Friday, November 30, 2012

Arts et Cuisine

Last weekend I went to the 8th annual "Food and Culture" seminar, an event co-sponsored by the Université François-Rabelais and the Institut Européen d'Histoire et des Cultures de l'Alimentation (European Institute of Food History and Culture). There were panelists from all over France, and one or two from other countries, though the focus was on the state of cuisine and food culture in France for the most part. The IEHCA is, among other things, trying to get UNESCO approval for the entirety of French culinary history through the present day being designated as having world heritage status. Tours itself is in the running for the title of Cité de la Gastronomie, representing the core principles of traditional French cuisine and terroir. Part of the IEHCA's project is trying to work with the French people themselves, fighting the decline in traditional family meals, the rise in quick MacDo lunches instead of unhurried solid bistro fare, and the lack of actual decent bistros to eat in.

There were panel discussions on service and presentation, on depictions of food and eating in paintings and movies, and on the question of whether cooking, or l'art culinaire, is worthy of being an Art-with-a-capital-A - and if so, why? I found most of the discussions very interesting: philosophical approaches to the nature of art, whether it's a technical skill or an aesthetic experience; the role of food in religious iconography; films like "Babette's Feast" and "Ratatouille" (and they didn't mention "Tampopo" but I thought about it); food's influence on other Arts - architects are hired to design restaurants and generations of 18th-century silversmiths spent months designing ornate serving dishes - and Art's influence on food, as seen in highly stylized platings and vertical pastries. The fleeting nature of the medium, and the fact that it depends on individual tastebuds.

I took about ten pages of notes, in a mangled Franglais. Here are some random jottings:

  • T-Fal is experimenting with a pan that changes color depending on how hot it is.
  • Formal dining and religion both involve transubstantiation, rites, a specific order of events, and servers who are in ritual clothing.
  • Many words in many languages, such as bitter, describe tastes as well as emotions.
  • No one not of peasant class was ever depicted in the act of eating during the Renaissance, and in general not often thereafter either.
  • Old men and widows were once supposed to avoid eating chicken because it would make them lusty.
  • Most artwork depicts ingredients, rather than finished dishes.

An interesting definition of "artist" came up in the second panel discussion, about how to be an artist one needs to be recognized by the public, generally because they're purchasing if not simply admiring one's works, and one must also have a group of students to pass techniques on to. That seems to limit the chef = artist possibilities down to the top-name varieties - or else it opens it up completely to anyone who has a restaurant and a sous-chef. If a soufflé falls in a kitchen and there is no one to eat it, does it have a flavor? Another topic was whether cooking and the restaurant business was like theatre, in that you're performing for an audience, or whether because food can't be fully appreciated without eating it, there is no audience but rather a collaborative effort.

After all that talk, it was time to eat; I'd paid my 28 euros for lunch and to guarantee my place in the food photography session that first afternoon, so went over to the Hôtel de Ville where a buffet had been laid out. I'd rather hoped for a sit-down lunch, because I find it annoying to walk around holding tiny plates and forks, and because there's usually more chance of food I can eat, but alas, it was not to be. I ate the middle out of a slice of tourte à la viande and enjoyed some of the pork rillettes that had been molded into the shapes of geese and pig's heads, but everything else was dangerous. I got a little dish of something I thought was described as tartare de saumon but which tasted like mayonnaise mixed with chunks of butter. I had half a cup of chestnut soup, which did have cream in it, but marrons are in season right now and its smelled divine (it tasted good, too). I had a slice of ham and a spoonful of butter-laden parsnip purée and a glass of local red wine to wash all the dairy products down. And a dried fig with a bit of Sainte-Maure de Touraine tucked inside, which was really delicious. And then I took a probiotic pill, and went downstairs to look at the "Street Food" photography exhibit.

The big-name draw to the conference was Thierry Marx, and he was supposed to be on the first panel but was delayed somewhere. He had sponsored the "Young Talents" portion of the recently-completed 4th International Festival of Food Photography, and some of those photos were on display. The photo entries for the main competition are on the festival's website; I particularly like the ones by Pauline Daniel. Food photography was my chosen breakout workshop, but as I mentioned to Mom recently, it was more a philosophical and historical overview than a how-to session (which is what I'd hoped for, since I'd like to improve my camera skills). I did get some good ideas from the exhibit photographs, though.

Anne-Claire Si Fodil is an expert in food imagery and she introduced the beginnings of what has become "food blogging" as well as general illustration of food products and dishes. As noted earlier in the day, there wasn't much in the way of depictions of finished dishes in art, and the first such picture she referenced was a drawing of a savory pastry from a recipe book dated 1898. Food photographs started appearing around 1903 and by the 1940s there were color photos that started portraying not only the ingredients and the final dish, but also tables with multiple items. In 1977 the first (to her) "art" photo of food appeared with the full-page "Cerises en Beignet" (below, right), and from then on the medium developed to such an extent that now there are artists using food to create photographs of landscapes and photographs of food that are so artistic you don't even realize they're of a particular foodstuff.

Can food photography, the panel mused, being something that is both artistic and illustrative, help diners and chefs both learn how to appreciate food more? By emphasizing the beauty of a dish, it encourages us to slow down and enjoy the visual aspect of eating; by highlighting the previously ignored details of a humble rutabaga, for example, it could inspire chefs to a deeper understanding of their ingredients.

The phrase paparazzi gastronomique was used to describe the obsessive food bloggers (guilty!) who take pictures of everything they eat in restaurants, and it was noted that some restaurants have banned photography entirely. I've stopped using a flash in restaurants, personally, but don't plan on stopping my obsessive behaviour. After all, if I don't practice, how will I get better?

The famous M. Marx (the bald guy in the middle of the panel below) was there for the second day's opening session, which centered on the question of what creativity is, and where it comes from, and how that applies to cooking. One of the other chefs said that to him the creative process was the spirit of joy and exploration and curiosity he enjoyed working with his entire kitchen team. The pastry chef on the panel said that he didn't work that way, but was driven by what the customer demanded, and that faut qu'il y a un but, un thème assez précis. That struck home with me - I think I'm like that, better at being creative on demand, for other people, than in coming up with things on my own.

The thing about creativity, though, concluded the panel, is that in cooking you can be as creative as you want, but if the customer doesn't eat what you make, it's useless. Thierry Marx said that as far as French cuisine goes, if chefs don't move towards new things and innovation, what will happen to the culinary arts? When clients are stubborn, you might have to work towards basing the dishes in tradition and more familiar flavors, but you don't have to stop any forward (or sideways) movement entirely. The fact that chefs require paying customers in order to survive was mentioned again, as well as the fact that it's easier to handle new flavor experiences when you're traveling but that people (i.e. the French public) expect the traditional and comfortable tastes of home when they're in France. But that's changing, said Marx; do we go to a restaurant because we're hungry, or because we're looking for a different experience than we'd get at home? And chefs in France used to be judged on how well they faithfully reproduced a standard dish, but now they're being critiqued on their original interpretations of same. "Dare to be creative!" was his constant theme.

One of the other chefs described how he'd been working with a group of American chefs, and that when it comes to cooking, "with Americans everything is possible" because they look at ingredients and wonder what can be made from them, rather than what should be. And that the French chefs are afraid of making mistakes, and they're stuck in "the way it's always been done" - the example was celery-root peelings, which French cooks throw away, but which (according to him) were turned into another dish in Korea. But be proud of France's culinary heritage, repeated Marx, and the fundamental strengths of French techniques that chefs around the world study even today.

And yet the weaknesses of today's France were admitted, with Marx saying that "en France on mange vraiment mal" especially when compared with someplace like Italy or Japan, where no matter how small the town or out of the way the tiny cafe, the food will be good and well-cooked by someone who knows what they're doing. The panel blamed this on the lack of family cooking at home these days, la cuisine familiale. As in the US, there's less and less cooking done at home, and more things being heated up in the microwave, so children don't grow up being at the very least familiar with the concept of cooking, much less educated in basic techniques. I didn't get a chance to ask a question of the panel, but it would have been this: we educate children to learn to appreciate other forms of art, by giving them books to read and taking them to museums and such, but you can't create a museum of foods they can go to and taste, so how should we teach children about food? After all, it's one thing that children aren't growing up learning how to cook, and another that they're not growing up with an educated palate. The first will deprive a country of chefs - but the second, much larger population, will deprive a country of people who even consider patronizing the places the chefs work.

There was a panel discussion that was supposed to be on the relationship between pastry and architecture, but it ended up being hijacked by an audience member who talked really loudly even though he had a microphone and for much too long (and mostly about himself and his considered opinions), so I left a little early. An interesting quote from the architect Le Corbusier started off the discussion, however: "La femme sera heureuse si son mari est heureux. Le sourire des femmes est le don des dieux. Alors faîtes donc de votre cuisine le lieu du sourire féminin! Et que ce sourire rayonne de la cuisine sur l’homme et les enfants présents autour de ce sourire." ("The wife will be happy if her husband is happy. Women's smiles are the gifts of the gods. And a well-made kitchen is worth peace in the home, so make your kitchen the place of the feminine smile! And may the smile beam forth from the kitchen over the man and the children in the presence of that smile." - quote and translation provided by panelist Catherine Clarisse, architect and author of the 2004 book Recettes d'Architecture.)

There was one more panel that afternoon that I took notes on, about the art of service and the profession of waitron, which was somewhat startling as I didn't think people actually made a career of that any more, but apparently they do. That's another area of restaurant life that hasn't made much progress (officially) in France since the early 1900s either, the professional maître d'hôtel on the panel noted, and archaic traditions combined with the fact that the choice of going into what is essentially vocational school for a career in the service industry needs to be made when French students are 15 years old or so is making it difficult for restaurants to hire qualified staff, and to keep them in le métier de la salle. There are living-wage rules and a good social support system here in France (as well as a built-in tip on the restaurant bill) that could make it economically feasible to have a career like that, but I wonder if you could get by in the United States? Have a glass of vin de Touraine and let me know what you think.

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