Does Great Food Rise To The Level of Great Art? A Conversation with David Thorne

When I was in New York, back in February, I got into a very intense conversation with some friends (one of whom works in the art world) about whether great food rises to the level of great art. Specifically, we were talking about food at the highest level–the kind of food you saw in my French Laundry post yesterday–and whether those who make it share the same status as those who make art at the highest level. When I got back from my trip, I was lucky enough to meet artist and chef David Thorne at the Molly Stevens cookbook dinner I attended back at Elysian (David’s “occasional” restaurant) in March.


(That’s David above plating a dish with Colleen Hennessey.)

David is the perfect person to talk to about food and art. His art work (much of which you can see here) has won him a Rockefeller Media Arts Fellowship, an Art Matters grant, a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennial Award, and, in 2009, a Guggenheim fellowship. His food life began in the 80s when he dropped out of college to work at Cate Farm, “growing radicchio before foodies existed let alone even knew what radicchio was” (that’s straight from his bio). He’s been a line cook at Canelé (where I had that astonishing pancake) and a prep cook at Ammo with Chef Daniel Mattern.

What follows is the e-mail exchange we had over the last month or two. It may seem long, but David’s answers are very much worth reading; I hope I was able to keep up.

Hi David, thanks for doing this. I guess we should start with the big question: can great food rise to the level of great art?

As a result of my training at L’Ecole Culinaire et Theorie, particularly the puff pastry instruction of Michel Foucault, my inclination is to answer your question by posing a whole raft of others that pull the original question apart, a la Thomas Keller “deconstructing” a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Someone will object: “You, sir, are no Thomas Keller,” and I say well of course not and that’s quite fine with me, I do not aspire to greatness nor want it put on me and rather often wonder what great means and why it is so often assumed that it is something to aspire to, or why it gets put onto so many people and onto so many things–what a great movie, that scallop tasted great, I have a great ass–when perhaps simply being good would do, and even do more in the fleeting world than greatness could ever aspire to.

Does food have an inferiority complex? That seems to be an implication of the question— great food is inferior to, lesser than, lower than, great art. Is this why so many chefs appear in publicity photos with tatted arms folded across their slightly puffed out chests, tough, even a little warrior-like at times, as though to say “I am as bad ass as any Damien Hirst”? Contrary to popular belief, this stance has, perhaps, very little to do with the grinding work of a kitchen. The question also suggests that food wants to share a pedestal, a spotlight, an overdetermined cachet, with art. But it has these things already, all by itself. Indeed, food often goes art one better, at least on the playing field of popular culture. Does your cable provider offer a channel called “Art Network”? Perhaps soon it will, and that will be a sure sign that the monolith of art wants to broaden it’s appeal, though of course art also always wants to have its cake and eat it too–broad appeal with simultaneous increase in exclusivity and inaccessibility. Great food is ahead of great art in this particular game: a lot of people have heard of El Bulli but only a handful ever got to go there. The food in question, the great food, has got the art in question, the great art, beat hands down, and is already, one could argue, working on a higher level of exclusivity and inaccessibility, since the experience of great food will never happen in a huge exhibition in a museum, widely accessible to at least a fragment of a general public, who can go to the museum and take it in, The experience of Per Se is not for general consumption, but rather unfolds only in the private collection-style context of an extremely limited nightly seating.

The question, however, doesn’t see it that way. In the question, art is above, art is in the more exalted place, and we are asked if we can imagine food rising up and sitting with art on the same throne. Let’s bastardize Emeril Legasse and kick everything down a notch. What if we think of food and art not as things we need to confer greatness upon, but as modes of experience, or, to bring that smart aleck phrasing down to earth, as things that we do, things we make and put out into the world. Why should we try to put the two in the same place, on the same level? We are talking about apples and oranges.

I should be cautious about using the word “experience,” let alone “modes,” because there is whole economy built around this word, and it is called the “experience economy.” In my view, this is simply a rhetorical upgrade of the term “service economy.” And cooks, whether deemed great or not, offer a service. We can glam it up and call it a “dining experience,” but in the end we are serving you food to put in your piehole. Artists also offer a service, and even if we puff it up and say, “My work is an intervention in the discourse of x, y, and z,” or, “So-and-so’s work offers the viewer a rich experience of disorientation and decentering of normative subjectivity,” in the end artists make things for us to look at, feel about, and think about. All greatness aside, a work of art has no more or less power to affect a viewer, or to change the world if that’s where your desires for art run to, than a plate of delicious food has to affect an eater. They just work on us differently.

Maybe we need to clarify whether we’re talking about art as in fine art (museum stuff) or art in the broader sense: like Beethoven’s 9th is a work of art, or great literature is considered great art. One argument I’ve heard against food as art (in the broader sense) is that food is functional, whereas art isn’t; the most refined, worked-over plate of food is still meant to nourish you physically, while great art serves no purpose other than to transform/enlighten the spectator. Do you think food’s functionality lessens its claim to being art?

Yes, I agree the terms can be much broader than my initial response took them to be. I was thinking fine dining and fine art, and those are terribly constrained terms with terribly constrained meanings that I would advocate we all abandon. In the broader sense you suggest, I would still argue that there is something of an apples and oranges aspect to the issue of great food and great art, and that we should be cautious about trying to force some kind of equivalence, or put the two into competition.

As for functionality, though, I am less inclined to make a hard line between food and art in this respect. Yes, food literally feeds, and one needs it, but art does something similar and also fills a need, sometimes even a physical one. I would not go so far as to say that one needs art to in order to live, but is the status of food diminished in relation to art simply because it fills a fundamental need? I would also hesitate to say that art serves no other purpose than to enlighten or transform the spectator. It serves other purposes, though they may be purposes that run counter to an idealized notion of art as force of enlightenment. We don’t live in the age of enlightenment, or even in a particularly enlightened society or time, despite all the fine art and fine food we try to cook up. A lot of art, at least the fine art kind, is subject to market forces much as any other commodity—it is bought and sold at incredibly inflated prices, it is traded on for cultural capital, and so on, and these are functional aspects of art. It can become an object-centered experience that the well-heeled seek ownership of. Maybe things like great symphonies and novels can function differently in their potential to nourish greater numbers of people, because they are harder to privatize than fine art.

It’s messy to try to sort through what we mean by “art” in the field of food, just as messy as grappling with whatever “great” means. “So and so is truly an artist with her culinary creations.” Would it be more accurate to say “artisan” in this cliche example? Maybe this would help us sidestep all the stupid hobbling stereotypes of artists as crazy persons, visionaries, or somehow otherworldly and in a space apart, often a space of (at least potential) “greatness.” I have been an artist and had a modest level of success, and my work as an artist certainly informs what I bring to my food. But is what I do as a cook “art”? I generally don’t think of it in those terms, even if there is an “art” to making a plate and crafting an experience for an eater with both food and space and, if I may lapse into silly theory, generating affect through the production of a discursive field. Fuck it, maybe what food-making is is plain old “arts and crafts,” and bears no resemblance at all to writing a symphony. Then again, I just had lunch with a well-regarded LA chef who came to the kitchen later in life after a career in music composition, and he described another chef’s food with an analogy to conducting a 100-piece orchestra: if it is poorly done, what you hear is muddy; if well done, you hear everything cleanly and clearly. (He was praising this other chef’s food, by the way, not slinging mud.) Great food operates at that clean and clear level because someone is conducting it, balancing all of the elements, and so on. I buy that, but perhaps what it starts to clarify for me is not that food and art are commensurate as productions or as experiences or as needs, but that their making requires a lot of skill, sensibility, and hard work, and these are what contribute to something like a taco or a symphony being good….

I agree with you that piddling around with semantics is silly; maybe a better way to express my question is through personal anecdote. As a food writer, I’m often guilty of speaking about meals in grandiose terms like “these scallops changed my life,” “the Brussels sprouts were a profound spiritual experience.” But, in truth, I’ve never had an experience at a meal that compares to the experiences I’ve had seeing a great play or reading a great book. Those experiences have been the truly life-changing ones; my most life-changing food experiences had everything to do with context and very little to do with what’s been on the plate. How about for you? Has food on a plate ever done for you what art (in the broader sense) can do for you? Does food have the power to move the way art does if you subtract the people, the atmosphere, etc.?

Well I don’t think one can subtract context with the experience of art or food. There is, in my view, no such thing as “the thing itself,” a pure object or pure experience. We experience food and art and everything else in situations that are inflected with and by physical, social, cultural, emotional, political, spiritual, and other forces in endless combination. I might like to think that I can shut out the room, the people in it, the table setting, the color and shape of the plate, and so on, and simply experience the food as it hits me in the mouth, but that’s fantasy. All those forces working together are what make the experience rich and complex, no matter how simple the food may be.

In the summer before my last year of high school, I went on a biking trip in southern France. I stayed several nights on a small farm that grew tobacco and vegetables. The first evening I was there, Madame X (I don’t remember the people’s names, nor the name of the town) made the simplest of salads, with romaine lettuces and some herbs. She made a red wine vinaigrette in the bowl, rubbed the sides of the bowl with garlic, added the lettuce and herbs, tossed it, and served it. There was fresh bread and house-made unsalted butter. Eating that salad was a life-changing experience, not only because the salad itself was so delicious—garlicky, vinegary, salty, crispy—and the bread delicious too, hunked with butter and swiped around the bowl to pick up the salt and garlic and vinegar and oil and pepper, but also because the lettuce was cut from a bed of lettuces right outside the kitchen of the farmhouse, and the salad was assembled with no fuss and great care. Eating it was not just about eating it but about that place, the people, these processes, the feel of that kitchen, and the evidence of a sensibility that was in the bowl and in the way that we shared it. By life-changing I mean eye-opening, as in something clicked and I had a different and kind of wonderful idea that a salad could mean more than iceberg with Pepperidge Farm croutons and bottled dressing. So there was a kind of revelation in this salad, and in retrospect I would say that the revelation was: food has meaning! Who knew a little salad could distill so many things into its eating? And also in retrospect, I have to wonder if that salad was really just a French farmhouse version of the iceberg I grew up with, and my teenage wonderment just a sign that context is also what we bring to it…

Was this experience as moving or life-changing as reading Frank O’Hara for the hundreth time last week because “Lunch Poems” was lying there on the coffee table in our finely appointed Silverlake home, or listening for the first time to Charles Mingus’s “Folk Forms” from the recording “Mingus Presents Mingus” in the music library of a small northeastern liberal arts college where I was sort of directionless and feeling like that music gave me some direction, or reading Jenny Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays” pasted up in Lower Manhattan whenever that was and feeling my guts get all wrenched up by those tightly constructed words in my face, or butchering a pig and eating a kind of blood pudding that Sandy Kessler made on the spot, whisking the blood as it drained from the pig’s neck, or tasting for the first time a variety of carrot called “Scarlet Nantes” that we grew a ton of on a fledgling vegetable farm in Central Vermont, or watching “A Separation” in a little theater in Pasadena and being kind of wrecked by it, or yesterday hearing Lotte Lenya sing “Surabaya Johnny” from “The Happy End” and not understanding the German but still slowing down with my eggplant prep to listen and sing along? Yes and no…

I love that story about the salad and the farmhouse. I’m gathering from the tone of your answers, though, that you might think it’s silly to compare food and art; that it’s an exercise in futility. Can you come up with a reason why it does matter, though? Have you ever been put off by a chef posturing as an “artist”? I’m thinking of that scene in “L.A. Story” where Steve Martin’s at a pretentious restaurant and they serve him one baby carrot and one turnip on a giant white plate. Does food ever go too far in trying to be art? Do some chefs use the mantle of art to charge too much for food? And, if so, isn’t it important that we distinguish the good from the bad, the authentic from the inauthentic, the real from the fake?

I don’t think it is silly to compare food and art, or to try to understand what the overlaps are, or what the relationships might be between or across them, but as I have suggested already, I think our experiences of food and our experiences of art—fine art, literature, symphonies, etc.—work on us in very different ways because these are very different forms we are talking about. I suppose if I think anything is futile it would be to argue that one or the other has more power or effect or authority or impact or life-changing potential than the other.

I believe there can be artistry in the making of food, and that this artistry can take a hugely divergent range of forms and approaches. While I have not eaten pretentious, over-arted food, I have no doubt it exists, along with chefs who posture as artists. I also think that the moniker of “artist” is put upon certain people, chefs among them, and that it can be a dead weight that screws up their whole game and turns their output into little plates of pretentiousness. And I suspect there are chefs who lay claim to the title “artist” as well, in an effort to elevate their status and to influence the ways in which they are perceived and received. Maybe they charge too much for what they do; I’m not paying it. It’s a complicated business we are discussing….

But someone like Ferran Adria, who operated El Bulli for 6 months and then essentially retreated to a “studio” to experiment and create for 6 months, was that a case of a chef posturing as an artist? I don’t know how he described himself or that process, so I can’t speak to the question of posturing or authenticity. His crew did produce a luscious, highly conceptual and super-designed “catalogue” every year, much like a catalogue produced for an exhibition. And, apparently, they made some incredible stuff. Only those who ate it know for sure, and yet it is still, to make a terrible pun, a matter of taste. Had I been offered an opportunity to eat at el Bulli, would I have taken it? I am inclined to find more artistry in a very different approach to food, so I might opt for a crab shack further up the ragged Andalusian coastline, but I also think it is silly posturing to criticize orbs and foams and smoke and mirrors and dirt. That stuff doesn’t lift my skirt, but I don’t think it’s stupid that people make edible forest floors, just as I don’t think it is stupid to put fresh figs on a platter with some olive oil and salt. What is important to me in either case is flavor, intention, sensibility, attitude, and context. Meaning and flavor can be cooked out of things in no time if someone is just working a bunch of gimmicks, whether raw, rustic, or haute. How to discern?

What you’re saying makes good sense. Maybe, as a final thought, you can talk about how your work as an artist informs the food that you make and how the food that you make informs your work as an artist? Also: do you have any favorite works of art that either depict or incorporate food? Do these works of art have anything to tell you as a chef?

You catch me at an odd time, or a transitional time. In 2009 I stopped making work as an artist. I may work my way back to it, but for now I am cooking and trying to develop some kind of workable business in a city that makes doing things at a modest, sustainable scale very cumbersome and costly. And these days, I find myself a bit overwhelmed by events in Syria (my wife and I lived there in 2005 and have many close connections with people there), and it can be a struggle to focus on a menu for a party or whether or not the landscape contractor installed the drip irrigation properly in the new plantings. Yes, we have to do what we do, and go on, but I believe it is important to carry these sorts of conflicts and contradictions with us and bring them to what we do. That is something I tried to do as an artist in various projects. Maybe it is trickier to do this in the realm of food, or as a provider of “service” or “experience,” whatever it’s called; after all, I don’t want to spoil your dinner.

To speak generally, though, about artistic practice informing food-making, for me it is fairly simple in that the skills and tools and sensibilities I have brought to the making of a video project such as “not a matter of if but when” are pretty much the same (minus the software) that I bring to making food. There is a process of thought, of trying out, rethinking, trying again, editing, paring down, and making decisions about materials and form and content and how their combination and articulation will hopefully generate certain effects and affects. Sorry, such semi-blowhard sentences come from rigorous art-school training—the puff pastry instruction I mentioned early on…

Art with food in it? I can’t think of much. There have been artists of a more conceptual bent who have done things involving cooking—Rikrit Tiravanija, for example, or Gordon Matta-Clark, who opened a restaurant in Soho called “Food” in 1971 (it operated until 1973). I don’t know much about this sort of work, although these names have come up recently when people ask if what I am doing/cooking is some kind of art project, or part of my “practice.” Maybe the best response for now is to sidestep the question or let it hang itself in the air and say, won’t you have a little something to eat?

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