Searching for Caravaggio in the Kitchen

They say we eat with our eyes first — but is food nourishment, or art, or both? At Taste, art history professor Noah Charney tries to answer the question, looking at the similarities between professional kitchens and Renaissance artists’ studios.

Mechanically reproducing recipes well and consistently is all that most diners require. Cooking is largely a repetitive series of movements, following formulas we call recipes, and it can be taught at schools or through restaurant training. How to fillet sea bream, perfectly cook a steak, boil al dente pasta—these are attributes of disegno.

But it’s invenzione that distinguishes a great chef from a good cooks. “You have some chefs who are artists and have a vision, and those chefs are creative,” Ripert says. “They’re creative by inventing new techniques, by using new ingredients in new ways, by creating new flavors and consistencies, and so on.”

So let’s leave aside the good cooks and consider the great chefs. Are they up there with the great artists? Can Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner stand alongside Leonardo’s Last Supper, or Thomas Keller’s Oysters and Pearls beside Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring? And is David Gelb a modern-day Giorgio Vasari, filming, rather than writing, a sort of group biography of the greatest chef-artists of our age?

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