The Art of Food
Culinary Arts…True Art?
Someone put the word ‘arts’ after culinary and my wheels started turning. Culinary arts…the art of food…hmm… As you’ve probably picked up by now, I’m a fan of many art forms. And recently, I saw a student of the Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts here in Pasadena, CA. The same school that my sister went to nearly 20 years ago. This student was dressed in her checked pants and white jacket with the school’s emblem embroidered on the front. As I passed her, I read the emblem, though I’d seen it many times before, and the Culinary Arts part stuck in my head. Is it art? Perhaps not in the traditional sense with Michelangelo, Picasso, Matisse, or Rembrandt, to name a few. Not even with Chopin, Beethoven, or Mozart. But if you’ve read my post, Art For Art’s Sake (link) then you know my stance on the matter. Art, by its very definition is creating something out of nothing, for the simple joy and inspiration of creating. Why shouldn’t this include food? Certainly, you’ve seen photos of rather fancy looking plates, where it’s very obvious the chef paid close attention to every detail of how the dish was plated. Is this not artistic in its own way? And not just in presentation, but in the dish itself. Does it not take some artistry along with expertise to prepare a dish just so with spices, herbs, and sauces created to not only tantalize the taste buds, but to please the eye as well?
So, I’ve got a fun one for today’s post. To help me determine if culinary arts is truly an art, I’ll be interviewing my sister, Jennifer, who is a professional chef. And I must say that I am rather proud of my little sister. Her talents in the kitchen rival my talents with paper and pencil. I’ve seen her cater an event (my mother’s 3rd marriage reception) with about 20-30 guests almost entirely by herself. In fact, she rather politely kicked everyone out of the kitchen so she could work her magic. She has since moved to Hawaii where she is a chef at Big City Diner, a popular family restaurant. And she isn’t just any chef. She happens to be the kitchen manager and executive chef at her location.
But first, what exactly is culinary arts by definition? “Culinary Art is the art of good cooking, whether it’s your passion to create a beautiful meal for friends or your job to feed discerning customers at a 5-star restaurant. Culinary Artists, or Culinarians, are responsible for preparing meals that are as pleasing visually as they are to taste.” So one thing pops out at me in that definition…”pleasing visually.” To me, that’s a good indication that there’s more going on than just throwing a few ingredients together, cooking it, slapping it on a dish, and serving it up. But before I get too far ahead of myself, why don’t we just ask the expert…
MN: So, thanks for putting up with my questions, sister! I’ll jump right in and start off by asking, how old were you when you started cooking? I seem to remember you pulling up a chair so that you could reach the stove…
JN: I’m not sure, but I do remember being in the kitchen from a very early age. Mom taught me how to be safe and I was alone in the kitchen mostly. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’d feel safe leaving my kids in the kitchen with fire and knives that young. What the hell, Mom?
MN: Haha! Seriously, right? When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
JN: When I was very young, I would pull the chair to the kitchen counter, climb up on top, and play in the spice cabinet. I would open each jar, read the labels, smell and taste everything. I’d taste flour, cornstarch, herbs, sugars…you name it. I was interested, but had no idea until I was 21 years old. I’d just had a baby and had no direction in my life. I was using meth regularly. I knew I needed to work, but didn’t have a clue what to do. You basically asked why I don’t do something I enjoy and am good at. You told me to go to school so I don’t end up in a job I hate like most people do.
MN: Ah! I give pretty good advice, don’t I? And you’re welcome! Thanks also, for being so candid. I wasn’t going to go into anything too personal, but I’m sure readers would appreciate your accomplishments even more. Knowing that you overcame addiction and still made it to your position is an inspiration! So, the term for the field you’re in is ‘culinary arts.’ Do you consider what you do an art form? And if so, then you consider yourself an artist?
JN: I always felt like I had to live up to your obvious skills as an artist. Yet again, you set me straight by telling me to look at the pictures of the food I’ve made and realize that that’s my art. (You’re doing a really good job as a big sister by the way!) Yes, it can definitely be an art form. I can make something look so beautiful that you wouldn’t even want to eat it!
MN: Aw, shucks! Well, I’ve always been your number one fan! And yes, I’ve seen some of your dishes look so amazing, like they should be the centerpiece of a fancy banquet table. So, I’ve heard it said that a person’s first experience with a meal is visual. Do you consider this to be true?
JN: Absolutely! We have a saying that “you eat with your eyes first”. If the food is sloppy and generally plain looking, it might still taste really good, but if a plate comes and you are visually stimulated by height, textures, and colors first, you are already thinking positively about the food. This is why we garnish.
MN: So is cooking the last thing you want to do when you get home after spending a long day of being in a busy kitchen at work?
JN: Most of the time I don’t mind it. It really doesn’t matter to me because I get in, cook and clean. It’s so fast and easy when you do it all the time.
MN: What is your current position at work and what steps did you take to get there?
JN: I am a kitchen manager/executive chef of my particular location for Big City Diner. I started off as a prep cook and worked my way up.
MN: What does a typical day at work consist of for you?
JN: Ha! Restaurant business is not so typical. I get to work and heat up the entire hotline. I get all food ready to open for business. I have one dishwasher and two prep cooks working in the back kitchen. My first cook comes in when I’m done. The next one comes in one hour later and one more comes in one hour after that. I do a check of the critical holding temps of the line. I step offline and do ordering. I am responsible for training, schedules, inventories, employee reviews, interviewing, hiring, coaching, training, controlling food costs, labor costs, and utility costs. That’s a basic rundown of what my job entails. I also help cook every day during the busy periods.
MN: So if you consider the plate as your canvas and ingredients as your art medium, what are you thinking of when you create a new dish? Aside from local preferences, that is. To be honest, it’s kind of overwhelming to me to think of how ingredients will complement each other or not. Is it simply training or do you have an artistic knack or sense of it?
JN: If I set out to come up with something, I usually struggle. I get a total block. It’s easier when I just go based on a sudden idea or craving. I suppose you can learn what tastes good, but a lot of times I’m not sure if it will taste good. Sometimes I surprise myself! I don’t think you can just have a knack without knowing what things taste like. My times on the counter being nosy are paying off!
MN: Everything you’ve ever fed me has been yummy, so I guess so! Even though Big City Diner is family style cooking, do you still take the time to make sure that every plate is presented well?
JN: I am very OCD. So, yes! The food is placed in a certain position on the plate. Garnishes are well thought out and I am a stickler for that.
MN: Is plating something that you have to train your cooks to do properly?
JN: At BCD we teach positions on the plate as if it were a clock. Starch is at 12 o’clock. When you place it down for the guest, it should still be at 12 o’clock. Veggies or eggs on the left and the meat or main component on the right. Garnish to the left of the starch or on top of different items if it’s called for. For example the meal might consist of rice, kalbi, and eggs. The rice gets a garnish and so does the meat. There is a natural way people take things in visually. The eyes are drawn to a focal point. This point is usually high on the plate or buffet line, whatever the case may be. After that, the rest should have a good flow to it. If there is too much going on, that’s not good. The lines should be crisp and definite, not sloppy.
MN: So how do you make a plate of kimchee fried rice look appealing? It is after all just fried rice. Killer fried rice! But fried rice, nonetheless…
JN: The one we make at the restaurant has many different things going on all at once. The rice is obviously one texture, but even then it’s a blend of two different kinds of rice. The meat is small diced and consists of a mix of 3 different locally made products. The egg is more of a complimentary color, but also an entirely different texture. We add peas and green onions for color. Aside from that, when its actually plated, it is pushed in all around the edges so it looks neat and the rim should be wiped clean. We never smash rice so that its fluffy. We garnish with even more kimchee.
MN: You’ve gained a bit of celebrity associated with your job. Whenever the news or local paper wants to do a segment on the restaurant, the owners want you in front of the camera. How do you like being the face of Big City Diner?
JN: I don’t think I’m that status yet! It’s fun though. I was extremely nervous the first time, but I think I did OK. That anchorman was so handsome though, dammit! It’s fun to have someone recognize you from the paper or the news. It can also be creepy when they remember you by seeing your full name on TV. Even when my face isn’t shown, I am the go-to person for photo shoots. I think the owner of BCD knows that I am very detail oriented and take my time to make it perfect.
MN: OCD comes in handy! And oh my God! You were nervous? I was so nervous for you when they were filming you with some pancakes on the grill and you were ready to flip it over. The camera was zoomed in on it and I was like… ooooh, don’t screw it up, don’t screw it up! But I don’t know why I worried. It was a perfect pancake flip! Why can’t I ever do that? Haha! So, what do you take into consideration when making a plate appealing to the eye?
JN: Color. You don’t want everything to blend into one another. So like any other art form, we use contrasting colors. Textures are also cool to play with.
MN: I know that schooling has taught you invaluable safety and health regulations. But is schooling entirely necessary for someone who wants to get into your field?
JN: No way! While it was a great experience and taught me the basics, it is by no means a requirement. No amount of book and lab studies could prepare you for the real deal. It may have given me an edge over other people contending for the same job. I did my externship as a barista/sandwich-maker. Every job I’ve had, I have become a manager. I started at BCD as a prep cook. So yes, even a dishwasher can rise through the ranks. It all depends on how hard you’re willing to work.
MN: What advice do you have for people who want to become a chef?
JN: Work hard always. Experiment and think outside the box. Be prepared for long hours and physical strain. Be good to your people and pass on knowledge at every opportunity. Never get stagnant. Constantly change things up. It’s very hard work so don’t think it’s what you see on TV or reality shows. You get to the restaurant first and sometimes leave last. You have to be able to think quickly and adapt.
MN: And just so folks know in case they’re visiting Hawaii, what style food does Big City Diner offer?
JN: We offer most breakfast items all day long. You can enjoy burgers and sandwiches and many local favorites, as well. We have quite a few lighter options, including salads and some hot entrees. We even have some vegetarian options.
MN: Sweet! Thanks for your time, sister!
So there you have it from the chef’s mouth. Perhaps not art in the traditional sense according to the stuffed-shirt-museum-curator-types, but an art nonetheless. And hey, I’m not the one who put the word ‘art’ after culinary, so I’m obviously not the only one who thinks culinary arts is truly an art. Next time you go to a restaurant, notice how your plate looks before you dig in. Inevitably there’s some kind of garnish that often times doesn’t get eaten. That kale leaf your food is sitting on, for example. Why waste ingredients? Why not just plop your meal on the plate and send it out to the table? Why? Because dining out is supposed to be an enjoyable experience. An enjoyable experience that begins with the eyes and ends with happy taste buds and a satisfied belly. If that isn’t an art, then I don’t know what is!
For anyone visiting Hawaii, check out Big City Diner at any of their six O’ahu locations. You won’t be disappointed!