Chef as Artistic Genius

Chef Alfred Portale, Gotham Bar & Grill

Executive Chef Alfred Portale, Gotham Bar & Grill

There are those who invent clocks and others who tell the time. There are architects who design buildings and folks who paint them. There are artisans who make violins and artists who composers of concertos.

We tend to think of artistic creativity as springing from the minds of dancers and painters and musicians, but plumbers, electricians and vacuum cleaner engineers also invent novel solutions to problems. They are creative geniuses too.

We all know chefs who acquire or are endowed with exceptional ability. Some are intellectual giants. Some are blessed with intuitive talent.

If we tried to make a list of influential chefs, it would reach from Lucullus who drew his last breath in 56 B.C. and trace a glorious gastronomic path through the prism of Apicius who took his first breath in 25 B.C. We’d mention Taillevent 1310 – 1395, and Rabelais who tirelessly described sixty ways to cook an egg.

In his treatise Gargantua, Rabelais wrote, “Drink always and you shall never die,” though unfortunately he did — in 1553.

We’d add to our list, Catherine de’ Medici, who arrived from Italy as a tiny betrothed 14 year-old and became the Queen of France. She changed the culinary landscape by introducing the French court to truffles, Parmesan cheese, artichokes, quenelles, roast duckling with orange sauce and pasta — lots and lots of pasta.

It has been observed there wouldn’t have been a Renaissance without pasta, because hungry men growl, and with rumbling tummies, foment revolutions whereas the well-fed sing happy songs and bequeath everlasting beauty. With a bellyful of spaghetti, a person can contemplate creation itself.

It was Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher who lived from 341 B.C. to 270 B.C. who wisely declared, “The beginning and root of all good is to make the stomach happy; wisdom and learning are founded on that.”

By Gum! If only those old Greeks still ruled the world we would all be living in Paradise instead of dwelling in perpetual poverty.

Do you remember the dictum of King Henri IV, patron of that venerable inn, La Tour d’Argent? He pronounced his monarchy philosophy thusly, “If God allows me to live, and I will see that there is not a single laborer in my kingdom who does not have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.” And that pronouncement was made in the mid-1500s before the Colonel fried his very first KFC.

As we march through the menus of time we stumble across Colbert, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Minister of Finance who served the Sun King, Louis, 14th. He approved France’s purchase of Quebec and Louisiana even though according to writer Daniel Rogov, author of Rogues, Writers & Whores, Dining with the Rich & Famous, “he could see no way to convince the savages that inhabit those lands to buy our fashionable frocks.” However, Colbert did see the colonies as a source for enriching the French larder, (though the future presence of McDonald’s in the Musée du Louvre was surely not what he had in mind).

Parmentier was the person who persuaded Parisians to set aside their fear of potatoes. This feat of conversion from fear of crisp spuds prompted Chef Curnonsky’s description of French fries as being among “the most spiritual creations of Parisian genius.” The original French fries are thought to have been first consumed beneath the bridges of Paris during the French Revolution and were known as Pommes Pont-Neuf.

Thus we stride through the first stirrings of culinary creationism and evolve from Sauce Béarnaise to Green Goddess Dressing, from Poulet Demi Deuil with a fine Bordeaux to Chicken Nuggets with Diet Coke. We have traveled far and with increasing width from Sachertorte to Twinkies.

Each stage in the devolution of our culinary journey takes us to new heights: from the 17th century’s influence of La Varenne, we stride through gastronomy to honor: Brillat-Savarin, Marcel Boulestin, Antonin Carême, Choron, Dugléré, Nicolas Appert, (who invented canning), to Auguste Escoffier; Alain Chapel; Alain Ducasse and Alain Senderens to  Ferdinand Point; Guy Savoy and Gordon Ramsay; Chef Boyardee and Rachael Ray’s discovery of 365 ways to use leftover hot dogs.

We can all agree that Alfred Portale, a former jewelry designer and top of his class graduate of the CIA, is among the most inventive and highly acclaimed chefs of our time. As too are Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller and a host of others who have ascended into the exalted pantheon of kitchen deities.

What distinguishes these creamers of crops is their ability to think creatively: so not salt and predictable pepper but salt on caramel. Not those four seasons but twelve seasons in a year.

It is said: “No one is born with taste. Taste must be acquired not only by tasting but by learning and reading in dozens of disciplines and by experimenting and perfecting and making choices; choices about the right ingredients are of no greater or less importance than choosing the right words to describe your purpose.”

It is one thing to name an item on the menu fish eggs and astonishingly more profitable to whisper the word caviar. To say liver of a fat duck is less enticing than Fat Duck’s Foie (gras).  Or pâté rather than cold  meat loaf. Pommes frites go better with steak than Freedom Fries, a dish of revenge best served cold.

Robert F. Kennedy wrote, “Some dream of things that are and ask, Why? Others dream of things that never were and ask, Why not?” Nonconformists and risk takers possess the ability to paint toothache in fondant or describe the seductive smell of sizzling onions.

Creativity is a skill that can be developed. It is based on the fundamentals of technical knowledge and soaring imagination. Leonardo da Vinci had to understand the elements of anatomy in order to paint the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper; Picasso had to understand the fundamentals of art before creating his own cubistic artistry.

Every great chef starts to climb the ladder of stardom only after fully understanding the pure ecstasy of a well-constructed consommé. It is this grasp of complex simplicity that separates the sous from the celeb.

It takes a certain kind of intellect to think of serving a beefsteak tomato with a steak knife. To say “I love!” in a different way.

To invent a new dish is to pay homage to all who cooked before us and all the consumers who declared the chef to be an artist.