Monday, July 06, 2009

Cooking as One of the Performing Arts

It wasn't really that long ago that the term "Performing Arts" was used to refer to music, dance, and drama. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, for example, covered those three disciplines. The term "Fine and Applied Art" or "Fine Arts" referred to painting, sculpture, print-making, and drawing.

Now that we have all kinds of new media that fall under neither the "Performing Arts" umbrella or the "Fine Arts" umbrella, like film, video, and all kinds of multi-media installations that combine the "Fine" and "Performing" Arts, we call the whole thing "The Arts." The term "Artist," the the term "Art," has come to be used far more loosely than it has in centuries past, or even in decades past.

Julia Child might have been the first to refer to cooking as "art" in the title of her 1961 Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she certainly was one of the pioneers in the world of cooking on television. But it is the Food Network that has really turned the act of cooking into a performing art. The Next Food Network Star is an odd kind of performing art competition, because the actual substance of the "art" (the thing that is made) is evaluated not only on its substance, but on its presentation.

We in the television audience cannot eat the food that is made, so we are put in the position of having the "food" experience by evaluating the personality and performance of each finalist, and having the actual result (the taste of the food) reported to us by someone we do not know personally. It is tough. Food preparation is judged as a creative art, a performing art, and as a "plastic" art: what it is and how it looks is as important as how the chef relates to the audience and the camera. The judges for The Next Food Network Star are people who take the business of "food performance" seriously, and would be the equivalent to well-seasoned soloists (I couldn't resist the pun) and highly-experienced teachers in the field of music.

I think that The Next Food Network Star is a very smart show. I learn a great deal from the comments that the judges make, and I draw inspiration from the challenges the contestants have to meet, especially when I am faced with the daily challenge of making meals. Most of the contestants have to draw upon skills that they never had the chance or reason to develop, either in cooking school or in professional cooking life. Those who have performing skills from extra-food-related experiences have certain advantages over those who have ideas and experiences only informed by the world of food preparation.

Perhaps the future will hold performing arts academies for cooks. Who knows. There could be classes in diction and elocution (in several languages). There could be classes that concerned posture, focus, and movement, as well as style, make-up, and persona-building. Students could study the video record: Kerr, Child, Ray, Flay, and they write papers on the difference between stoic "Iron Chef" focus, and the almost-too-personal Nigella touch.

Food, like music, has no permanence, but it does touch some of the senses in a way that remains, and even lingers. As music does with time and sound, cooking as an art takes the mundane and necessary (eating and food preparation are both necessary), and turns it into something special. A meal, served in courses, could be likened to a sonata or a symphony that is served in movements, or a play, ballet, or opera that is served in acts. It is visually appealing, like dance, and the experience of it can even momentarily involve sound (consider the crunch), but on television we have to rely on third-party reporting to have the sensual experience that the food is designed to have: taste.

Music can be transmitted over the airwaves (or now, over the digital media) almost intact, but food can not. Digital reproductions of two-dimensional visual art can come strikingly close to the real thing. Camera work (which has also become an art in itself) is so fine that the experience of dance on a video screen can be as exciting as seeing it on a stage. We can all evaluate these arts in their intended form by way of media, but try as we may, we just can't do it with food.

Imagine composers' works being evaluated only on what we say about our music to a camera, because the people who might be interested in hearing it would not be able to. Imagine if performing musicians had to talk to the audience and look at a camera while performing, but no sound could from their instruments or out of their singing mouths. Imagine if sculptors and painters had to have their work evaluated purely on what they had to say about it on camera. And how would a dancer or a choreographer speak effectively about movement without making any kind of a gesture?


jkp said...

I don't think that Julia Child is the first reference to cooking as an Art (good as her books is). Maetro Matrino of Como is an early reference. I'm sure that there are many other references.


Elaine Fine said...

Thank you Justin. Matrino of Como certainly predates Child by a few centuries!