Is Cooking an Art?

In my observation, people love to refer to cooking as an “art”. This does indeed sound romantic and sexy. But while the reality of cooking is both of those things, I do need to set this record straight: Cooking is not an art — it’s a craft.

While on the surface, the difference between the words may be semantic, I respectfully disagree.

Art can be anything. Literally. Consider some of the things that have been displayed as “art” over the years — and who am I to protest!? I don’t. I’m neither an artist, nor an art critic. But the thing about art is that anything can be art, given the appropriate perspective. There is no clear-cut anything that defines what is or what isn’t “art”. An artist can literally throw a lump of clay against a wall, say “that’s my piece”, and who’s to say that it’s not art? It might not be great art, but no matter how wildly popular an opinion it may be, it’s still a subjective one. This is where cooking is different…

A cook, could throw a plate of whatever they want out to a table. But if it doesn’t look and taste good, nobody is going to give a shit about the chef’s “artistic creation”. There’s no objective judgemental body, when it comes to art. When it comes to food, there are several.

I happily offer the alternative perspective that cooking isn’t an art — it’s a craft.

Let’s consider “crafts”. Generally speaking (although I am thinking about professional crafts as I write this, like pottery or wood-working, as opposed to “arts & crafts” stuff like pipe-cleaners and popsicle sticks), crafts are things that allow for creative expression, but still need to abide by certain rules — lest be not followed, the result would be a catastrophe. If a potter doesn’t understand proper technique at the throwing wheel, or fails to kiln-fire their creation long enough, the pot will be objectively terrible; probably to the point of not being up for consideration as a pot. If a tanner doesn’t understand the proper mix of chemicals, and how long to soak a hide in them, then they will never turn that hide into leather. Now, once these essential techniques are understood and mastered, they can be manipulated creatively, which is when an artistic element is indeed introduced, and a craftsman/woman can distinguish themselves by making their own work unique.

I can take the rare opportunity to guarantee that anyone who enters the world of cooking with an artistic spirit, is not likely to succeed. Because just like with a craft (that, once again, does bare an artistic element), if the core fundamentals are not learned, understood and obeyed, a master will never be made.

There are several examples of this when it comes to cooking, starting with knife cuts. If one doesn’t first master a medium dice, a julienne, or a brunoise, then the techniques and recipes requiring those knife cuts will not be fulfilled. Understanding and mastering various cooking techniques is also of paramount importance. Knowing the difference between a simmer and a poach will directly impact the success or failure of an oil-poached salmon. Understanding the proper temperature, cooking surface, and oil required to properly sear a tuna steak will allow you the freedom to do so.

On the other hand, if one were to approach making a hollandaise sauce “artistically”, they would more than likely wind up with an abomination of unmarried oil and egg yolk. But, if one were to master the technique of delicately heating an egg yolk while whisking, and then very slowly and gently emulsifying clarified butter into it — and then approaching it artistically, you’d probably wind up with an interesting, and quite possibly delicious, velvety rich hollandaise sauce.

Once again, let me make myself clear, that I understand there’s an artistic element to cooking, and creating great cuisine. Most of the best chefs in the world have risen to such success because of their unique, artistic interpretation of the way certain foods are cooked or presented. But each and every one of them would be among the first to tell you, that their ability to do so is predicated on having learned to correctly execute the fundamental techniques required therein. While it might be sexy and alluring for those chefs (and others, far less-deserving) to be anointed “artists”, I think we’d all be more comfortable — and far more accurate — leaving art to the artists, and sticking to our (sometimes) artistic craft.

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