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Art vs. Service

This week I want to talk about a topic that floats around the food world to hopefully add a little to the collective conversation from someone that has spent his whole life trying to make the best Art within a Service industry. Basically, the question of whether Cooking is more of an Art or a Service. And I'd like to argue that it is both, and is not able to be actually separated into either category, fully. With the possible exception of the worst possible level of food (uninspired, uncared for, poorly executed) the most basic level of sustenance (think a terrible prison) where the only goal of cooking is purely to give calories to maintain life. And that could even be argued that that food is still some form of art because thought went into it to give the bare minimum level of service at the lowest price, which isn't easy to do. Let me explain further.

The Art of Food

Now I believe that because of the reverence, pure skill, and creativity displayed at the best restaurants and cooking competitions across the world it's pretty easy to say that food is definitely an art form. For the better part of my career, I chased the idea of cooking "perfect food" to the point that I even went so far as to say that I wanted to cook molecularly perfect food. The sous chef I was working under at the time said to me, "Even if you could, how would anyone know?" And that always stuck with me and definitely became part of how my philosophy has evolved on food and cooking. It was one of those short kitchen wisdom that conveys a lot in a simple saying. I took it to mean that you shouldn't take food too seriously because not only is there no way to judge molecular perfection, but I have since realized that it was also alluding to the fact that food is a service and thus brings all of the complexities and variabilities of humanity into the equation. And this was just an offhanded quip from a guy who clearly takes food as an art seriously (humble brag alert- he's currently the Executive Chef for the W Hotel/STARR Hotels in Ft. Lauderdale and one of the nicest people I know, Jason Smith).

So to judge food, you have to have people eat it. Because of this fact, it cannot be separated from the idea that food is meant to be consumed and thus judged by a human, with all of their individual, non-quantifiable judgments, preferences, and fallibilities. And even if you take away the idea that on top of the art, food is also sustenance, it is at least still entertainment, and thus provides another form of service that is judged by imperfect humans. So while it is certainly an art, it is also a form of service and thus subject to being judged as a service as well as an art form.

The Artist Chef

Now I definitely believe all good chef's are definitely artists in their own right because when you get to a level of skill and knowledge in the kitchen, you can play with food with the vision, creativity, and skill of an artist in any other medium. But because our medium needs to be consumed to be judged, it cannot be solely art because to have your art destroyed as it's judged, you are also providing either sustenance, entertainment, or both along with your art. Providing sustenance or entertainment is a service so as a Chef, you can't be just "An Artist" alone that creates for the world to marvel at how great you are... So all the insane egos out there in the culinary world can simply go "take a walk" (for the sake of keeping it PC) because if someone doesn't like your food, it may actually be that it's not that good, or just didn't hit the mark for them. And that's ok. You're a cook, not a god. Go cool off in the walk-in...;)

We work with a dynamic medium that has to take the end consumer into account and adjust accordingly. Food is a 2-way street that requires feedback from the end consumer to make sure it is doing what it was intended to do, providing sustenance, entertainment, or some combination of the two. This again, makes it a service as well as an art. After all, it is called The Hospitality Industry, not the Food Art Museum.

Service or Art? Both...

So because food is consumed, it has to be a 2 way street between provider and consumer. Here is where service comes into play. Now I'm not talking about different levels of service which I will get to at another time, but about the fact that providing food to others is a service in and of itself. One that must take the consumer into account because how else are you to know if you are actually providing the food/service intended, if not by hearing from the consumer? It must be a dynamic service/art in order to truly know if you are doing what you intend to with your food. This is one of the hardest parts of our industry because everyone is different- with different palates, preferences, and expectations- thus creating an ever moving target that is different from person to person. So when cooking for more than one person, you have to take "the average consumer" as your target to try and make as many people as happy as possible. What some will like, others won't and that's just part of the industry. As a cook, if you can remember that it'll help you as you inevitably get criticism on the food you serve. Don't ever forget, it's just food, not pediatric heart surgery... And that you are here to serve others, not your ego. It's their opinion that ultimately matters...

The Art of Service with Food

For a while, I was a Private Chef for the Uber-Rich on Nantucket where I did fancy parties in the enormous houses they rented or owned. I truly loved the collaborative aspect of creating a menu just for them and making it just the way they liked it because that was the essence of true service with food. It was really cool and I definitely enjoyed a few summers making some crazy good food for people who just wanted to have a great, restaurant-level experience in their own homes. There were other aspects of working as a private chef that I came to realize were not for me, but being able to give that level of personal service with food was definitely one of the huge perks of that part of my life. Plus getting to hang out in some insane houses was a pretty great perk!

Another great example of the art of service with food (and so far is the best thing I've done with food, IMHO) was when I made an entire menu at my former restaurant, Six Plates, of my wife's favorite foods/dishes of mine for her birthday. We were just dating at the time, but I wanted to really wow this amazing woman and show her how special she was to me. Because we had a rotating menu, I could put all her favorite foods and her favorite dishes of mine on at the same time, for about a month, so she could come back time and time again to celebrate her favorite foods of mine all month long. Definitely seemed to have worked out as she still talks about that and we've been blissfully married for over 5 years, now. I think it worked...;)

Art of Service in Your Kitchen

Now you don't have to go that crazy to give an elevated level of service with food, but I wanted to give you some extreme examples (ok, and brag a little cause I'm pretty proud of doing that for my wife) to help illustrate the idea. Simply taking time to think about how your food will be perceived by the diner will send you on the path to increasing the Art of Service in your own kitchen. And chances are that you already do this naturally just by thinking about what your kids, spouse, friends, family, or even yourself like and don't like to eat when thinking about cooking/meal planning. You don't deliberately cook foods that your people don't like in ways that make them awful, right? Of course not! But hopefully by getting a little deeper into the idea, as I have done here, will help raise your level of service when it comes to your own food! And if that's the case, my efforts will have all been worth it! Spreading joy and love is the goal. I'm just here to help you do it with food... :D

Season to Your Taste

One last thought about our food and how it is intended. As I said above, the more people you cook for, the more generally you need to season your food. Because we cook for a lot of y'all out there with our prepared foods, we intentionally do what I call "seasoning to the middle" because we need to take into account the wide range of palates of all of our diners. With that being said, please don't be afraid to add a little salt, spice, or anything you'd like to make our food exactly the way you like it! I certainly won't be offended as you have the best food for you is my goal! We put a lot of love and a great deal of effort to build and enhance flavor in our food but when it comes to salt and spice particularly there are a large variety of preferences out there that we take into account to try and make our food as widely appreciated as possible. The effort we put into building flavor with homemade stocks, good sears, layering of flavors, toasting of spices, thickening with vegetable purees, and so on are how we can create delicious food and keep it rather healthy in the process. So while I certainly stand behind our food 100%, for some, it might need just a little salt, spice, or maybe a squeeze of lime, and I wanted to encourage you to Season our food to Your Taste! But don't forget to use good techniques when cooking your own food to building good flavor because as my coworker, Scott, once said, "You can't salt your way to flavor." But sometimes you may want just a little more salt or spice to make it just the way you like it! Go for it, Chef!

Your kitchen, your food, your way!!

Happy Cooking!

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