There is no question that people eat with their eyes. Chefs are, for the most part, tuned into this reality and oftentimes invest countless hours developing and defining their signature presentations for various dishes. To some it may be creating height on the plate such as Alfred Portale – the master of architectural plate design; others might focus on a deconstructed approach that involves some scientific wizardry and a bit of Avant Garde artistry like Grant Achatz while others let the food speak for itself, as is the case with Alice Waters and her disciples. In all cases, it is the “art” associated with cooking that has given these talented chefs their professional identity.
I spent many years, as a chef, focused on how to create beauty and interest on the plate. I honed these techniques through competition and presented the results on restaurant menus and at special events. Sometimes, I will admit, I spent too much time trying to manipulate and force food to fit my interpretation of “beautiful”. What took me years to re-discover was that food, when selected and cared for correctly is beautiful just as it is and the role of the chef is simply to allow this to happen. Treat food with respect and don’t over-think it. Art is, after all, in the eyes of the beholder. To this end, chefs need to simply do what they do well – select seasonal ingredients at the height of their quality, handle those same ingredients with respect and stay committed to foundational cooking techniques. Placed on a pure white plate, these ingredients can then be interpreted as art in many different ways by the person addressing the dish. Monet didn’t try to change the vibrant flowers at Giverney, he simply painted those colors that his failing eyes cherished and allowed others to enjoy it as Impressionism. We need to truly pay homage to the beauty of what nature has given us.
Where chefs run into challenges is when we do not respect what Mother Nature does. A vine-ripened tomato in July is one of the most beautiful foods imaginable. Warm and bursting with intense flavor, this tomato is like nothing else in a chef’s pantry. A tomato in February that comes from a hydroponic system of plant nutrition is nothing like that July work of art and thus needs to be manipulated to attempt to build a presentable and flavorful dish. A June strawberry is an experience, one that comes from New Mexico in February, is picked before maturity, white inside and lacking in the natural sugars that give a strawberry the characteristics of a June berry can never hold up to the scrutiny of a discerning public. The tomato in July simply needs to be sliced, placed gently on a plate, drizzled with a quality olive oil, a pinch of sea salt and a bit of cracked pepper. The tomato is a thing of beauty. The strawberry only needs a hand to hold it and a sprig of mint. Some slightly sweetened cream would be enough to put it over the top. This is art.
We sometimes over-think the whole concept of what a cook should do. We are, when in true harmony with our jobs, caretakers of Nature’s crops, livestock and fish that are art waiting for a canvas. The chef who can add that signature presentation while still respecting the beauty of a perfect ruby beet, fresh picked ear of corn, briny Divers Scallop, perfectly cooked rack of Spring Lamb or room temperature Goat’s Cheese with a chunk of fresh honeycomb is one who is in tune with Nature’s art.
The plate is the canvas and to be a chef artist is to appreciate the ingredients that are at your disposal. How fortunate we are to have such an incredible palette of colors, textures, shapes, sizes, aromas and natural flavors.
Be an appreciative caretaker of the farmer’s bounty, the rancher’s livestock and the fisherman’s catch. This is what it means to be a chef; let Nature be the artist.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching
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