Art Versus Craft.

Last week, I sent my friend Ben in LA a box of cookies. I had baked a ridiculous amount of several different types: chocolate cherry chip, madeleines, hazelnut-anise, olive oil and, of course, Medz Mama’s cookies. Since I knew Ben wouldn’t mind eating my leftovers, I packed up a sampler and headed to the post office. When he got the cookies, Ben phoned to say thanks and we had a nice little chat, so I was surprised to get another call a few days later, after he had tried each one.

“Krikey,” he said, “you could sell these.”

When I heard that, I felt a thrill; what a nice compliment! Once I had thought about it more, however, my excitement quickly faded. After all, I hadn’t invented the cookie recipes, nor had I put my own twist on them. With the exception of Medz Mama’s cookies, I had pulled my miscellaneous cookbooks out of their cupboard (and in the cases of the olive oil cookies and the madeleines, I had gone to Mark Bittman and Heidi Swanson respectively) and dutifully followed the instructions to the letter. The result was an abundance of homemade cookies, to be sure. But should I have truly received the credit for making them?

(A quick deviation from the plot: I’ve made mention of my love for Top Chef in the past; what I failed to bring up is my love for Tom Colicchio. Perhaps love is a strong word; obviously I don’t know the man, only his television persona. Regardless, he is my favorite judge on the show. I appreciate his no-nonsense, straightforward demeanor, and I like how that mentality comes through in his cookbook Think Like A Chef.)

In this month’s issue of GQ, there is a short piece with Colicchio, done in Q+A format (my favorite). In it, he says the following:

If you just follow recipes, you’re not teaching yourself how to cook. Once you understand technique — how to roast something, how to braise, how to sauté properly — you won’t need recipes anymore. You can start cooking your own food.

Is Colicchio right? Can you not learn how to cook by reading and trying recipes? Obviously, you need a basic sort of understanding when it comes to the fundamentals, and I know I can thank my mother for teaching me that. That said, is what Colicchio is describing the craft of cooking, or the art?

To me, running alongside a recipe shows the understanding of the craft, while inventing a unique recipe is the sign of art. When it comes to cooking, I most certainly lack the artistry. I’ve never claimed to be a good cook; if anything, I’ve claimed to be able to follow a recipe really well. This past Easter, I served two entrées and four side dishes that I had never made before, as well as a whole string of desserts whose recipes seemed interesting; I’m pleased to report that everything ended up tasting exactly as intended. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t items that cause me to lose culinary confidence, because I’m nervous about roasting a whole bird and I find the idea of using yeast a bit terrifying. (At least I’m not alone.) But does this mean I don’t know how to cook?

This past Sunday I had book club over for brunch; at the last minute I decided to bake scones, which I hadn’t ever done before. Since I didn’t have my cookbooks handy when I made up my mind, I turned to Google and found a recipe. The result was so lovely that I baked a second batch immediately after my friends had left. Here’s a photo of the wet ingredients meeting the dry, which I snapped because the cranberries simply looked so pretty, with the white cream puddling in their little crinkly wrinkles.

If the delicious product I turned out of this bowl means that I can’t cook (or bake), then that’s fine by me.

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2 thoughts on “Art Versus Craft.

  1. Another late comment…I’m going through your whole blog, last to first. I have already added several books to my Amazon wish list, thanks. However, as a professional chef, I need to say that cooking IS an art, baking, however, is a science. You really do need to follow recipes quite closely when baking. This doesn’t mean you can’t add your own twist, for instance, adding nuts, or changing an add-in. However, the proportions of flour, eggs, oil, yeast, baking powder, soda, etc. must be closely followed until you absolutely know how these things work, and what you must do to come up with recipes entirely your own. This will always be hit-or-miss. It might take a half-dozen tries before you have come up with a final recipe. Successful baking is a thing of beauty, and if your products come out well, even when first attempting a new recipe, consider yourself talented. I know many people who cannot manage to bake anything successfully.

    I am loving your blog. Keep up the great work. You talk about the two things dearest to my heart, books and cooking.

  2. I’ve got to agree — baking IS a science, and one I’ve only recently begun to study. In a way it’s too bad, I almost failed science in school. Here’s hoping I fare better with baking…

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