We all wondered what ideas and thoughts would be brought to the table this year in response to Star Chefs' congress theme "Food: Art vs. Craft." This question holds a bit of history for us, and we have bounced on both sides, while alternatively playing devil's advocate for each. You see, our previous employer/management company ran their F&B promotions on the philosophy that Food is Art. Given that this is even a basis for argument at all, one would be hard pressed to defend much hotel food as art. We embraced the theme anyway, and have, humbly in our own way, taken it to extremes that no other property in the company could have exceeded to. Hosting Paradigm dinners was a small part of that drive. We fully appreciate our background and all of the opportunities that we have been blessed with along the ride, but my mind always reverts back to those banquet buffet shots we did way back in the day when I hear the anthem of "Food is Art." (On a side note, while some in our camp felt this motif was original at the time, it is as old as the hills. Making something look pretty doesn't make it art, it just makes it pretty.)
As far as themes go, one could also argue that the idea of a theme is moot. Many great chefs are present, and there are some amazing thought-provoking presentations. To say they all follow a theme is not true. Some chefs embrace the idea... like Sean Brock's demonstration last year on "What is American Cuisine?" Chef Brock nailed the entire concept, and I contend that no other chef (that I know of) in the United States is doing more for perpetuating the preservation of American foodstuffs while still utilizing all that modern cuisine has to offer. He is a superstar in this context. Other chefs, while still providing information and ideas that any culinarian would crap themselves to obtain, seem to totally ignore any concept of a unifying congress theme.
So, back to the current year... the 'question' was presented once more. This "Art vs. Craft" notion was first addressed by a panel of keynote speakers (all very incredible chefs and an equally incredible emcee). Michael Ruhlman hosted the discussion between Thomas Keller, David Kinch, and Daniel Barber (no links because everyone should know who these guys are). None of these chefs really did much for answering the question. We know that cooking is a craft. It requires the skill of a craftsman. It can be thought-provoking and intellectual. Why is it art, and just what in the hell is art anyway? One vein of the argument is that food is nourishment, and no matter what you do with it it's still just going in one way, and shooting out the other end all looking the same. If that's true, that it may also be said that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is just a roof. The chef panel introduction to this year's congress did very little towards answering the question. In fact, it actually raised the question as to why we're debating this in the first place.
And so the presentations went on. We witnessed some amazing techniques and ideas from Dan Hunter, the minds behind the http://www.foodpairing.be/ website (one that Chef K and I have utilized during many late night menu writing sessions), Charlie Palmer's team, etc. etc. (for a great account of the line-up and some really nice plate shots, visit Food Player's blog post here). These presentations were nicely rotated with some great vendor booths, new equipment showcases, free-flowing Stella and other nice brews, getting to meet and re-meet some awesome chefs that we are fortunate to see year after year, and grabbing a Chinito Cubano from the GastroPod. If I had to actually pick a side of the argument at hand, I would no doubt fall onto the Craft category. I don't think it's proper for chefs to go around touting their food as art (simply for tact reasons). On the other hand, it's perfectly fine for a diner to call a dish art. This should be taken with the same grace that any other compliment would be accepted. Being a craftsman is a proud thing. It represents a commitment to perfection. It is discontent with what is, and desire for what could be. This is the basis for my feeling. An artist can, for the sake of art, stop short of perfection. My feelings here are not based on down-playing the chef's creations, but from a biased disdain for artists. We have done 'art' themed dinners in the past, and it has been my experience that artists love to talk about themselves... not their art. I associate the title of 'artist' to be a ridiculous thing... like Spencer on iCarly. It almost goes hand in hand with plasticity and gobble-de-goop. A true chef loves to talk about food. If that's the difference, then so be it. I had reached my conclusions and rested my case.
That was until... Jordan Kahn took the stage. We all know this guy to be an insanely bad-ass chef when it comes to creating complex and beautiful dishes. What we did not know was that we were about to be blown away. The lights were dimmed. Some technical difficulties ensued for a few minutes, then... the music started and the video began. We saw short clips on screen of liquids being mixed, powders being added to blenders, mixers working, and an entire slew of visuals that reminded me of the Wonkatania Boat Ride from Willy Wonka (excluding the chicken getting his head chopped). The video was based on 3 separate dishes being prepared. Each dish had a theme song (and I wish I knew the names and artists of these recordings, so if anyone out there does please drop a line) and each was inspired by the works of a classic artist. At the same time, basically in simulcast, Chef Kahn plated each of the dishes on a work bench before the crowd. That was it. The video and audio stopped. The lights returned to full lumination. "What is this? A freakout!"
I believe that Jordon Kahn's presentation should have ended right there. In fact, I'm sure it was meant to. If not for being suckered into some question/answer period that actually took away from the preceding presentation, he would have walked off stage in silence... just like Prince at the end of "Purple Rain" only to hear the approving cheers and applause from some spot backstage in an alley. Of course, Chef Kahn did not reappear onstage to do a rendition of "Baby I'm a Star," but what he did do... without uttering a single word... was to answer that question. Yes, food is art.
As if to add to the eccentricity of the whole thing, we found out in the introduction that Jordan Kahn is actually Cuban, raised in Georgia, and his latest project is a casual late night Vietnamese restaurant called Red Medicine. It would have made more sense if they announced that he was born on Mars. I'd also like to add that it was not the sheer beauty of the dishes that made it art (see this photostream and your jaw will drop). It was the approach and the context.
Also, my intention on bringing up the necessity of an "Art vs. Craft" debate on food is in no way meant to downplay the extraordinary job that Star Chefs does each year with the Congress. After attending 4 of the 5 ICC's, I can honestly say that the relevance to a theme is necessary, if for no other reason than to serve as a reflection of our industry in the moment. Obviously, whether necessary or not, there is much to say on the subject. I think Jeffrey Steingarten captured the vibe when he stated from the audience, "the question needs to be asked, then should never be spoken of again."