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Avant-Garde Cooking in America.


robert brown
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The webster definition is a useful one (as mentioned before): "an intelligentsia that develops new or experimental concepts especially in the arts".

Partially building on what's been said before, I'd like to make a few points:

1) What is intellectual and aesthetic and what is economical and efficient are often at odds. Chefs would have a better chance in the case they were able to create a "royal" cuisine, either trying to create impressive dishes for state dinners, wealthy weddings and parties, and the like than trying to create menus that people want to eat night after night. But even if they were catering parties for wealthy people who were out to impress, those dishes would still, as has been stated before, only be a part of the memories of the "audience" or the repetoire of the chef. Although, again, what's brilliant may not be economical and so reproduction may not be feasible.

2) The United States does not have a strong intellectual tradition. We are a pragmatic country. We are good workers. We are good at doing what will make us money. We are productive and efficient. We have a tendency to snear and make fun of intellectualism, even among the wealthy and well-educated and powerful. There are, of course, exceptions, and the US is a diverse nation, but in the aggregate, I think this holds true. Being an artist isn't a noble pursuit in our eyes, it's a lazy, foolhardy pursuit. Being a poet isn't going to get you many women, not like being a lawyer. Not making a judgment here, just stating a reality. As such, I would guess that if the avant garde includes or must include a certain intellectual culinary pursuit, the US is unlikely to be a leader, just like we have never been a leader in philosophy while we have led in more practical pursuits such as medicine, engineering, and science. It may be more likely that our "avant garde" would be more entertainer than intellectual, more Siegfried & Roy than Sigmund Freud.

3) That said, the US has a largely unique postion of a) being a cultural cuisinart, and b) having a lot of money in diverse hands. Is there any country where chefs can so easily find new and interesting ingredients, dishes, and cooking techniques? Is there any country where such a variety of cooks come together to make restaurants work day in and day out? Where the clientelle is so varied? I don't know, but I doubt it. Hence, I think while an intellectual leadership from US chefs overall is unlikely, a pragmatic and organic culinary leadership is very likely. Fusion is an example that has taken on an artificial and pretentious aura, though I don't know that that's entirely fair. There is a fusion that is organic and pragmatic, eg, restaurants in the Pacific using Asian flavors and ingredients or restaurants in the Southwest using Mexican flavors and ingredients. Etc. But even beyond that, people like myself who cook dinner every night, who have a taste for Indian, Southeast Asian, true Mexican, Middle Eastern, etc, etc, flavors, but who may also just be using up what's in the pantry and frig or what's at Kroger or Whole Foods or even Safeway and trying to make something good and interesting. That then reflects an actual transformation of the culinary life of peoples. It's not avant garde; it's not intellectual. But it's transformative while remaining pragmatic and organic. I don't know that that's any less important than the avant garde. It may be more important in the long run (sorry chefg), since this is exactly the history of cuisines. This is exactly the type of organic tranformation that has created such a strong association between tomatoes and Italian food or chiles and Thai food or pork and Mexican food. Etc.

Ultimately, I'm torn over the avant garde. I was a philosophy student who both admired and was suspicious of the ultra-intellectual, the Derridas of the world. I was fascinated and energized watching the Trio episode of Into the Fire, just as I was when I watched the French Laundry episode of A Cook's Tour. (chefg every boy scout has tried pine needle tea, you know, and what about cedar aroma with salmon, too normal? Just make sure it's cedar, not hemlock.) But then again, I have a tendency to also lament that it's not "real food". I have a tendency to side with the advocates of Chez Panisse over French Laundry. I guess it's partly the American in me strengthened by the Oregonian in me to devalue style and showmanship and cleverness.

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ExtraMSG, I think your post is insightful and thought-provoking. I wouldn't sell short the USA in terms of its contribution to various avant-garde movements in a variety of art forms. Since Abstract Expressionism, the United States has pretty much "owned" the recent history of art (with Germany a noticeably but still distant second) and new music and modern jazz). However, I agree with you about cuisine where American chefs have been more followers and consolidators than true innovators. We do well with providing an economically robust and diverse gastronomic "industry" as we also do with the art forms that are home-grown such as jazz (better Jackie & Roy than Siegfried & Roy) and film.

I'm not sure I understand your point number one. Are you saying that the ephmeral nature of food leaves us only with memories and that the economic aspect of cuisine precludes an avant-garde cuisine from ever taking hold (in the USA, particularly)?

As for intellectual leadership, are you basing that on culinary intellect as it is derived from native intelligence and formal education or just the superority of chefs in France, Spain, Italy, Japan, etc? I suspect that because American chefs are delayed entrants to the profession, they may be better educated than those that begin learning the trade at high-school age. But if you're talking about culinary "mother wit", then you are probably right.

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I'm not sure I understand your point number one. Are you saying that the ephmeral nature of food leaves us only with memories and that the economic aspect of cuisine precludes an avant-garde cuisine from ever taking hold (in the USA, particularly)?

Not so much "particularly" as "especially". I was mostly just using the point as a building block for the others. In one sense, the US has an advantage in that it is such a wealthy country and wealth allows for play and whimsy. Avant garde in the culinary world would require this, I would think. There could be an avant garde chef at home, but only one family may ever know the wonderful creations he makes. Because a chef's creations are temporary, a chef must embrace the economic in a way that musicians, painters, and writers do not. More comparable would be an architect. But at least with an architect once he has sold himself and his ideas, his work is among the most permanent. Poor countries are very unlikely to ever have an avant garde because people can only really eat to live. They may have wonderful and inventive dishes, but there's no intellectual life around them. They're inventions of necessity, economics, and competition. An exception would be a royal cuisine. Historically, royal cuisines have allowed for what I think could appropriately be called an avant garde. You have chefs trying to impress, doing what hasn't been done, often bringing ingredients and techniques together from around the world. But even though the US has an advantage in being wealthy, we are, as I said, a people who ultimately prefers the efficient meal to the impressive meal. And when we do go for what's impressive, I think it's more The Matrix than La Dolce Vita.

As for intellectual leadership, are you basing that on culinary intellect as it is derived from native intelligence and formal education or just the superority of chefs in France, Spain, Italy, Japan, etc? I suspect that because American chefs are delayed entrants to the profession, they may be better educated than those that begin learning the trade at high-school age. But if you're talking about culinary "mother wit", then you are probably right.

I'm not saying that American chefs are any less educated or less bright than European chefs. It's interesting to note some of the best and brightest of American chefs never went to culinary school, people like Keller and Trotter, but I don't know that it says much. I'm just saying that by nature Americans are less intellectual in tone or motives, but not less intelligent. Someone can be very bright yet not be concerned with a life that revolves around concepts, ideas, and deep discussions. People in the US generally use their intellgence to make more money. Intellgence is a means to an end, not an end in itself. We're pragmatic. The starving artist has little nobility in the US. However, everyone loves some moron who gets lucky on Survivor. Again, these are generalizations and there are exceptions, and with the size of our country large pockets of exceptions. Look at places like Berkeley.

So, while we may have brilliant chefs a) their clientelle doesn't want something intellectual from them, and b) they're not culturally inclined to provide anything intellectual. Doesn't mean it doesn't or won't happen. Trio seems like a perfect counter-example. But there are very few Trios out there and even fewer restaurants at that level who continue to push. I've been to a couple great restaurants that wonderful dishes like The Inn at Little Washington and The French Laundry, yet the most interesting stuff had been around for a long time. They were "signature" dishes. A signature dish, to me, is like a number one song. It's fine and cool for what it is, but if the chef doesn't continue to create, he's just a one-hit wonder. Part of the problem with food, of course, is that you have to keep playing that song because otherwise no one will ever hear it. And they've already heard about it, so they want to "hear" it when they get the chance. That's not conducive to innovation, I don't think.

You know I'm just rambling here. I don't know that I have a very coherent argument, it's just my impressions.

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ExtraMSG, I think your post is insightful and thought-provoking. I wouldn't sell short the USA in terms of its contribution to various avant-garde movements in a variety of art forms. Since Abstract Expressionism, the United States has pretty much "owned" the recent history of art (with Germany a noticeably but still distant second) and new music and modern jazz).

I was going to say more or less the same thing. Aided by the flight of intellectuals and artists from Fascist and Stalinist tyranny, the U.S. has been the primary center of the art and music world since the 1940s. And that definitely included the avant garde. In terms of composers, we had Edgard Varese, Bela Bartok, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Stefan Wolpe and, during the War, Paul Hindemith. And that's only including non-American-born composers.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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