Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Musing on Craft

I don't know much about how other craftsmen approach their work. However, when I butcher or perform any one of the thousands of tasks that fall under the umbrella of the craft of cooking, I approach it with the attitude that I am involving myself in a process that has no discrete begining or end and with no expectation that I am duplicating something I did before. The only aspect that is the same, day in and out, is the goal that I set for myself: Make it look and taste good. 

I don't care deeply about much more than aesthetics. 

For me, it's all about appearance and taste. In my daily work I don't worry about sustainability and carbon footprints or any of the other big issues of the day. I worry about whether what I am making will look and taste good. After all, what is the job of a cook when you strip it down to its foundations? 

Across the centuries and continents and cultures the answer has always been the same: The basic job of a cook is to make or, if you prefer, help food look and taste good. 

Make it look and taste good and the job is done. 

It has only been since, when, last week (?) that we have been told that worrying over the fate of agriculture and heritage breeds and nutrient density has been something we have to add to our cooking tasks. Of course, I agree that we cooks should care about and take some responsibility for the provenance and husbandry of the food we prepare. But if you delete concern for aesthetics, it won't matter a bit where the food came from or how it was grown when what you produce is bland slop. On the other hand, a daily narrow focus on making beautiful flavorful food, will guide you to fulfilling the sine qua non of the cook: making beautiful flavorful food. 


LMH said...

Do you feel that sustainable or local or organic plays some role in achieving your goal of making the food look or taste good?

If the food you buy at the store looks good, does it often turn out to be sustainable in some way?

For me, more than local, I find that fresh and local usually gets me higher quality food. Maybe I just like buying things from my neighbors? Also, I am not a chef, just a scientist who likes eating and can cook

Bob del Grosso said...

Yes! That is precisely why I have chosen to work at the farm. The farm gives daily access to high quality, locally produced organic foods.

Michael Pardus said...

Bob, really eloquent. Really.

Bob del Grosso said...

Thanks man.

Natalie Sztern said...

'make it look good and make it taste good'

my new mantra. love this succinct and definite description of what a cook should strive for including a home one.

Tags said...

The time for considering sustainability, carbon footprints and animal welfare is long before you arrange your mis en place and are ready to cook.

Once the ingredients are lined up, it's like Bob says, make it look good and make it taste good.

anne said...

Eloquent indeed, Bob. And the first thing that came to mind is LMH's point.

Two nuances, perhaps. "Worrying about the fate of agriculture and heritage" is only a recent issue because we made it so, and that until a century ago locally, sustainably raised food was the norm. With, of course, the public health issues that ensued--not trying to be hopelessly nostalgic. And an active food trade to supplement the local. We've always wanted more---but that wasn't for the staples.

As for "helping" food look good, I think that it is a modern concern as well. That's coming from my western, mostly French perspective of course, where if you think of court cuisine, Escoffier, and even all the way to nouvelle, it was really about *making* not helping---the food was manipulated to extremes. Whereas now you have chefs, such as Dan Barber, who keep the raw elements as "unmade" as possible, with just a little help.

I am just nitpicking on one word that doesn't change your meaning. But you made me think about this.

Bob del Grosso said...

I added "helping" as an afterthought and may remove it, although I think that the idea had currency many centuries ago in cooking that proceeds from Taoist/Zen principles. So now, I'm not so sure what to think about the problem.

anne said...

That's why I felt I had to specify my bias/knowledge limits, because I could see "helping" taking place in Asia but just don't know enough about Asian cuisines to be sure.

Heath said...


From what I've seen, chefs will talk about how they care about credence issues (who/what/where/how the ingredient was produced), and simultaneously seek out the best stuff from a price/performance perspective.

They will often choose performance (or lower price) and ignore the other factors.

Somehow this is what it means to be a chef today.

E.g. I've seen restaurants that SAY they are committed to buying local, sustainable, organic, FairTrade stuff - but when offered something really great at a low price, they take it. They know better than to ask questions that they don't want answered, as if they got the answer, they'd suffer major cognitive dissonance.

You are the inconvenient guy who is honest enough about what matters to himself that he makes others feel uncomfortable.

Bob del Grosso said...

Thank you for that insightful observation. It makes me slightly nuts to have to listen to people spout pieties then watch as they descend to my level of pragmatic behavior. So, when you write "Somehow this is what it means to be a chef today," it has special resonance with me.
To be a chef today it seems that you have to be a visionary at the TED conference and a businessperson in the kitchen. It's bullsh-t.