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Cooking

Cooking: The Quintessential Art

HERVÉ THIS
PIERRE GAGNAIRE
TRANSLATED BY M.B. DeBEVOISE
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 366
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt7zw213
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    Cooking
    Book Description:

    From its intriguing opening question—"How can we reasonably judge a meal?"—to its rewarding conclusion, this beautiful book picks up where Brillat-Savarin left off almost two centuries ago. Hervé This, a cofounder (with the late physicist Nicholas Kurti) of the new approach to studying the scientific basis of cooking known as molecular gastronomy, investigates the question of culinary beauty in a series of playful, lively, and erudite dialogues. Considering the place of cuisine in Western culture, This explores an astonishing variety of topics and elaborates a revolutionary method for judging the art of cooking. Many of the ideas he introduces in this culinary romance are illustrated by dishes created by Pierre Gagnaire, whose engaging commentaries provide rare insights into the creative inspiration of one of the world's foremost chefs. The result is an enthralling, sophisticated, freewheeling dinner party of a book that also makes a powerful case for openness and change in the way we think about food.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94212-7
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. TWO INTRODUCTIONS (pp. 1-6)

    HERVÉ THIS How can we reasonably judge a meal? How can we go beyond merely liking or disliking what is served to us? From my almost daily discussions with my friend Pierre Gagnaire and from my constant practice a good many years now of the discipline known as molecular gastronomy, I have come to see that the world of food is urgently in need of clearer standards of judgment.

    The question is not a simple one. We must first decide whether a cook has mastered basic techniques. Cooking meat at a low temperature, for example, which is nothing other than...

  4. PART ONE: THE BEAUTIFUL IS THE GOOD
    • ONE THE EXISTENCE OF A CULINARY ART (pp. 9-13)

      It is traditionally accepted that music is an art, that painting is an art, that theater is an art—no less than literature and, for more than a century now, the cinema. Why not cooking? Its essential function of providing nourishment has caused us to forget that, in the hands of a great cook, a meal is capable of touching us as a love song does, of giving us joy, occasionally even of moving us to anger. To the extent that it detaches itself from tradition (which works to consign it to the status of an artisanal trade or craft,...

    • TWO ARTISANAL VERSUS ARTISTIC CUISINE (pp. 14-30)

      A clear distinction needs to be made between craft and art in cooking. The hallmarks of craft are workmanship, repetition, tradition. Art, by contrast, demands emotion, creation, expression.

      A week later, again in the evening. The same four friends, this time in Cécile’s restaurant. The room is simple: stone walls, tile floor. The meal is coming to an end, around a long table, covered with a coarsely woven white tablecloth, before a chimney so large that a person could fit inside. Only the dessert plates, water carafes, and a bottle of late-harvest Gewürztraminer remain on the table. The condensation on...

    • THREE TRADITION AND LOVE (pp. 31-46)

      Since the beginning of the twentieth century, artist-chefs have sought to throw off the yoke of the French restaurateur Auguste Escoffier. Along with many collaborators who often go unmentioned (notably among them Édouard Nignon, Thomas Gringoire, and Louis Saulnier), Escoffier codified the rules and techniques of classical cuisine, giving many dishes their familiar names while, at the same time, restricting the range of artistic possibilities. Some chefs have reacted by exploring new culinary directions more or less systematically, forgetting that the pursuit of novelty for its own sake is without interest. Culinary artists must remember that tradition has its own...

    • FOUR THE QUESTION OF NATURE (pp. 47-58)

      There is a sort of intellectual negligence in believing that nature is good, and a sort of dishonesty in promoting this belief in order to make it easier to sell food products. Nature is neither good nor bad: it is both the springtime that brings forth vegetables and fruits, and the winter that brings starvation. The human race has continually searched for ways to protect itself against the natural environment. If we wear clothes and live in houses, it is because the idyllic state of nature that we are forever imagining is far removed from reality.

      We should think twice...

    • FIVE THE RECOGNITION OF A CULINARY ART (pp. 59-74)

      Can one speak of a specifically culinary aesthetics? There will always be, alas, those who believe that aesthetics must involve what is beautiful to look at, whereas cooking produces what is beautiful to eat. Writers on gastronomy have not ceased to encourage this way of thinking. In recent times, the French critic Maurice Edmond Sailland, known as Curnonsky, was particularly responsible for the idea that the good in cooking is entirely a question of the ingredients and has nothing to do with the work of the cook—or, as we should say, the artist.

      Hélène and Jean are waiting for...

  5. PART TWO: CLASSICAL IDEAS OF BEAUTY
    • SIX THE ORIGIN OF BEAUTY (pp. 77-84)

      Art is inseparable from the problem of constraints. The prehistoric artist had to contend with the irregular surface of stone walls; the modern artist has made the handling of perspective easier by painting on flat canvases. Victor Hugo was a master of the alexandrine; later poets freed themselves from the impediments of the twelve-syllable line while adopting other metric rules. Art no longer has the virtue ascribed to it in prehistoric times: no one today believes that capturing the image of an object or creature confers a physical power over the thing represented.

      Back from Les Eyzies, Jean telephones Denis....

    • SEVEN BEAUTY BY NUMBERS (pp. 85-92)

      Cécile and Hélène are standing at the counter of a café across from the Sorbonne. Outside it’s pouring rain.

      HÉLÈNE The weekend was a complete failure. Jean’s a fool. I invited Sylvie to come with us down to Les Eyzies, and once we got there he paid no attention to us. He said he had some meetings in Périgueux and didn’t have time. What’s more, my book was stolen.

      CÉCILE I know, Denis told me. But apparently Jean says that you and Sylvie went off to see a conservator without giving a thought to him.

      HÉLÈNE We left him alone...

    • EIGHT THE IDEA OF FLAVOR (pp. 93-107)

      The ancient Greeks regarded art with a certain ambivalence. For Plato, there was something reprehensible about the notion of imitating nature: art was possible only if habit and routine were excluded. Artistic value was reserved for works that revealed truth, which is to say the good. Over the intervening centuries our thinking about beauty in music, literature, sculpture, and painting has evolved—but hardly at all in cooking.

      Coming out of the Musée Camondo, Denis gives a kiss to Hélène, who then departs.

      CÉCILE You’ve done nothing but talk to Hélène since the moment we got here!

      DENIS What do...

    • NINE ARISTOTLE AND SUBTLETY (pp. 108-124)

      Aristotle, following Plato, held that art consists in the imitation of nature. In hisPoetics, however, Aristotle considers in greater detail what constitutes a work of art and lays particular emphasis on the need for coherence. His aesthetics suggest innumerable paths for culinary art to follow, as the other arts have done in their own different ways.

      At Hélène’s apartment. The place is a mess, books everywhere. The table is covered with open notebooks.

      CÉCILE Hélène! Denis is a dear! Do you know what he did? He went back to the Musée Camondo after we left and wrote down some...

  6. PART THREE: BEAUTY IN THE MIDDLE AGES
    • TEN THE PATH TO THE MYSTICAL GOOD (pp. 127-144)

      Instinctive cooking or intellectual cuisine? The question is no less pertinent in the case of culinary art than of music or painting, and the answer is obvious: a work must be pleasing, above all, but there can be no art in making the same choucroute over and over again, any more than in singing “Frère Jacques” over and over again. Poets and philosophers in the West who came after Plato and Aristotle pursued this theme, while distorting their thought. Horace was the first to insist that art must teach something, that it be didactic. Later, others argued that imitation becomes...

    • ELEVEN OF COOKING AND CATHEDRALS (pp. 145-152)

      Numerology is the tendency to search for numbers everywhere—even where they aren’t to be found. Many numbers display interesting mathematical properties, of course, notably the number pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter) and the golden ratio (also called the golden section or the divine proportion), which was used in the construction of the great Gothic cathedrals during the Middle Ages. Despite the undeniable fascination of the golden ratio, its presence in a work of art cannot be regarded as a condition of beauty.

      A lecture hall at the Sorbonne. Denis and Cécile are...

    • TWELVE BOETHIUS AND THE BRAIN (pp. 153-165)

      We recognize geometric forms because our brain has been shaped by millions of years of evolution: without the capacity to recognize predator or prey, neither survival nor reproduction nor descent with variation would be possible. Similarly, we must be able to recognize tastes, whether the sweetness of energy-giving berries or the bitterness of poisonous vegetables.

      There is a certain tradition in cooking that reinforces flavor by visual appearance, but a culinary art that seeks to free itself from outmoded rules may also wish to avoid such redundancies.

      And what are we to make, today, of the medieval view that gluttony...

    • THIRTEEN THOMAS AQUINAS AND THE GREEN OF THE GRASS (pp. 166-178)

      In medieval Europe, the Church dominated intellectual life and God was necessarily at the center of aesthetic debates. Those things were considered beautiful that had pure colors, particularly green for its identification with spring, which symbolized the renewal of life associated with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Art was identified with making, which is to say achieving a certain result by means of technical skill. Thus a work of art was said to be beautiful if it corresponded to the end in view. In cooking, the technique of making “extracts” is a form of distillation that leads us back to...

    • FOURTEEN DRAWING EARTH NEARER TO HEAVEN (pp. 179-188)

      The artists of the Middle Ages made use of allegory as a means of explicating the supernatural correspondence between material objects and the cosmos, and of discerning in earthly things a reflection of God. They also sought to create works having the proper size and proportion, since it was in accordance with this rule that God created the world.

      Jean and Cécile find Hélène at the entrance to the hall where she is about to give her lecture. Students pass by, talking, without paying any attention to them.

      JEAN Hello, Hélène. Cécile told me about your lecture and I thought...

  7. PART FOUR: ARTISTIC CREATIVITY UNBOUND
    • FIFTEEN MEDIEVAL RAMIFICATIONS (pp. 191-197)

      The Middle Ages lasted nearly a millennium. Conceptions of man’s relation to God quite naturally changed over such a long period, with the result that notions of what constituted art were many and varied. Robert Grosseteste, Albertus Magnus, and Saint Bonaventure each made important contributions to the formation of aesthetic theory. With the optical researches of Vitellion, a new emphasis came to be placed on the qualitative, subjective aspect of sensory experience, the full implications of which were to be appreciated only much later.

      After discussing the most recent packet of pages with Cécile and Hélène on their walk after...

    • SIXTEEN THE OCCULT INFLUENCE OF ARISTOTLE LIVES ON (pp. 198-211)

      One influential medieval tradition, adopted from the ancient Greeks, sought to divide the world and most phenomena into four parts: four regions of the world, four cardinal points, four elements. In chemistry, a revolution occurred with the development of distillation, which produced a fifth element, the “quinte essence.” Today we preserve something of this ancient prejudice in the form of the false doctrine of the four tastes. The time has come to combat it, in order to free cooks from an unproductive constraint that stands in the way of creativity. For the same reason, culinary techniques, which to a large...

    • SEVENTEEN THE DAWN OF THE RENAISSANCE (pp. 212-222)

      Toward the close of the Middle Ages, the idea took hold that artists must imagine, and that what they imagine must appear to be real. More than this, it came to be believed that artists must bring forth ideas from matter—a notion similar to that of the abstract painters of the twentieth century. We must nonetheless be careful to avoid anachronism: the urge to imitate nature was long to remain deeply rooted in the minds of artists.

      Near the entrance to the Luxembourg Gardens at the Rue de Vaugirard, Hélène and Jean are standing in line in front of...

    • EIGHTEEN FROM THE RENAISSANCE ONWARD (pp. 223-230)

      During the Renaissance, the artistic genre of the grotesque reunited contraries: the material and the spiritual, the inert and the animate, and so on. Although many philosophers and artists still hesitated to acknowledge taking the Greeks as their models, their advocacy of reason gradually began to free aesthetics from Christian principles.

      Inspector Belmont rings the bell of Hélène’s apartment. Doors can be heard closing inside. Hélène then appears and lets him in.

      JÉRÔME Excuse me for being late.

      HÉLÈNE Please come in. Nothing today, nothing new.

      JÉRÔME Good. There’s already a lot of material. Do you mind if I take...

    • NINETEEN THE ENLIGHTENMENT IN THE WEST AND THE EAST (pp. 231-242)

      Whereas in the eighteenth century, in the West, the idea took hold that a beautiful painting should arouse in the viewer thoughts of things already seen or of things that could possibly be seen, Chinese painters of the period made no distinction between the beauty of a work and the moral character of the artist. In the extreme case, a technically superb work was thought to be worth nothing if the artist did not have the requisite personal qualities. Through work and meditation the artist was expected to make himself a peerless technician who had so thoroughly learned the rules...

    • TWENTY NATURE OVERCOME (pp. 243-256)

      In the early nineteenth century, the German poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe held that, in the symbolist conception of art, objects do not exist in and of themselves, but rather by virtue of a higher realm of being to which they give access. Symbolism is therefore different from allegory, for which the object exists only by virtue of its symbolic value. In Goethe’s view, beauty is an embodiment of the universal in the specific.

      Together with the poet Friedrich von Schiller, Goethe identified “retarding” or “impeding” themes in epic poetry, an idea that was later to be adopted...

  8. PART FIVE: THE PRESENT AND FUTURE OF COOKING
    • TWENTY-ONE THE MANY STRANDS OF MODERNITY (pp. 259-270)

      In the early nineteenth century, Friedrich Hegel held that beauty is not to be confused with the work of art itself, for a work of art is artificial whereas beauty may be natural as well. At about the same time, Honoré de Balzac suggested that the purpose of art is not to copy nature, but to express it. Eugène Delacroix liberated painting in urging the painter to seek the means for rendering nature and its effects in his own imagination: “Painting has no need for a subject.” In reaction against naturalism, the poets of the symbolist movement sought to suggest...

    • TWENTY-TWO YESTERDAY (pp. 271-288)

      During the troubled years that saw the rise of Nazism in Germany, the Bauhaus sought to reconceive the teaching of architecture, design, and art. Carrying on a great tradition that went back to Leonardo da Vinci, this school looked to science for inspiration. Its faculty included Wassily Kandinsky, one of the great pioneers of abstract art, who sought to illuminate the human heart.

      Denis and Jean are walking down a street. Denis is carrying a big briefcase and Jean is dressed in light colors.

      DENIS So, we haven’t seen much of you lately.

      JEAN I was away on business. And...

    • TWENTY-THREE AND TOMORROW? (pp. 289-298)

      Why should modern culinary art lag behind the other arts? There is no reason in principle why current research should not produce novel ideas—but philosophers and scientists and cooks will have to work hand in hand if we are to succeed in liberating cooking from the tyranny of what we have been eating for so long.

      At Cécile’s restaurant. It is closed, and all the lights are off except for a small lamp on a table near the kitchen at which Denis, Hélène, Jean, and Cécile are seated.

      CÉCILE How different everything seems since our dinner a few months...

    • TWENTY-FOUR SIMPLICITY AND COMPLETENESS (pp. 299-316)

      Will we eat nutritive tablets or food pills in the future? No, this is a fantasy. Evolution has taken millions of years to forge a palate in human beings that cooking must satisfy. This implies that our food must have smell, taste, freshness, spiciness, texture, and so on. All the senses must be stimulated, because culinary art is a complete art, but one that must aim at simplicity as well.

      The following Sunday, in the closed restaurant. Outside it is dark. Inside only the lights in the kitchen are on. A table in the dining room is set with silverware...

    • TWENTY-FIVE THE ILLUSION OF THE PERFECT BOUILLON (pp. 317-326)

      The same characters, a little later in the evening. A few mignardises are left on the table. Before each person, a glass of dark golden cognac. Jean and Denis are comfortably settled into their chairs. Hélène is curled up on hers, and Cécile is standing, her elbows on the table.

      CÉCILE And so, what do you think of my bouillon?

      HÉLÈNE The wonderful thing about a bouillon is that it doesn’t admit of any affectation. You can’t play the game of changing plates with it. Solid foods can be arranged on bread trenchers, or on fabrics or chinaware, or in...

  9. NOTES (pp. 327-336)
  10. LIST OF RECIPES (pp. 337-340)
  11. INDEX (pp. 341-355)
  12. Back Matter (pp. 356-357)