Can a meal alter your perspective or offer you profound insight?
You have probably heard the saying, we eat with our eyes. Presentation affects how appetizing a dish appears–a beautifully presented dish can wet our hunger, while a sloppily plated dish can sour it. These days, with foodie culture featuring so prominently in the media, the standards for what is expected of restaurants is higher than ever. People are travelling far to find new and exciting flavors.
The proliferation of food photography and recipe sharing on social media has spurred a wide appreciation of food visually. Millions of photographs on Pinterest and Instagram offer home cooks inspiration, entertainment and awe. Food cinematography tantalizes viewers with up-close shots and creeping camera rolls over table spreads.
The infamous bacon-wrapped grilled cheese sandwich. Source.
According to a Supermarket Guru survey, an overwhelming 91% of people surveyed said they watch food shows. Additionally, 36% of people surveyed said they watch cooking shows multiple times a week, 79% of people said they watch cooking shows to get new ideas and 63% watch simply for entertainment.
Even people who don’t cook are happy to flip through albums of beautifully plated and artfully photographed foods. Entire blogs, websites, and Reddit threads are dedicated to “food porn” (www.foodporndaily.com, anyone?). It’s a worldwide obsession with food observation. The average person is likely to have a favorite celebrity chef–even if they’ve never eaten at one of their restaurants. People are enchanted by the vibrant personality of these chefs, their philosophies for how to eat and live better, and their creative and exciting plating.
When people actually sit down to enjoy a gourmet meal, many of them preserve the experience through photographs. These photographs are indicators of the diner’s tastes, class, sense of refinement and adventurous disposition. When people go on vacation, you will be able to spot the food-conscious traveler by the ratio of exotic food photographs there are in their albums compared to photographs of sites and people. People treat their consumption of foreign food in much the same way that they would their visitation of a famous architectural structure or painting. It shows their openness to learning, their desire to see all the world has to offer, and the scope of their imagination.
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With this shift towards a visual and emblematic appreciation of food, critics are taking the role of food in the art world into consideration. And if chefs are masters of the art of cooking and food is their artistic medium, can food in and of itself be considered art?
Can food be art?
Many people readily call cooking an art form but where actual food itself is concerned, there is still debate.
In his lecture, “Is Food Art?”, Dr. Ken Albala of the University of the Pacific makes the observation that a distinct label has been given to food that is artfully crafted: artisanal. Artisanal foods are reminiscent of the pre-industrial era, made by the hands of experts who are devoted to the careful perfection of their craft.
The demand for craft food and beverages has certainly risen, with diners and home cooks seeking food that is less processed, with a more authentic, farm-to-table feel. Giant restaurant chains have responded to this trend by re-branding their menus to offer “artisanal” products, such as Starbucks’ purchase of La Boulange’s recipes, which helped drive a 16% increase in their food sales. People are willing to pay higher prices for foods that reflect craftsmanship and quality.
But “craft” and “art” don’t mean the same thing. Art in the traditional sense refers to aesthetic objects that serve no purpose other than to invoke an intellectual response; objects that transcend time and that elicit a certain level of objective contemplation, despite personal taste. Craft, on the other hand, is utilitarian in nature, found in mediums like pottery or textiles, grounded in physical reality. Artisanal food, therefore, falls into the category of craft, bought in the market and prepared and served in the home. Its primary purpose is to nourish us.
Dr. Albala counters this distinction, however, by outlining a very basic framework for what qualifies as art. He says that something is accepted by society as art when a critic defines it as such and when patrons are willing to pay large sums of money to see or purchase it. Art must also engage people intellectually and sensorily, leaving a lasting impression on them. According to this framework, then, there is no reason why food couldn’t be considered art. After all, there are thousands of food critics, professional and amateur–and people are willing to pay large sums of money to try the world’s most coveted tasting menus. The world’s top chefs apply avant-garde ideologies and principles of design to the conceptualization and creation of their menus.
Diners go to highly acclaimed restaurants not just expecting a good meal, but a heightened experience. Accordingly, great care is put into the meticulous plating of each dish so that it not only pleases diners’ sense of taste, but also sight, touch, and sometimes even sound. There is usually a narrative that accompanies tasting menus, a story that is given to diners when a dish is placed before them. But do these elements of performance and design aesthetics determine whether the food in and of itself can be considered art, or just the artistic medium?
The visual aesthetics of food
The restaurants occupying San Pellegrino’s list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants all make use of modernist cooking and presentation techniques that not only challenge standards of flavor, but also structure, color and space. Looking through snapshots of the menus at these restaurants is like looking through an anthology of avant-garde sculptures–in every shot there is an element of surrealism and, in many cases, mystery. In the creation of these dishes, chefs play with elements of design like balance, contrast, texture, and shape. Riflessione sull’insalata mista from chef Massimo Bottura’s restaurant Osteria Francescana. Source.
Our interest in these culinary curiosities is further piqued by a trend in food film aesthetics where dishes are plated and presented in their complete form alone on the table, with ambient and strange music playing in the background. The dishes are presented for visual and intellectual consumption, both a meal and an artistic concept. For example, look at the following still from Chef’s Cut: Beyond the Forest with Rasmus Kofoed. “Dillstone”, horseradish & Granita from Pickled Cucumber. Source.
This dish is on chef Rasmus Kofoed’s menu at Geranium in Copenhagen. The blend of polished forest stones and edible green dill stones certainly excites the intellect and elicits a reaction, even if it’s one of bafflement. In the film, there are no shots of anyone actually eating the dish, lending to a distant and abstracted feel, like an art piece in a museum. The only indicator that the dish is, in fact, food is the sprigs of dill on the green stones. Chef Kofoed says in the film that he wants to invoke the forest in his menu. Visually, the dish certainly does succeed in evoking a forest floor.
Artistic conceptualization and aesthetics also play an integral role in the design of chef Massimo Bottura’s menu at Osteria Francescana in Modena. In his feature episode in the Netflix original series Chef’s Table, Bottura’s wife, Lara Gilmore, recounts the moment of inspiration that would lead to the conceptualization of Osteria Francescana. The couple were at an exhibit at the Venice Art Biennale looking at an installation of taxidermy stuffed pigeons in the rafters of the Italian Pavilion. The artist had splattered the walls and some of the other artworks with the pigeon’s dropping. Bottura looked at those pigeons and their droppings and exclaimed, “Those pigeons–but that’s like me! I’m trying to change the Italian kitchen but the only way I’m going to get noticed is if I kind of go up in the rafters and look from above and, in a way, deface the generation that came before me.”
The menu Bottura created at his restaurant not only reimagines Italian cuisine, but also challenges expectations of plating. His dishes play with elements of color, texture, height and composition in ways that extend beyond typical restaurant plates. If you were to look at a picture of one of his dishes out of context, you might not even realize it was food.
Camouflage: A Hare in the Woods. Source.
His menu is composed not only of dishes, but of avant-garde paintings and sculptures that are also edible. They are conceptualized to be enjoyed on the palate, but they can just as easily be appreciated as visual and structural art objects.
The aesthetics of flavor
There is more to artful food than visual design–there are also aesthetics of flavor. The way a dish tastes, alone or as part of a carefully orchestrated tasting menu, can elicit an emotional and intellectual reaction. That being said, not everyone agrees with this view.
In an opinion piece in the New York Times, William Deresiewicz notes the contemporary trend towards food taking the place of high art in society. Ultimately, though, he argues that food is not art: “An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one. Meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things. Food is highly developed as a system of sensations, extremely crude as a system of symbols.”
Deresiewicz points to perhaps the greatest limitation of food as form of art: that it must be pleasant to eat. Where a visual art piece like a painting can still be evocative and effective in the ugliness of its aesthetics, such as in Les Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, and while music can still be emotionally evocative, despite being strange and jarring to listen to, as we hear (or, rather, don’t hear) in John Cage’s 4’33”, food must be not only edible, but enjoyable. According to this argument, the emotional range of food is limited.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso, 1907. Source.
But Elizabeth Telfer argues in her essay “Smells, Tastes and Everyday Aesthetics” that smell and taste are more complex than critics like Deresiewicz gives them credit for. She cites an example of cheese tasters and the wide range of adjectives they use to describe different kinds of cheese: “rich, mild, aromatic, spicy, sharp, bitter, salty, goaty, bittersweet, farmyard aroma, buttery, milky, creamy, nutty, mushroomy, and ‘reminiscent of condensed milk, fudge, fresh almonds, wet vegetation.’”  And where smell is concerned, is there any art more conceptually-driven than perfumery, with its many combinations of scents meant to evoke a specific emotion, personality trait, or character? Or, returning to the food and beverage world, the complex combination of smells and tastes that characterizes wine tasting?
If you’re a lover of food films, you have probably already watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi (and if you haven’t, that’s your homework for this weekend). Sushi master Jiro Ono strives for perfection in both his preparation and presentation of his omakase tasting menu at Sukiyabashi. Each piece of sushi is presented to diners as a single polished jewel brushed with nikiri soy sauce. The menu is determined each morning, and presented in an order meant to emulate a concerto–the first movement offers classic items like tuna kohada. Fresh catches of the day make the improvised second movement, and the third and final movement offers traditional saltwater eel, kanpyo and grilled egg. With each bite, diners are “consuming Jiro’s philosophy.” The stark and simple presentation of each piece of sushi is meant to highlight not the plating, but the carefully orchestrated flavor. Lean tuna at Sukiyabashi. Source.
A typical meal at Sukiyabashi lasts only 30 minutes, with diners encouraged to eat each piece of sushi right after it’s served to them. This is something that certain critics have found to be off-putting, causing them to question the value of Jiro Ono’s menu–but isn’t this kind of discussion of interpretation and value common in the world of art?
Many people have shared personal accounts of meals that elicited a strong emotional reaction, similar to what patrons of an art gallery or music hall would experience. In an episode of Chef’s Table, Carole Iida, sous chef to Niki Nakayama of n/Naka, recounts her first time eating in Nakayama’s restaurant. She says, “The way I felt when I first ate here before working in her kitchen was moved. It’s rare to go to a restaurant and really feel moved by food. I really felt her heart in every dish.” Shiizakana Abalone Pasta (Shiizakana translates to “not bound by tradition, Chef’s choice”) at n/naka. Source.
If a plate of food can communicate an ideology or philosophy, and if it can elicit a strong emotional reaction from the individual consuming it, what separates it from other mediums of art?
There is, of course, the matter that all of the examples I have cited so far of food art have been found on expensive tasting menus at Michelin star-winning restaurants. To paint the picture that food art can only be found in fine dining would be an oversight. While these internationally-renowned restaurants are serving up dishes of aesthetic accomplishment, food art can also be found on the local level, in the markets where these restaurants source their ingredients, and on civilians kitchen tables.
The rise of food tourism
People willingly travel across oceans to see the Mona Lisa in the flesh. They will pay thousands of dollars to walk under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The history, mythology and reputation that surrounds famous art pieces has the power to inspire people to want to see them in person. Twentieth century philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin called this transcendent power of the original art piece its “aura.”
It has become common now for people to take entire trips dedicated to trying local cuisines of different countries. Gastronomic tourism, also known as food tourism, has increased in popularity exponentially in recent years. People seek out foreign foods in the same way that they seek out other elements of foreign cultures like art, music and architecture.
Pani puri. Source.
The dishes served at world-renowned restaurants possess much the same “aura” as famous art or architecture. But this “aura” can also surround certain quintessential local dishes, like paella in Spain or pani puri in India. What this means is that such dishes do not have to be found on expensive tasting menus–they can also be found in the markets and homes of locals.
Seafood paella. Source.
According to a 2012 World Tourism Organization report, 88.2% of survey respondents consider gastronomy a defining element of the brand image of travel destinations. Only 11.8% of respondents considered gastronomy to play a minor role.
The report also revealed that over a third of tourist spending is devoted to food. This is a trend in tourism that has risen over the past decade, as foodie culture gained prevalence. A study by The American Culinary Traveler showed that the percentage of US leisure travelers who seek to learn about unique dining experiences on their travels rose from 40% to 51% between 2006 and 2013.The percentage of US leisure travelers who seek to learn about unique dining experiences on their travels rose from 40% to 51% between 2006 and 2013. Click To Tweet
One of the primary reasons travelers are so interested in sampling the food and food culture of different countries is, aside from the discovery of new flavors, so that they can participate in the local community. The UNWTO report defines a gastronomic tourists as people who “take part in the new trends of cultural consumption. They are travelers seeking the authenticity of the places they visit through food. They are concerned about the origin of products. They recognize the value of gastronomy as a means of socializing, as a space for sharing life with others, for exchanging experiences.”
Throughout history, people have travelled to attend music festivals, to partake in the communal enjoyment of music. Now people also travel for food festivals. The Pahiyas Festival in Lucban, Philippines brought in a record-breaking 3.2 million locals and tourists in 2015. The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival pulls in an attendance of over 250,000 each year. The Maine Lobster Festival draws in a crowd of 30,000, while the San Francisco Street Food Festival draws a crowd of around 50,000 yearly. SAVOUR in Singapore drew in 18,000 foodies in 2014. With so many festivals to choose from, there’s a prime time of year for people to travel to virtually every part of the world to try top foods.
The World’s Longest Lunch at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. Source.
In the UNWTO report, Catherine Gazzoli, Chief Executive Officer of Slow Food UK says, “Culinary tourism does not have to mean gourmet food. It is increasingly about unique and memorable experiences. It includes the dining experience itself, but also an awareness that supporting such endeavours has the ability to generate rural development. It helps to diversify revenue sources, and improves rural employment and income levels.”
For many travelers, food tourism is about what food represents for a culture–local aesthetics of flavor, conventions of presentation, and the ideologies behind ingredients, preparation, and eating practices. This puts the spotlight not just on master chefs and aficionados, but also on local artisans. Similar to how the attitude towards street art has shifted in the mainstream art community, so has the mainstream attitude towards street food, market food and home cooking.
The Pahiyas Festival. Source.
Think of how many travel albums feature photos taken in markets and small cafes–vibrant fruit stands, tables of sleek fish, shelves of golden pastries. By stopping to appreciate these foods and snap a photo of them, tourists consider these foods as art objects. Becoming addicted to a certain kind of food is like becoming addicted to a certain genre of music–it leaves a lasting impression on the person who consumes it and inspires them to seek a deeper intellectual and sensory understanding of it.
Towards more utilitarian art
The acceptance of food as art broadens the realm of possibility for other crafts and creations that serve a utilitarian purpose to be considered art too. This isn’t a new concept–after all, fashion occupies both the artistic and utilitarian spheres, as does architecture. But consider what it would mean for things like data visualization, advertising signage, user interfaces, or even something like a piece of code (I’m drawing comparisons between code and concrete poetry here–things are getting abstract).
Dr. Ken Albala comes to a beautiful conclusion in his lecture, and it’s a good way to tie up this article as well:
“It should be considered a highest form of art not because it’s fancy and elegant or rare and exotic but because we have to eat it regularly, and we experience food not just in the moment that it hits our palate–and it’s not a fleeting moment–but of course it courses through our bodies. It’s the only art that actually becomes us, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and what other kind of art could aspire to such an essential place for our species?”
Food can be conceptual, but food can also demand no interpretation. Food, like art, can be tasted and digested two ways: you can try to deconstruct it, or you can let the experience wash over you. Both ways will leave a lasting impression on you and within you.
 The Philosophy of Food by David M. Kaplan, 2012.