot about food and be able to prepare meals at a much higher level than what they do day in and day out. But not all of them. For many it's a blue collar job; they do what they're told and that's it.

They will most likely have more polished and efficient production skills than anyone who isn't cooking 60 hours a week, but would you really assume that they're better cooks than any of the passionate amateurs who labor with food out of love?

Notes from the underbelly

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  • 3 weeks later...

That obnoxious word.

The only industries with a more blatant over usage of that word is the fashion industry and Hollywood. I'm in the biological science field. We may use that word once in a generation.

Edited by savvysearch (log)
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Cooking-even at the highest levels is not Genius...it's hard work and commitment. Understand the pricipals of cooking and apply them in a relentless pursuit of excellence and perfection. This pursuit of perfection often results in the Chef being considered a genius but the reality is that the Chefs obsession often manifests itself in behaviours that many would consider insane...i.e. 100 hour work weeks, temper, socially awkward etc. There have never been any geniuses in cooking, but there have been a few who have had the drive that their efforts have created something never before seen....but that is not genius.

Wes-If you want to work in the best kitchens, just as other have suggested, work hard, study, have passion and dedication and be willing to sacrafice some "normalcy" in your life...and you will go very far.

But make no mistake about it...cooking amazing food is not genius.

Lefty Ruggiero to Donnie Brasco: "Anywhere you go, all around the world, all the best cooks are men."

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Cooking-even at the highest levels is not Genius...it's hard work and commitment. Understand the pricipals of cooking and apply them in a relentless pursuit of excellence and perfection.

What about chefs who create completely new principles of cooking--ones that change the way a whole generation thinks about food?

Is there potential for these (very few) people to distinguish themselves as geniuses?

And if not, why are they different from people in other pursuits who get accepted as geniuses for similarly revolutionary accomplishments?

Notes from the underbelly

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But make no mistake about it...cooking amazing food is not genius.

I'm pretty sure that's not the point. It's less about the *act* of cooking and more about the *art* of cooking. Sure, the process of slicing, dicing, fileting, sauteing, blanching, roasting, foaming, sous viding, quick freezing, spherifying, etc, are all tasks that anyone with a fair degree of dexterity can learn. But determining how to put disparate ingredients together in interesting and palate-enhancing ways, in ways that build on culinary traditions or perhaps even throw out said traditions, then building an artful progression of courses, that's certainly something that's beyond pure skill, if you ask me.

Christopher

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What about chefs who create completely new principles of cooking--ones that change the way a whole generation thinks about food?

Is there potential for these (very few) people to distinguish themselves as geniuses?

Maybe... But is there any chef who has done this?

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I was recently talking to the Pastry Chef at my work about my future plans in the food world, mentioning how i longed to join those working in the best kitchens. I mentioned a number of example places, the obvious Keller, Boulud, Trotter, Ripert, as places of interest, because of their high level of standards and quality.

   

    To this, im pretty sure, he laughed to himself. He began telling me that a restaurant cook like myself was very different from those in the upper realm of the food world. He told me they were "crazy" and "insane" and that they in fact must think the same of us (restaurant cooks).

   

      Now i should have asked him, and i am afraid i missed out on the opportunity for a good conversation, but i didn't. But what exactly was he talking about? are they really that different? Isn't the only difference the quality of both product, leadership, service standards? I know there is a certain level of originality involved that some chefs cant match, but beyond that; what is the fundamental difference? And how much different is cooking in one these kitchens as opposed to working in a nice restaurant?

Im looking forward to hearing peoples thoughts.

                                                        Thanks, Wes

First off I would like to say, that the pastry cook that you had that chat with, if that is his attitude then he's not going to get anywhere. All great chefs, like Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria, Marco Pierre White, etc, started out somewhere. They didn't just become superstars over night. They worked their tails off and lived through all kinds of career changing experiences. They all wanted to not only be good at what they do, but great at what they do. They all have this certain level of OCD. They all pursue perfection. I'm sure they don't think of restaurant cooks as "insane", "crazy", or even look down on restaurant cooks or their own cooks. A chefs success is also judged by how they develop younger chefs too. Thomas Keller helped Grant Atchaz. Ferran Adria had Will Goldfarb. Marco Peirre White helped Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay, Tim Hughes, and Mario Batali, to name a few, to become very successful chefs. They all taught fundamentals and decipline.

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Cooking-even at the highest levels is not Genius...it's hard work and commitment. Understand the pricipals of cooking and apply them in a relentless pursuit of excellence and perfection.

What about chefs who create completely new principles of cooking--ones that change the way a whole generation thinks about food?

Is there potential for these (very few) people to distinguish themselves as geniuses?

And if not, why are they different from people in other pursuits who get accepted as geniuses for similarly revolutionary accomplishments?

I wouldn't call them a genius. They are taking things that have been done before. They are just learning how to manipulate it.

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  • 1 month later...
Meh, foodies.......you'll never get it. And the pros out there who go along should be ashamed. But then again I'm guessing you don't know any better.

Not a ton of pro chefs on here - the ones that do - get frustrated l;ike I do - but it is all in good fun and sometimes some good stuff comes out of it - I have bouced some ideas off the group and so on -

I also think people have a false sense of the COMMERCIAL FOOD BUSINESS - and especially on this site. It is funny - my father is retired after being a blue colar guy for 45 years. I talk to him about every day or on the drive home from shift unless it is past the late news...anyways, he starts telling me about the Foodnetwork show that had what really happens to the tv shows and the REAL CHEFS that make the tv chefs look good - he was so upset he said he was going to delete it off his remote - I almost died laughing. I had a guy that rounded with us and I think he had a sense of reality. Cooking fancy stuff at home or following a recipe is you being a Foodie - Two kinds of chefs the young ones that work a hard shift and go out and party until dawn sleep a couple hours and hit the line - the second is the older folks who work smart, hard and make it happen to go home to the wife who saw you last week or your cats who come in watch you brush your tired teeth because they miss you too - doing the cat rub on your legs you can't feel along with the lots of things from hair to toe nails are tired, cut bruised or burned - cats don't care - the real chefs they are drinking a glass of wine and unwinding on the internet on sites like this OR reading or emailing fellow chefs about the day or watching thir spouse sleep beide them = so foodies - and chefs are 2 seperate things - you know, I would not change my chef life for the world

God I feel your pain man. I remember my wife too.

I feel like an outsider skirting around "normal" society with these strange hours.

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