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Avant-Garde Cooking in America.


robert brown
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Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page recently posted a note on the New York Times coverage of the avant garde movement: click here. I did not have the time to reply to this post in a timely way. In their Q&A this past week in which they refer to this post, I was in the midst of writing the reply below when the Q&A ended. However since the notion of an American cooking avant-garde is a compelling subject, I hope to keep both discussion and debate going among the members since, for one reason, I have a differing opinion on the subject than do Andrew and Karen.

Their thesis is that

the United States ... is, and has been, the "New France" for at least the past couple of decades. The unprecedented availability of ingredients and techniques from around the globe here in the "melting pot" of America has made culinary innovation and synthesis a daily way of life for New American chefs.

They cite Alice Waters as an innovator in her choice of ingredients, Jean-Louis Palladin and Jean-Georges Vongerichten as innovators both in ingredients and technique.

They praise the American dining public for its

unequaled openness ... to innovations (which goes a long way toward explaining why American-based chefs were able to usurp their French colleagues).

They even quote Ferran Adria:

I am a lover of what is happening in the United States. There is a generation of chefs that is looking for new things, and who, in short, will be the world's avant-garde.

Yet I don't think that Dornenburg and Page have made their case for the US as the world's center of avant garde cuisine.

Every avant-garde movement I can think of has been a manifestation of form. Andrew and Karen's inclusion of access to more and fresher ingredients as a major reason for American chefs being front and center in the world of the culinary avant-garde is akin to stating that Picasso painted what is recognized as the first Cubist work of art, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, because, in part, he applied more colors to his palette. Of course no one can minimize the achievement of Alice Waters and her influence on a great number of chefs by calling attention to produce in its optimal state, but this was something that European chefs cooks had been doing for decades and which has now been embraced in America by every style of chef who has had a passion for the culinary profession. Furthermore, the amount of good ingredients available at one’s fingertips is not a signifier of great cuisine or a great chef, let alone something avant-garde. In fact, as is often the situation in America and other countries that have grafted a high cuisine onto a traditional one, a surfeit of ingredients, frequently borrowed from other cuisines, is often a crutch for those lacking in technique or a good culinary turn of mind. The central role that Andrew and Karen attribute to fresh ingredients is called into question by the "anything goes" approach of truly avant garde chefs, who are exploring the culinary potential of canned, packaged and otherwise commercially-made products or ingredients.

Andrew and Karen mention some American chefs who visited el Bulli, yet who did not greatly change their way of making food. How could one expect otherwise on the basis of a meal or two, or, at most, a stint of some weeks in Ferran Adria's kitchen? What I have seen instead in numerous restaurants in America is chefs who glom onto the simpler techniques of Adria (primarily foams, as Andrew and Karen mentioned) for the sake of trying to wow the culinary neophytes who constitute the majority of their clientele.

The problem here is that they have avoided attempting to define what the culinary avant-garde is in order to use the term to fit their purpose of endowing American chefs and cuisine with a quality they do not possess. Some of what they say is incorrect, such as stating that "Alain Ducasse who doubtless had to move to the United States to find an audience to embrace his most cutting-edge creations…” This is false because Ducasse did not move to the United States; in fact does conceive many of the same dishes in Paris for his three upscale restaurants in Monaco, Paris and New York, and is certainly not viewed as "cutting edge". They also attribute as avant-garde what are no more than concoctions. Certainly the history of cuisine, even the recent history, has a smattering of creations that in hindsight may be called avant-garde, be it the first soufflé ever made to dishes that preceded Adria's foams such as Alain Chapel's "Soupe aux Champignons comme un Cappuccino". None of this, however, makes a chef an avant-gardist. Certainly the meals I had at Jean-Louis Palladin's Watergate restaurant and at Jean-Georges did not come across as avant-garde. At most, Andrew and Karen have indicated that with the help of hindsight and retrofitting, what was seen at the time as being creative can now be upgraded to avant-garde.

Now nobody really knows the extent of the culinary avant-garde or what, if any, long-term impact it will have. All we know from the past is that a genuine avant-gardist never stops becoming an avant-gardist until either he no longer can create, or his quest for what has been called "the shock of the new" exhausts itself. None of the chefs Andrew and Karen mention strikes me as exemplifying either.

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One remark - and I hope no-one incorrectly sees this as trivializing your very thoughtful post:

The avant garde in the arts produced a very great amount of crap. So I think that any definition of "avant garde" that is defined by high quality rather than an attitude being expressed about convention and individualism goes against previous history. The thing that made avant garde art (painting, sculpture, music, literature) avant garde is that it in some fundamental way or other broke with what had been considered essentially de rigueur conventions or rules and expressed the individual artist's personality and individuality in a much more intense way than had been true of previous periods in art history. A few of the avant gardistes, while breaking with the customs of the past, established new and illuminating forms of order. And it is these few brilliant, inspired artists (among the more notable of whom I would include composers like Satie, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Varese, Bartok; visual artists like the greatest of the Impressionists, Rodin, Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, Brancusi; and a poet like William Carlos Williams [i know less about literature]) who made the avant garde something worthwhile.

I don't follow cutting-end trends in expensive dining like a number of other eGulleteers do, except vicariously by reading about them, so I couldn't say who if anyone qualifies as an avant gardiste in food today. (I'd say that the avant garde in music, visual arts, and literature petered out some time ago as there ceased to be any generally-accepted rules in any of those arts, the "avant garde" became the wealthy establishment in the visual arts, and people recycled old concepts like the 12-tone system while ignoring the original Expressionst uses to which it was put or did things purely for publicity, but I digress.) But I would caution against denying the possibility that "concoctions" can be avant garde. If you don't think "concoctions" can be considered avant garde, I'd submit that the term "avant garde" is not useful for describing food, and should be discarded.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Pan, thank you so much. One man's concoction is another's avant-garde creation. I am trying to get people like yourself to try to get a more rigorous or tighter notion of what is, or should qualify as, avant-garde cuisine. It is an endeavor that will never be fully satisfied, but it is fun and challenging to try. I meant to say, or at least imply, that badly-conceived or self-conscious dishes; i.e. concoctions, are not avant-garde. Here again. however, it is a matter of taste in both meanings. For the moment, I believe that Ferran Adria is the only avant-garde cuisinier there is, although there is no telling when I may find someone I also consider as such. I believe that in order for a cuisinier to be considered an avant-gardist, there needs to be, as I said, creating food in terms of its formal characteristics. Now a few nights ago my wife and I were returning from WD50 and talking about Wylie Dufresne in terms of if we could consider him an avant-garde chef. I suddenly realized that the chef he reminded me most of was the Pierre Gagnaire I experienced in St. Etienne in the mid-late 1980s. That's weird because Wylie was just a pisscher back then. But, if memory serves me right, and I issue the caveat that I only dined at Gagnaire's restaurant two times, it was the same kind of cooking with unusual or ersatz ingredients and unheard of sauces with a quite free-wheeling conception. However, that was the period when such cuisiniers were called "crazy chefs", which to me is different than what Adria is doing.

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Out of curiosity, how do you view Grant Achatz, robert? He would be my nomination for the best (if not the only) avant-garde chef in the US. I'd be very interested to hear your perception of his cuisine.

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Pan, thank you so much. One man's concoction is another's avant-garde creation. I am trying to get people like yourself to try to get a more rigorous or tighter notion of what is, or should qualify as, avant-garde cuisine. It is an endeavor that will never be fully satisfied, but it is fun and challenging to try. I meant to say, or at least imply, that badly-conceived or self-conscious dishes; i.e. concoctions, are not avant-garde. [...]I believe that in order for a cuisinier to be considered an avant-gardist, there needs to be, as I said, creating food in terms of its formal characteristics.

You're most welcome, Robert, and you're one of the people whose posts are most interesting on a high level of thinking about the meaning of food and cuisine.

I think you might want to define what you mean by "formal characteristics" more. (Is this in any way separate from content?) It seems to me that if anything could make food avant garde, it would be combinations that are so unexpected and unconventional by today's standards (which are what?) that the combinations or/and result seem bizarre. Bizarre could work or not, but it seems to me that anyone who makes regular use of bizarre combinations for reasons other than mere ignorance and incompetence could be considered "avant garde."

Pho mentions Grant Achatz. I haven't been to Chicago since 1997 and wouldn't have been able to afford to go to Trio at the time, even if it had already opened (which I believe it hadn't). But I've read enough of Chef Achatz' remarks and the descriptions of others who've been to his restaurant to know that he combines the sweet and savory in ways that most diners do not expect and had not previously experienced prior to a visit to Trio. Of course, combining sweet and savory is a time-honored procedure all over the place. Nevertheless, it does seem like Achatz sticks his neck out, and he's the first to tell us that he has detractors as well as loyal fans.

But one thing that the avant garde did in the arts that I don't think we'll ever see in high-end restaurants is a desire to shock the bourgeoisie. :raz::rolleyes:

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Ferran Adria listed the following as descriptive of his cuisine:

*1. The element of surprise is very important.

*2. We should bring something new to almost every dish, not just offer a mixture of ingredients.

3. Sometimes I use many ingredients (elementos) in a dish, sometimes far fewer.

4. To really understand this cuisine, it must be eaten in a tasting menu.

5. Almost every dish is served in small quantities

6. There are no second-class products; we get as much from a sardine as from caviar.

*7. Nothing must be superfluous: everything must have a reason for being.

*8. The complexity of simplicity.

*9. This is a provocative cuisine, one that should lead people to think, rich in irony and humour.

*10. It is also a transparent cuisine.

*11. The cold savoury dishes (foams, jellies, ices, sorbets, soups) are without doubt what make our cooking distinctive; another differentiating element is the combination of many textures in a dish (menestra en texturas)

*12. Nobody should really know where the "meal" ends and where the "desserts" begin.

*13. We constantly search for new techniques…

*14. … and new ingredients

15. We don't use fish fumet.

16. Temperature contrast is important…

17. …as is textural contrast.

*18. We rarely follow the basic structure of "ingredient plus garnish". Garnish and sauce should be combined.

19. We have little interest in plates of meat.

20. But we have a passion for tapas, snacks, petits fours -- that is to say, for "little bites".

21. We look for consistency, for minimising technical faults as dishes are being cooked, seasoned, etc.

22. We use relatively few systems of cooking.

*23. We respect the basic ingredients. Although we constantly transform ingredients, our point of reference is always the primary taste of the product.

*24. Sauces that are soups, soups that are sauces. It is rarely possible to describe our dishes using the vocabulary of classical cuisine.

25. A passion for flavoured oils and vinaigrettes.

26. Almost every dish is matched to the rhythm and harmony of the meal. Each is carefully thought through.

27. Taste is the most important factor; cookery, before anything else, is about making things delicious.

Some of these reflect little more than personal preference, e.g. numbers 15 and 25. Some are about the cook's craft at a very high level, e.g. 6, 16, 17, 21, 26, and especially 27; it's hard to imagine any great chef disagreeing with these.

But the ones I have marked with an asterisk in the list above seem to me indicative of Adria's fundamental trans-formation of the cook's art, what Robert calls a manifestation of form.

Steven Shaw said elsewhere that almost all cookery is transformation, and I agree with that. You take carrots (long, crunchy, fibrous, cold); juice some of them; cut up the rest and simmer them in the juice; puree the whole thing and then strain it several times -- and you've ended up with carrot soup: liquid, silky-smooth, warm, etc. -- if you've done it right, you have preserved the essential taste of carrot but given it a totally different form. That's transformational, but hardly avant garde. Does whipping that soup it into a carrot "air" make it avant garde? Drying the soup into "crisps"? Coating the crisps with chocolate? No.

What is striking, shocking, "deeply transformational" about Adria's cuisine is that he innovates in form in so many different ways: the structure of the meal, the tenuous boundary between savouries and sweets, the dishes on which items are served. It is not one of the asterisked ideas, it is all of them in play at the same time that make this food so completely different -- "Martian", as one of the diners in our group put it.

And for me, most of all items 8 (simplicity) and 10 (transparency): the shock of the new in a simple and seemingly effortless style; served neither in a palace of crystal and glitter nor in a bizarre setting (e.g. the restaurant that serves food in the dark), but in a simple, rural restaurant.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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One man's concoction is another's avant-garde creation

Perhaps, but one of those men is twisting the definition. To really be part of the avant garde, there should be some following of some sort. You must, to some extent, be a leader or history will not credit you as anything but an oddity or outsider. There really should be a movement you inspire. I"m not talking about a following of copiers or imitators, although I suppose that would qualify. What I expect is for the avant garde to inspire a generation of others in his field, even if it's to go in other directions.

Adria qualfies because other chefs cannot ignore what he is doing and talk about what he is doing.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Pho, I have spent 24 hours in Chicago in my life, but I would love to return if only to see how Grant Achatz works.

Pan, one problem in trying to define the scope or narrow the scope as to what avant-garde cuisine is is that the term "avant-garde" was never used for cuisine in any significant way until about ten years ago. Furthermore, much of what great chefs created before then is in the realm of remembrances and oral history, which is why it is vital to talk to some of these chefs while they are still around to talk. (No one seems to be doing it, but I guarantee you that when Paul Bocuse, now 81 years old, slips his mortal coil, someone will say, "Why didn't someone with a recording device and microphone sit down with him for a few weeks ". And Roger Verge, Michel Guerard, Pierre Troisgros, and many other one could mention). It is interesting, though, that Ferran Adria has for at least ten years catalogued , references, and cross-referenced his avant-garde "oeuvre". So what we have, which dawned on me at dawn when I head for the loo and am at my peak of insightfulness, is that Adria is first chef to make his own "catalogue raisonne" which is what the "El Bulli: 1998-2002 and the subsequent volumes will be. (For those who don't know what a "catalogue raisone" is, it is a complete-as-possible compilation of an artist's life work. When undertaken by a scholar in the instance of an artist who is long gone, it takes lengthy, dogged work, which is why the catalogue is often updated since works come to light that were unknown at the time of publication of the previous edition(s). So in a way, Adria has put himself in a position where he almost single-handedly defines the conditions for avant-gardness in cuisine. Reading the attributes that Adria listed that are in Jonathan's post blazes a revealing path to how one might frame the phenomenon.

Your points concerning bizarre combinations and concoctions are valid, to say the least. I think we are seeing in cuisine the same manifestations that have been in art and design for over a century, which is a conscious effort to be on the leading edge, but mostly without the prerequisites of great skill, talent, or technique. I can remember during the year I took off from college to work for Jonas Mekas at the Filmmakers' Cinematheque (which morphed into the current Anthology Film Archive). Aspiring filmmakers used to show up with these awful no-budget films, to which Jonas could never say, "This is apiece of shit". Also, we used to have open screenings in which filmmakers would show up with a can of film and we would project them sight unseen. Most of them were, indeed, pieces of shit, but they all fell under the rubric of avant-garde films. I am afraid this is what we are beginning to see the culinary equivalent in restaurants and will undoubtedly get more of it. I imagine that is why I feel that Adria constitutes the avant-garde almost entirely for me, and maybe it is a prejudice based on my perceiving immense craft as a prerequisite for what I respond positively to.

I know I did not discuss the matter of form here, but let's see how this discussion develops further.

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One man's concoction is another's avant-garde creation

Perhaps, but one of those men is twisting the definition. To really be part of the avant garde, there should be some following of some sort. You must, to some extent, be a leader or history will not credit you as anything but an oddity or outsider.

Fundamentally, that's precisely what the avant gardistes - especially the more extreme ones - were: Oddities and outsiders. A few of them also inspired movements and, in some cases, sooner or later had large followings. Others were never well-known and are considered mere footnotes to history nowadays. But again, I must strongly dissent from the notion that the definition of "avant garde" includes either a judgment of the artist's high quality or the degree of following perhaps unexpectedly attained by someone who was expressly breaking with convention in order to express his/her personality and ego. There has to be a criterion for what makes something avant garde that's independent of its high or low quality and its degree of following, or we should discard the term.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Very interesting and stimulating posts, Jonathan and Robert. It does seem as if Chef Adria has developed criteria for what we could reasonably call avant garde cuisine.

I hope Chef Achatz comments on this thread.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Pan. let's not forget, too, that there is such a phenomenon as a collective avant-garde. You can probably discuss it best in terms of, say, New Music, where one artist would be seen as an oddity or a lone wolf, but collectively makes for a genuine movement that in the end makes it into the music history textbooks. Certainly Dada, Russian Futurism and German Expressionism in the 'teens and 'twenties were the same in the making of art. If this also holds true in cuisine, we can expect too see a lively broadening out from Spain (or Roses, Spain), which I don't see yet. Right now Adria appears as the loneliest of wolves, but an amazing one nonetheless.

And yes, I hope Grant jumps in.

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Yes, but there were also important avant gardistes who weren't part of a movement (other than what we could broadly call "Modernism"). Bartok, for example. Or Varese. Both influential but not heads of a school.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Let's face it Chef Adria has defined a movement. How huge is that! And more to my struggle, how do his predecessors establish themselves within the parameters of the given movement without being labeled a plagiarist. Let me tell a story...

Commonly I have been accussed of copying Chef Adria. Recently, with the second airing of INTO THE FIRE the stream has been steady, one person going as far as citing dishes in the el Bulli cookbook that bare similarity to those served at Trio. Two of which I found interesting ...a dish called "olor a Bosque" and philopizza. I have not had the opportunity to view the book yet. Actually intentionally, as I thought it would be intrusive to the development of my own style. But now with the thought that this dish may be very similar to Trio's evergreen vapor concept I wish I would have done my homework to avoid this possible overlap. (If anyone can tell me what this dish about I would appreciated it) Which brings me to a point relavent within discussion on AG cuisine but not necessarily this thread is ........

When people commit to creating outside the box, they unintentionally enter a smaller box.

As far as Avant garde food in this country.... I think Trio is the strongest representitive. Let's put it this way,...it is our goal. If we are not producing AG food then we are failing. I believe WD-50 will evolve wholeheatedly into this category with time, if the public allows it. (watch for Moto restaurant..seemingly emerging as an embassador in the movement) As far as I can tell, and I certainly may be wrong, these are the only two restaurants in the country that are willing to commit to the risks inherent to this style of food.

--

Grant Achatz

Chef/Owner

Alinea

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Just to underscore Robert's point: one thing that will help establish a stronger avant garde movement is documentation. The Adria brothers and Juli Soler seem to have been obsessive about cataloguing and documenting their experiments -- the kitchen at el Bulli itself, not to mention the studio (taller) in Barcelona, contains a shelf of their notebooks.

Without documentation, without a record of what people have tried how others have received it, it's hard to see how any avant garde movement can move beyond an individual.

eGullet is already playing a minor role in helping to document the avant garde movement, both in Spain and in America, and we expect this to increase. Avant garde cuisine will be a particular focus of the Special Features area over the next year.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Pan, I agree with you about Bartok et al. With cuisine, which compared to the plastic arts, is a highly rigid form, I am sure that all "avant-garde" cuisiniers, whomever they may and will be, wll be lumped together always.

Grant, keep us informed in matters such as Moto. What about David Meyers? My wife and I were discussing about what, if anyu, avant-garde characteristics there are in Wylie Dufresne cooking. Do you care to comment?

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I think the lack of an agreed-upon definition of avant-garde, both in general and in the culinary context, is creating a disconnect in the conversation.

It seems to me that what Andrew & Karen are talking about when they say avant-garde is different from what Robert is talking about when he says it, which in turn is different from what Pan means by it. Not to mention, Adria and Achatz may have something else in mind altogether.

If the culinary avant-garde is defined as "what Adria is doing" then a number of question are already answered: Where is the epicenter of the avant-garde? In Spain, and specifically in Adria's restaurant and laboratory. What is the culinary avant-garde? See all the photos in The Big Book of Adria (and CD-ROM). Who are the avant-gardists? They're the chefs who have been influenced by Adria, such as Achatz. End of story.

If the culinary avant-garde is defined as "Adria plus the molecular gastronomy movement plus related non-traditional culinary movements" we get some different, broader, answers.

Ten years ago, the term avant-garde would probably have meant something very different to almost everybody when applied to cuisine. It would have meant fusion. How quaint that notion seems today. But at that time, is there any question that the vanguard of cuisine was to be found in fusion and that America was the epicenter?

It seems to me that the Brown definition contains a critical component that limits use of the term avant-garde to practicioners he finds to be skilled. I think Pan does a good job of explaining why that's not part of the definition of avant-garde. Rather, it would be the way to distinguish between avant-garde we like and avant-garde we don't like. Not liking it, or not respecting it, doesn't affect something's avant-garde status.

Would it be trite to look at the trusty dictionary definition for a moment? Merriam-Webster says avant-garde is "an intelligentsia that develops new or experimental concepts especially in the arts." There's an implicit claim here that avant-gardists must be intellectuals. This strikes me as a rather difficult criterion for most chefs to live up to. How many chefs are there who, like Achatz, can sit at a computer and type multiple in-depth intelligent and intelligible message-board posts about the meaning of the culinary avant-garde? That would be the most basic standard for qualifying someone as an intellectual -- you just can't separate intellectualism from education and literacy -- yet even that standard rules out all but a handful of the world's working chefs.

I think, from the context of what Andrew & Karen have said, that their definition of avant-garde is something else entirely. I have a feeling they simply mean that America is highly influential in the development of cuisine -- that the axis of influence is no loger running exclusively from France to everywhere else, and that at this point even the top French chefs are looking to America as a source of inspiration. In that regard, you can't find a more potent example than Ducasse. And you'll find no shortage of quotes from Michelin three-star chefs to the effect that the New World is where much of the world's culinary excitement is right now. While I wouldn't call them avant-gardists, I do think it's fair to say that chefs like Nobu, Jean-Georges, and even Rocco DiSpirito are still the chefs the culinary world is watching. The culinary world is watching Adria too, but his influence is far less direct. Trio may very well be the only explicitly avant-garde restaurant in the US that hasn't gone out of business or fired its chef. How many Nobus are there? And how many Nobu knockoffs? A lot more than one, and they're all over the world.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
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Is this definiton of avant-garde helpful?

The French word for vanguard. A group or work that is innovative or inventive on one or more levels: subject, medium, technique, style, or relationship to context.

An avant-garde work pushes the known boundaries of acceptable art sometimes with revolutionary, cultural, or political implications.

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I have been on an eGullet sabbatical for quite some time, but I thought I'd drop in to absorb all the interesting developments, this thread included. There is a lot of discussion involving what constitutes the avant garde in various artistic media but with little consideration for the differences between the arts. Many musicians, painters, and writers have been referenced as somehow relevant, but it is important to remember that there is one constraint that separates high-end cuisine (where food's avant garde is almost always found) from every other art: money. Restaurants are first and foremost commercial ventures, whereas any person with a pen and paper can scribble a silly ditty that ignores syntax in under a minute. Any discussion of food as art and what comprises innovative cooking must be made against this backdrop. As is quickly being learned in Hollywood, risk and commercial success seem to have an inverse relationship. (William Goldman is among the best-spoken on this subject.) So, to say there is a strong relationship between quality and food's avant garde is not out-of-line because it is institutions with large labor forces and expensive ingredients that are making some of the biggest strides in cuisine (even though I expect smaller mom-and-pop restaurants will become increasingly relevant in the next twenty years).

Much peace,

Ian Lowe

ballast/regime

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"Get yourself in trouble."

--Chuck Close

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There is a lot of discussion involving what constitutes the avant garde in various artistic media but with little consideration for the differences between the arts.  Many musicians, painters, and writers have been referenced as somehow relevant, but it is important to remember that there is one constraint that separates high-end cuisine (where food's avant garde is almost always found) from every other art:  money.  Restaurants are first and foremost commercial ventures

Precisely, and well said. And that's why we'll never see high-end restaurants making an effort to gratuitously shock the bourgeoisie, like various avant gardistes in music, visual arts, and theater did.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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There is a lot of discussion involving what constitutes the avant garde in various artistic media but with little consideration for the differences between the arts.  Many musicians, painters, and writers have been referenced as somehow relevant, but it is important to remember that there is one constraint that separates high-end cuisine (where food's avant garde is almost always found) from every other art:  money.  Restaurants are first and foremost commercial ventures

Precisely, and well said. And that's why we'll never see high-end restaurants making an effort to gratuitously shock the bourgeoisie, like various avant gardistes in music, visual arts, and theater did.

but today's bourgeoisie likes to be shocked, a little bit, once in a while, so that they can feel (and show) that they are in fact avant garde.

on the other hand, the shock effects of the avant garde is, or was, not an end nor to any great extend a mean. it is, or was, just inevitable as a result of the process of tearing down the rules.

christianh@geol.ku.dk. just in case.

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and let's remember that lots of cutting-edge, well-financed establishments (like many Michelin three-stars here in Europe) make no profit whatsoever, and depend on other, more popular, crowd-pleasing baby-bistros to help them bring in the bacon (Guy Savoy's bistro empire, Michel Rostang's "Bistro d'a Cote", etc).

Does the same happen in the US?

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Fat Guy:

C'mon, I know you know the difference between being driven by money and being entirely dependent upon money. Individual artists often pursue commercial success, but need not rely upon it to be successful or influential. An historical look at the avant garde within any artistic media will show that many artists were destitute, drunk, and living hand-to-mouth. (Not everyone can be Charles Ives.) This example does not (necessarily) apply to restaurants (even if many chefs are poor or drunk) because money has a positive correlation with influence for people like Ferran Adria, Alain Ducasse, Charlie Trotter, and so on. They need dollars to spread their gospel.

IML

b/r

"Get yourself in trouble."

--Chuck Close

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Can you give some examples of successful, influential avant-garde artists who were destitute, drunk, and living hand-to-mouth?

Composers who write music for orchestras can write all the music they want, but without concert halls and symphonies how can they have influence?

Although the Internet presents some possibilities, is it for the most part possible for writers to be successful and influential without publishers? And do publishers not require that what they publish be commercially viable?

Don't painters need galleries in order to publicize their work? Don't galleries exist because people buy paintings?

A chef can create without a penny. Recipes can be conceived in the mind. Plenty of influential culinary authorities haven't even owned restaurants.

I see no meaningful distinction based on the issue of money.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Fat Guy, the way I define a "successful" avant garde artist or composer is in whether I consider him/her artistically successful. And in point of fact, most artists and composers do not earn their living from the art they produce. Some were independently wealthy as a result of inheritance; some, like Ives, had very well-paying day jobs; some earned their livings as teachers; and some were poor. In fact, the only example I can think of off-hand of an avant-garde composer becoming rich as a result of his music is Stravinsky, and I think that's in significant part because he backed off from the radicality of Rite of Spring and Les Noces and came up with a Neoclassical style that was generally easier for people to listen to than any other Modernist style - witness that a bunch of Americans like Copland further simplified it and became wealthy, but who would call someone like Copland "avant garde"?

How many restaurants can run on a negative or negligable profit margin? Not many, I would think, though fresh_a's point is interesting. How many people can paint, sculpt, write, or compose without earning anything much from it? Loads. And the point of avant garde art is that it's whatever the artist wants to create, regardless of whether it will make him/her any money or not. Anyone who lets a desire to earn money affect his/her art is not (or, as arguably in Stravinsky's case, no longer) an avant garde artist (with the possible exception of doing some "pandering" work to support the "real stuff," but that's fraught with dangerous temptation to the artist), and I would claim that this is absolute and definitional.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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