May 23, 2014

Food as Art

A fluid gesture, free and quick, moves color across the surface, each a different weight and texture, masses balancing lines. The the artist chef begins to add elements. I want to say "stop, stop, it's so beautiful as a minimalist composition!" But more things are added until the plate becomes a gorgeous layering of color and shape, expressive and lively. Watching this dish being composed was like seeing the process of a painting, from the underpainting to its finish, but this also had to taste good. This is the gargouillou of Michel Bras, a celebrated French chef, who with his son Sébastien has a 3 Michelin star restaurant in a small village in the south. It is one of the beautiful dishes in the film Step Up to the Plate (Entre les Bras), a documentary about these two remarkable chefs who take their inspiration from the land around them (thanks to my friend Helen Rabin for the recommendation).

The two men worked closely together at their restaurant for 15 years; the film follows their relationship and the tensions that come from Michel having decided to retire, to pass on his life's work to his son. What most interested me in watching this documentary was seeing the development of dishes, and how important their visual aspects were. Above Michel and Sébastien confer, using sketches to figure out where elements would be placed, often disagreeing about it. Sébastien placed the anchovy draped off the central form, but Michel insisted it should be on top. These small compositional adjustments are so very much like those a painter or other visual artist would be considering.

We follow Sébastien as he thinks about a complex dessert dish he calls "The Pathway", as he sees it as his story. He looks, he considers the elements, he makes sketches and notes. He asks his father for a critique. He creates a similar dish at the Bras restaurant in Japan, using Japanese ingredients, but in France he is not satisfied; how many of us will say we are not sure about an artwork? "Needs improvement still" is always the case for art; never be completely satisfied, continue to search and develop. 

Bras ended by separating his dish into three essential parts, representing three people: the bread is the father Michel, the blackberry and laguiole cheese his mother, and the milk and chocolate his Granny Bras. It began with savory and went towards sweet. So the dish is not only formally beautiful, richly delicious (though I have to rely on others for that assessment) but it also has meaning. This food is so much more than just a meal; the care and creativity with with it's made elevate it into an art. My attempts in the kitchen are like those of an amateur Sunday painter compared to les Bras.

Screen shot courtesy of Cinema Arts Center

A completely different kind of artistry is practiced by sushi chef Jiro Ono in his tiny restaurant located in a subway in Tokyo, austere and direct, with the emphasis on flavors. The documentary about him, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, has a similar theme to Step Up to the Plate: an aging father, a brilliant 3 Michelin star chef, is getting ready to pass his life's work on to his son. For both older men, their restaurants have been their passion and their life.

Screen shot courtesy of

From watching these films, I got a sense of Jiro being the more relentless in his pursuit of perfection; his means are so much simpler––mainly rice and fish––so the focus is that much more intense. What is clear about these chefs is that they are artists, approaching their work with the same questioning, passion, and searching for depth and beauty, as artists in any other field. 

No comments:

Post a Comment