I got home from the gym around 9 tonight and found my youngest son in the family room watching the season finale of Master Chef. I had never seen any part of the show before last week when we were on vacation in Rohoboth Beach, and I didn’t really care about it, but somehow I got watching it tonight. Yes, I should have been writing or doing some other productive activity, but instead I got caught up in the final showdown between Jennifer and Adrian. For the benefit of those who didn’t watch (and probably don’t care,) Jennifer won the competition, earning the apparently coveted title of Master Chef and a cool $250,000.
Good for her, but that’s not what I want to talk about tonight. I don’t often watch cooking shows, though I went through a heavy Emeril phase 10 years or so ago. I really don’t cook that often (but I make this really kickass spicy spaghetti sauce; even my boys like it.) So I’m kind of oblivious to the artistic side of cooking, and that was something that jumped out at me as I was watching Master Chef tonight.
I’ve never really thought of cooking as a creative endeavor, at least not in the way that writing or painting or musical composition are. When I make my spaghetti sauce, my major goal is to make the vegetables soft and keep the noodles from clumping together. But the chefs on this show were just as concerned with presentation as they were with flavor — “plating,” they called it (I’m picking up the lingo.) The look of the dish is at least as important as how it tastes. Of course, on some level I knew that; everyone has received a plate of something and thought, “This looks like the product of a really bad head cold.” We all know how inviting some dishes can be and how repulsive others can be. But I learned from watching this show that, for a professional chef, the presentation of the food is a creative statement, a work of art.
In that way, cooking is like writing. As a writer, I try to evoke an emotional response from the reader — laughter, fear, sadness, excitement, whatever. It occurs to me that chefs are trying to do the same thing when they choose the colors for a dish and the arrangement of the garnish and the way they sprinkle sauces around a plate.
This is probably obvious to most people, but I’ve never looked at it that way before, and I find it fascinating. The next time I go to a fine dining restaurant (it happens once or twice a year,) I’ll pay a little more attention to the presentation of the dish before I devour it, and I’ll be a little more aware of how it makes me feel. It’s a whole new dimension of dining for me. I like that; it feels like I’ve learned something new.
Of course, the next dining establishment I patronize will probably be one of the local ice cream stands. I don’t care about the presentation of a hot fudge sundae. Give me lots of fudge and whipped cream and I’m good. Some things surpass artistic considerations.