My interview with chef -restaurateur Grant Achatz was a far-ranging affair, touching upon his Michigan childhood, his early cooking influences, his relationship with Charlie Trotter , his creative restlessness, his cancer treatments, his recovery and his future. Whether for space or taste, much of our conversation didn’t make it into this week’s Q&A.
Thank God for virtual space, which is unbound by the limits of the page (and sometimes the limits of editorial prerogatives). Here is the first of the outtakes from our interview. The questions and answers have been edited for clarity (a good thing, regardless of this Internet thing).
Sometimes I get the sense that people don’t always appreciate what you do. I’m not talking about whether they like the food, but whether they see value in your artistic pursuit. It struck me as this anti-elitist attitude toward dining, as if the pursuit of the avant-garde stops at the kitchen. I wondered whether you’ve experienced this anti-elitist attitude and whether you’ve ever felt like one of those early abstract artists trying to fight for public acceptance?
I think there’s an element of that. What people are having a hard time accepting overall, at times, is that [food] can’t actually be an art. Going back to painting: You don’t eat a painting. You don’t need a painting to live. You need food. The fact that you’re consuming this, the fact that you’re putting this into your body for sustenance creates often this divide where they go, ‘Food is not supposed to make me feel a certain way. Food is supposed to go into my stomach and make me live. Therefore, it needs to be as simple as possible. It should be delicious, etcetera, etcetera.’ I don’t disagree with them. Clearly we need food to live. I’ll fully admit, nobody needs to eat like I cook. Nobody.
If you choose to never come and experience the great restaurants of the world — Per Se, you know, Alinea, El Bulli, Fat Duck, Mugaritz, Aronia de Takazawa in Tokyo, all of these restaurants that are cooking in this manner that’s trying to create something beyond satiation — don’t go if you don’t want to. I’m okay with that.
However, you can experience [with food] something that is almost the only art form that involves all the senses. With food and dining, I can present you with something audible. I can present you the sense of feeling with different textures. I can show you things that are compelling and shocking and beautiful and exciting. I can make you smell things that evoke memory and create nostalgia and then, after all of that, you get the physiological satisfaction of putting something delicious in your mouth and into your stomach. It’s kind of cool. I think that it’s entertainment, what we’re creating, that you happen to be able to eat. It’s nothing more than that.
I wonder, aside from the basic sustenance that you talk about, if people’s unwillingness to embrace food as art is because there’s not a commodity tied to it. If you really wanted to buy almost anything else that’s art, you can take it home and appreciate it on some level. But food, other than a doggy bag, there’s really not that element.
I disagree with you . . . . I don’t know about you, but I can recall in great detail the best meals of my life. If I close my eyes, I can tell you what it looked like, what it felt like, what it smelled like, what it tasted like, who I was with, what we talked about. That lasts forever. So it might not be something tangible that you can hang on your wall or put on your bookshelf, but those emotions, those memories, potentially could last forever. And I think that’s amazing.