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Avant-Garde Cooking in America.


robert brown
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I want to add that I disagree with Oraklet that no avant gardistes had the goal of shocking the bourgeoisie. Some were quoted as saying that they did various things in order to shock the bourgoisie. And the point in those days wasn't that they would enjoy being shocked so that they could consider themselves cool.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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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.

But if the standard is simply artistic success regardless of audience, anybody can contribute to the avant-garde whether it's the musical avant-garde, the avant-garde of painting, or the avant-garde of cuisine. The composer who doesn't have his work performed or enjoy any commercial success or the painter who doesn't sell or exhibit very many paintings is the same as an avant-garde culinarian without a restaurant. The culinary artist's art is created in the mind and expressed on the plate. That the same plate gets served to nobody, one person, or a thousand people is only as relevant as the number of people who hear a composition or view a painting.

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, aren't you missing a central part of the original concept of avant garde: the idea that an artist is ahead of his time? If s/he was, her/his work may have been accepted by later generations. Furthermore, not being able to make a living from one's creations does not mean that the artwork isn't shown and the music isn't performed; it means that not enough work is sold at high enough prices to constitute a living. Charles Ives could not have made a living as a composer, yet he lived long enough to see himself lionized and offered a Pulitzer prize (which he rejected). Schoenberg and the rest of the 12-tone Expressionists are lately ridiculed due to a backlash, but Mahler - another musical Expressionist - who made a good living as a conductor and could not have gotten the least bit rich on his compositions, now plays to sold-out halls.

Now, could there be an analogy in cuisine? I'm not sure. How could an avant-garde chef find an audience unless s/he had a restaurant, and how could s/he have a restaurant unless it was profitable, the ownership was rich and willing to take a hit, or there were one or more rich backers so committed to the cuisine that they would shell out money to keep the place open?

Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I think it's important to distinguish between "avant-garde restaurants" and "the culinary avant-garde." The latter surely includes all sorts of people who don't work in restaurants. The American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian both display chocolate sculptures by Steve Klc. A chef can be a teacher. Bo Friberg has been one of the most influential pastry chefs of the past three decades not on account of serving food to people in restaurants or pastry shops but, rather, by virtue of being a teacher. Likewise, has Julia Child ever worked in a restaurant? Both Friberg and Child are seen as establishmentarian now, but I think it's fair to say that, at one time, they were avant-garde within the American culinary milieu. And even non-chefs are part of the culinary avant-garde: critics, commentators, academics, etc.

[edited and expanded]

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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Once, very late in her career, Julia Child spent a few hours cooking on the line in a restaurant. That's it, according to the Child biography by Noel Riley Fitch.

In public presentations and interviews Child often stressed she was not a chef (the name "The French Chef" was chosen for her television series because it fit the narrow columns of the TV listings) but rather a cookery writer and teacher.

Jonathan Day

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

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I want to add that I disagree with Oraklet that no avant gardistes had the goal of shocking the bourgeoisie. Some were quoted as saying that they did various things in order to shock the bourgoisie. And the point in those days wasn't that they would enjoy being shocked so that they could consider themselves cool.

you're right, some of them said so. part of their "plan" was to shock the bourgeoisie out of its classicist way of seing art. but only a part, if you look at any serious avant garde. the goals were artistic, and in many cases political.

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

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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.

One issue is that food has to be ingested. Though I suppose there are avant-garde possibilities that don't involve ingesting food, edibility is the current dividing line between food and not-food.

The requirement that food be ingested carries with it a number of limitations. Perishability means that food, unlike music, painting, film, et al., can't be preserved -- it essentially has to be cooked to order. Consumption means that the object of the art is destroyed soon after it is created. The human digestive system is much more limited in terms of what it can handle than, say, the human eye: it doesn't matter how ugly a painting is, it's never actually going to hurt you.

On a related point, is it even possible for a restaurant to be truly avant-garde, in the sense that avant-garde implies a certain radicalism and anti-establishmentariansim that seem somewhat incompatible with the bourgeoise enterprise of running a restaurant where affluent consumers make reservations, dine in comfort, are served by a compliant staff, drink expensive wines, and pay the bill with American Express?

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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On a related point, is it even possible for a restaurant to be truly avant-garde, in the sense that avant-garde implies a certain radicalism and anti-establishmentariansim that seem somewhat incompatible with the bourgeoise enterprise of running a restaurant where affluent consumers make reservations, dine in comfort, are served by a compliant staff, drink expensive wines, and pay the bill with American Express?

Great question. I think that some of these things are possible. I could imagine a relatively inexpensive restaurant that uses unusual and imaginative combinations of ingredients, insists on serving only a limited selection of meals of the day with no substitutions or changes allowed, doesn't have expensive drinks, and doesn't take credit cards. It might even seat people on cushions on the floor or in some other way which, though comfortable, isn't what the bourgeoisie, if you like, are used to in these parts. And conceivably, it might even decline to take reservations. And if there were such a restaurant, it might be somewhere in New York.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I wonder if the realm of private functions isn't the most likely podium for the culinary avant-garde. I remember Paul Liebrandt was doing some fairly radical private dinners at Papillon for awhile -- wasn't there a report of one with blindfolds and such? I'd almost be tempted to organize such an event for a group of willing eGulleters in New York: something so ahead-of-its-time and anti-establishment that it would make El Bulli look relatively conservative. Not to knock El Bulli: as a tribute to the restaurant, my real live bulldog could somehow participate in the dinner (no we can't eat him).

(Chefg, are you coming to New York anytime soon?)

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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I'd almost be tempted to organize such an event for a group of willing eGulleters in New York.

You might want to consider putting a group of six on the Acela for a quick trip down to DC. I'm sure Jose, Kats, and the rest of the minibar crew would take good care of you.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

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I think we need to differentiate between those avant-gardists who almost single-handedly move artistic and design fields further along, or in new directions, and those that follow along stylistically working in the idiom, adopting the formula or conventions of the genuine innovators, which is not to say that this second-tier can not produce exciting, appealing or distinctive work. I think this holds true in cuisine, with Adria recognized as having made a major formal breakthrough in cooking single-handedly, but with other interesting cuisiniers recently coming into prominence. (Often an avant-garde gets split off into national characteristics and groupings such as the Bauhaus in Germany and the De Stijl movement in Holland---just like cuisine).

I believe that what we are been discussing here is the bar to entry. If we take Fat Guy’s proposition that a cook can be in the avant-garde by creating recipes without being a restaurateur, we have something akin to architecture in which some of the most awe-inspiring ideas such as what emerged from the minds of Russian Supremetist and Constructivist architects of the 1920s, which never left the drawing phase, versus the avant-garde concepts that actually got built. There are some avant-garde fields (in fact the ones that bring to mind avant-gardness the most frequently) where the means required are mainly the expenditure of time and effort; i.e. literature, music composition, painting). Others, however, require expenditures and fund-raising beyond the means of most individual artists, be they the commissioning of a John Adams orchestral composition, Christo’s wrap projects, or the Yoshio Tanaguchi expansion of the Museum of Modern Art.

We probably need to differentiate between the theortical and that which is realized. The former can have a part to play in the latter; in fact the theoretical can and does influence avant-garde artists and designers, but because those who conceived them were not able to have them see the light of day rarely are recognized to the degree that the real practitioners are. In avant-garde cuisine the bar to entry is high and the pioneers, even if you don’t want to call them avant-gardists, all made their food available to the public. What may be worthwhile discussing is if Adria makes his recipes freely available, is that a contribution to the avant-garde if he is the only one who can make them the way they are meant to be.

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What may be worthwhile discussing is if Adria makes his recipes freely available, is that a contribution to the avant-garde if he is the only one who can make them the way they are meant to be.

Sure! Why wouldn't it be? As you said, he's made a formal breakthrough, and has already influenced others. It's not necessary for the compositions of avant gardistes to be precisely copied.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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On the other hand, you have ChefG who won't look at "el Bulli:1998-2002" because he's worried that it may compromise his originality, I remember when some of the Michelin three-star chefs in France would make each other's dishes, giving credit on their menus to whichever chef whoe dish they replicated. I'm wondering, though, if slavishy folllowing a recipe and coming up with a somewhat different result is comparable, or as legitimate, as reinterpretinga musical compositiion. Then take painting in which artists who are overtly influenced by an artist with a bigger name and are therefore denigrated for it.

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Okay here's what we do for our first avant-garde "Farm to Table" eGullet dinner: we load a bunch of people into the Fatmobile and we drive out to Achatz's place with the goal of arriving when it's closed, at like 3:00am. We bring with us several live chickens from the live-poultry market in the Bronx. That way the avant-garde experience can begin in the van. Each passenger will take charge of a chicken, name it, and bond with it during the long drive. Achatz will cover the whole dining room with a big plastic tarp and he'll bring out a stove and a bunch of chairs. We'll all sit around in a circle and he'll kill and butcher the chickens and proceed to make us a 12-course meal, which we'll eat with our hands, where every course including dessert is chicken. If the chickens lay some eggs on the way out, he can use those too. Does Monday work for everybody?

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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On the other hand, you have ChefG who won't look at "el Bulli:1998-2002" because he's worried that it may compromise his originality, I remember when some of the Michelin three-star chefs in France would make each other's dishes, giving credit on their menus to whichever chef whoe dish they replicated. I'm wondering, though, if slavishy folllowing a recipe and coming up with a somewhat different result is comparable, or as legitimate, as reinterpretinga musical compositiion.

Isn't what you're arguing the question of whether it has to be avant-garde or "original" in order to be "legitimate"? I vote no. But if what you really mean to argue is whether attempting to exactly copy someone else's work can be avant garde, I think the answer to that is an obvious "no." Avant gardite' doesn't equal "legitimacy" to me, however.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Fat Guy, my brother did have a meal in a Japanese chicken restaurant which sounded like it wasn't that far away from what you mentioned, at least in terms of all courses being different types of chicken.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Okay here's what we do for our first avant-garde "Farm to Table" eGullet dinner: we load a bunch of people into the Fatmobile and we drive out to Achatz's place with the goal of arriving when it's closed, at like 3:00am. We bring with us several live chickens from the live-poultry market in the Bronx. That way the avant-garde experience can begin in the van. Each passenger will take charge of a chicken, name it, and bond with it during the long drive. Achatz will cover the whole dining room with a big plastic tarp and he'll bring out a stove and a bunch of chairs. We'll all sit around in a circle and he'll kill and butcher the chickens and proceed to make us a 12-course meal, which we'll eat with our hands, where every course including dessert is chicken. If the chickens lay some eggs on the way out, he can use those too. Does Monday work for everybody?

Menu to follow....

--

Grant Achatz

Chef/Owner

Alinea

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I'm in. (I believe him.)

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

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"No. We were in the right place at the right time — and this was just the third course in what would be a 26-course, 15-wine, four-hour dinner. Our dinner had begun with a thin sheet of green zebra tomato wrapped around a piece of watermelon, suspended in a juniper gel. It went on — and on and on — to include caviar with kola nut ice and milk foam; a liquefied "salad" made from greens that had been juiced, frozen and turned into a granité, a sort of a vegetable snow cone on a plate ... and eight desserts, including one made with foie gras and another composed of mustard seed cake encased in thin sheets of Venezuelan chocolate."

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