Reach_of_a_chef
Usually I find this an incredibly tedious subject, but after Del Grosso’s post about it, with the Adria controversy linked, and the general fiery responses the debate evokes, I feel the need to say it again: food is not art, and chefs are not artists.  And I trust a chef who calls himself an artist about as far as I can throw him.  Cooking is a craft that can be raised to artful levels, but a craft only and always.

However.  I offer from Reach of a Chef the chapter on Masa Takayama.  An artist.

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Masa opened in the Time Warner Center in Manhattan to immediate controversy. It was rumored to be the most expensive in the United States—you had to fork over three bills just to sit down at the bar.  The place demanding this sum was not Alain Ducasse or Le Bernardin or Per Se, promising the elaborate preparations and expensive ingredients haute French cuisine was famous for, but rather raw fish and sauces often no more elaborate than a really good soy or a squeeze of a lime-like fruit called sudachi. Amanda Hesser, reviewing the restaurant in The New York Times gave it an unprecedented four question marks.  Bruni later gave it four stars.  The chef-owner, Masayoshi Takayama, had been in the States more than twenty years, but his English was limited and so it was hard for the public to get to know him—profiles and interviews of the man were  hardly revealing of why his skills as a chef were worth the astonishing prices.  The two restaurants where he’d made his reputation in Los Angeles sat ten people at the bar (and twelve more at three tables), so his business was physically restrictive in addition to being financially exclusionary. Finally, the chef didn’t want to be known outside his restaurant, he shunned attention, couldn’t care less about reviews.  In the age of the celebrity chef, Masa Takayama was an anomaly.

Click below to read the excerpt, which includes My Dinner there With Tony and answers the question why Masa prefers Krispy Kremes to sushi in Manhattan (note that the margin isn’t fixed so you can widen it if you wish). Photo of Masa cutting Tuna is by Carolyn Wang.

From the chapter “Masa” (manuscript draft) in The Reach of a Chef:

“I am nothing,” he would say.  And, “I am naked.”  And, “I don’t do anything.  Eighty percent of the work is just ordering the ingredients.” He means it, and it is true, if you include in that 80 percent, the knowing—knowing which ingredients to order and knowing exactly what to do with them when they arrived.  If so then the other 20 percent comes from his hands.

    Masa has no shortage of critics who can’t believe anyone has the gall to charge what was now, in truffle and blowfish season, $350 per person, to which a twenty percent tip was automatically added, for a total of $420, before you even ordered bottled water, let alone dipped into the sake list. 
   His response can be seen as either equally arrogant or straightforward and logical:  “If it’s too expensive, don’t come,” he says.
    His business advisor, Adam Block, says, “He is so uncaring about what the public thinks.  He’s somebody who ignores the brand.  He just knows, ‘This is it, this is me, this is what I do.’”
    And so Masa is completely inflexible as far as what he will and will not do in terms of catering to the New York market, more so than any of the other Time Warner chefs.  “But the good news,” Block says, “is that New Yorkers don’t have the same awareness of what he’s doing as they do with French food.  So they’re gonna flock, because he’s got few seats, and because anyone who’s ever experienced Masa would agree it’s an amazing experience.  It’s amazing, he’s amazing.”
                           
Masayoshi Takayama, was born on May 1, 1954, in Tochigi, Japan, an hour north of Tokyo.  His family owned a fish shop and a catering business.  Masa, the second of five children, worked at the shop while in high school.  At 18, he says, he tried to go to the university but not for long.  “Suddenly, I realized I was not interested,” he says, a couple hours before service, seated at the $60,000 slab of Hinoki, now completely covered with broken down cardboard boxes.  His accent is thick, his voice deep and rough, his cadence brusque.  “To learn, to study, to be what?  Businessman?  I hated that.”
    His older brother was working as an apprentice chef in Tokyo, and so, given that he didn’t have a better idea, he began working with his brother.  His brother suggested he work in a sushi restaurant.  Why not? Masa thought.
    But the restaurant where he found work, a highly regarded 150-year-old restaurant called Ginza Shushi-ko, was run by a strict old man.  Masa began by cleaning the bathroom and washing dishes—the way most apprentices started.  Cleaning the bathroom was a serious job.  When he moved into the kitchen, the work only became more difficult.  “Very hard job,” Masa says.  “Every day, every night, I tried to quit.”  For two years, he wanted to quit.  In his third year, he says, he started to learn things.  And after five years he understood a new thing: He holds his hands up to me and says, “Here is my money.”  He touches his chest, and says, “Here is my money.”  But he knew, he says, “I had to polish myself, too.  I worked hard, I studied.”
Finally, he thought that sushi chef might be the right job for him.
    In addition to having become a sushi chef (in all it would take eight years of training), he also drew and painted.  He drew many landscapes of  his country, vistas filled with hills and trees, which was all that he saw.  He’d heard that landscapes by American’s his age were of big, flat, wide-open spaces.  He wanted to see this.  A customer at Ginza Sushi-ko, had a business residence in Los Angeles and urged Masa to use it.  Masa did.  Masa wanted to see the big flat land and so he was told to go to Las Vegas.  He did and he saw the dessert.
     Masa moved to the United States for the landscape.  And for golf.  He loves golf, and it was cheaper to golf in LA than it was in Tokyo.  In LA, he worked for a few restaurants, before opening a small restaurant of his own in a strip mall on Wilshire Boulevard, which he named after the Japanese restaurant where he trained.
When he opened, there was not much fine fresh fish.  Where he had trained, they used only very good fish from the waters surrounding Japan.  But in Los Angeles, he couldn’t get the same quality.  So he told his fish purveyor, “Hey, buy from Japan.”  The purveyor shook his head and said, “Too expensive.”  Masa responded, “No, I buy.”  He developed good customers, many of them Japanese businessmen, who knew how good this fish was and were willing to pay for it.  He didn’t need many, relatively speaking.  He only had ten seats at the bar.  And so he worked quietly and well, in relative obscurity, for several years.
   “Then Ruth came,” he says.
He was in the car on the way to the golf course when he saw the small restaurant item, just 200 words, in the Los Angeles Times.  “Wow!” he thought, amazed.  “That my restaurant!”
    “When I first walked into this sushi bar,” wrote Ruth Reichl, the paper’s restaurant critic, “hidden in an unprepossessing strip mall in the mid-Wilshire district, I didn’t know I was about to order the most expensive meal I had ever eaten in Los Angeles.”
    She pronounced the food sublime.  “But what fish it turned out to be! Perfect slices of pink abalone. The richest tuna I’d ever tasted. An orange and purple clam that looked like a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. Sea urchins that were bigger, fatter than any I’d ever encountered. The meal went on and on, ending with two giant strawberries. And a bill for $100.”
    At the time, the early 1990s, the fanciest, most expensive sushi dinner you could buy was about $40.  At two and a half times this, Reichl said, Masa was a bargain.  She would return to give the restaurant a full review, but the first piece seems to be what began Masa’s notoriety regarding his expensive fish and rice dinners.
    Even Reichl had made the point that Masa had in a way created a dream— “to own a restaurant where he can feed perfect food made with the best ingredients money can buy to a few discerning diners”—one that no other chef in Los Angeles had been able to achieve quite that way.
    “What made you think you could get away with it?” I asked.
    “I didn’t care,” he said.  “I just charged them.  …  Very small restaurant.  People come.  People get it, they come; people don’t get it, don’t come.
    “Some people accumulate the money a little bit all year,” he continued, recalling a specific customer.  “Old woman.  ‘Masa, I come here once a year.’  Herself.  Not fancy.”  The thought of this woman, who saved all year each year for one of his meals, here in the dimly lit, quiet restaurant, moves him, and I see he is about to cry.  He rubs his eyes to stop himself.  “That’s all we can do, you know.  A hundred percent.  That kind of face, when I see, I love.  I’m soooo happy what I did.   I spend a long time working.  This is my best customer.  Even no money.  They understand.  That’s why I can do.”
                        
It is an indication of his refinement as a sushi chef, perhaps, that he will not eat sushi in New York.  He has gotten sick twice from eating sushi in this sushi-adoring city, and that’s enough for him.  There is no consistent training here, he says.  In Japan, a chef must train for at least three years before he could even think of getting licensed, and then the chef takes his blowfish exam in order to serve this delicacy that can be fatal if not properly prepared.  So Masa sticks to Korean restaurants and places that serve simple food.  He can’t stand the kind of food served by his fellow four-stars.  It’s confusing to him.  It’s too salty.  There’s too much butter.  A dish that requires the work of five people doesn’t make sense.
    Krispy Kremes, though, they’re another matter.  “I love Krispy Kremes,” he says, almost woozy with lust.  He brings them in himself on Saturday mornings.
    Japanese cuisine has two main branches, the samurai branch, rustic, farmer cuisine, and the Zen branch, which is the branch Masa works.  Both forms are about simplicity rather than complexity.  He tries to teach his staff, “my kids,” he calls them, what this food is all about: “very delicate,” he says.  He wants them to appreciate the beauty of the cherry blossom.  This is what his food is all about, if you can understand this, the attributes of a cherry blossom, than you can understand his food.
    In LA, Nick Kim [one of Masa’s three chefs] planned to prepare a special meal for his family at the restaurant during its day off.  He wanted the table adorned with cherry blossoms.  He slaved all day in preparation for this meal which was to be a gift.  As the hour of their arrival approached, he saw that the cherry blossoms were fading and become old looking and brown.  He had too much work and not enough time, but more important he had to find he drove into downtown Los Angeles from Rodeo Drive to make sure the cherry blossoms were right.  “Very delicate.”
    What Masa eats at his own restaurant is another example of what he appreciates—samurai food.  As his staff leaned against counters in the kitchen eating family meal, Masa usually took his lunch on the cardboard-covered hinoki where I joined him twice.  On one day, we ate a broth flavored by the dark seaweed kombu, with soba noodles and a fried vegetable pancake floating on top.  The other lunch was something I’d never had.  A variety of fish tails, scraps from butchering, grilled or deep fired, and a bowl of marinated squid guts.  The guts looked in my bowl like soupy pink spaghetti, and they had a tangy fermented flavor.  I’m pretty adventurous as far what I’ll eat, but fish entrails, fermented or not, would not ordinarily be something I’d be excited about.  Masa ate them and wanted to serve them to me though, and so I looked forward to it.  Everything to that point I’d tasted had been excellent at least, if not quite a bit beyond excellent.  Every single thing I’d ever had there.  The squid guts were no different—they tasted really good, the texture and flavor fascinating, like tasting a new form of blue cheese.  This was the nature of food at Masa.
     When a fish order arrived from Japan, everyone got quickly to work breaking down eels and flat fish and round fish and shrimp to get them properly prepped and stored.  Masa took the octopus leg to work on.  The three foot long appendage was speckled brown and fat as a baseball bat at its severed end. It was so fresh it’s big suckers on the pale underside were still contracting gently and the muscle still twitched.  Masa skinned it quickly and expertly cut a couple pieces, and gave me one.  It had a strange sweet sea flavor, but more, it’s texture was new and surprising as well, chewy on the outside and gelatinous on the inside. He would serve this as sashimi or sushi, sometimes lightly grilled for a little flavor and with a few drops of saduchi.  Again, I’d tasted something that was completely new.
    After Masa ate, usually by himself, he would smoke a cigar in his dark restaurant, and draw food and dishes and think about food (“think about food all day long—it’s fun!” he says).  He continues to enjoy drawing as he has throughout his life.  Many of the ceramic plates, dishes, and bowls he designed himself.  In the spotlight above the bar, his bald head glowing, the blue smoke rising from a fat cigar, he looks like an Asian mafia don perusing a stack of notes and betting slips, but he’s really thinking about new dishes and new ways to serve his food.
    The shabu shabu dish is one such piece he designed.  A dark brown roughly glazed orb-like bowl on a small platform in which he serves piping hot kombu broth.  Beside this is a small tray with a few thin slices of raw lobster and raw foie gras.  You dip the lobster and foie in the broth using chopsticks, wave them back and forth for a few seconds to cook them and then eat them.  When I had this dish, I remember thinking that I never wanted to eat foie gras again any other way—what was the point?
    Masa conceived of serving foie gras this way after a customer brought him a fresh monk fish liver, which is a lot like the fattened duck liver, from Scotland.  It was so fresh and good, he puzzled over how best to cook it.  As delicately as possible, he thought.  The shabu idea worked so well, it’s become a staple dish.
    The next course will simply be the kombu broth, which now has been flavored by the lobster and has drops of gold fat from the foie gras floating on its surface.  It’s beautiful to look at and delicious to eat, a work of great simplicity and efficiency.   All hallmarks of Masa’s food.
                        
The previous spring, I’d traveled to Baltimore to speak on a small writer’s  panel at the annual International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference.  Bourdain was also on this panel of three and he made some tongue in cheek remarks about him and me touring as a kind of culinary Lewis and Martin duo, something that would be very bad for my health.  It’s part of his evil nature that he is enormously charming in person and somehow convinces you that it’s not only OK but, in fact, a great opportunity to take up smoking again, and to stay out till dawn pounding beers with grizzled Vietnam vets who insist on buying the celebrity yet another round, the night before our eight a.m. panel discussion.  Just when you’re certain the guy’s a deceptive scoundrel who cannot be trusted, is bad for your physical health and Midwestern integrity, he undoes you with an incredibly generous blurb for your cookbook.
    So early in the evening in Baltimore, well before I began to see double, he mentioned he was writing an article on Masa and had a rez in a couple weeks.  He’d already been once but had been so seduced by the food that he had no idea what had happened; in fact, he’d become so enraptured by the experience that he had no notes whatsoever and thus could not write his story.  So he was returning with our mutual friend, Eric Ripert, arguably the most knowledgeable fish cook in the city.
    I was by chance going to be in the city on that date, preparing to watch the re-opening of Per Se.  I begged to be able to join them.  He said he’d see what he could do.
I truly wanted to be wary of this celebrity snake, but how, when it was he who first delivered me to the hinoki alter, and more: he picks up the tab for all three of us, which would be $1300 (that’s without the three bottles of wine sent to us as a gift from a friend).
     Eating at Masa was one of the most original and extraordinary dining experiences I’d had.  In fact, it was second in power only to my experience at the French Laundry, which had been, because of its timing in my life, right up there with losing my virginity, if not actually divine in some small way.
    That said, I believe Masa is the most exciting fine-dining experience in Manhattan, period.  By far.  Maybe in the world.
    The room is peaceful and refined, and when you sit at the bar you cannot help but rub your palms over it, it feels so sensual—you’ve never felt wood like this before.  Masa simply walks out—the night we were there, he wore a loose blue shirt and an apron over loose trousers, wood clogs—nods and starts serving.  He mixes some cucumber salad and serves it with crayfish and the meal is begun.  Next comes the signature toro with caviar, served with rectangles of toast, followed by bonito sashimi wrapped around daikon radish, soft shell crab tempura, the lobster and foie shabu dish.  And then the sushi begins, served by hand, eaten by hand.  Two couples were seated on either side of us.  Masa fed them as well, assisted by Kei [Keinosuke Kawakami, from Fukuoka, Japan] on his right and Nick Kim on his left.
    He uses a long slender knife with a carved handle made from the horn of a water buffalo, a beautiful object in itself.  Before service he has sharpened it on a ceramic stone using lots of water, and rubbing it back and forth hard as if he were scrubbing the stone; he then washes his hands and thoroughly scrubs his nails with a brush.  His movements are clean and fine, the apotheosis of grace and craftsmanship.  When he cut the aji mackerel, he left a thin swath of silver blue skin on it.  The skin remaining on the board had an artful pattern cut out of it—even his garbage looked beautiful.  He then folded the mackerel over a pillow of rice with some fresh wasabi.  Mackerel is something I’ve always associated with cat food and was not something I thought you wanted to eat raw.  But Bourdain beside me was already making low moan ecstasy noises.  Indeed the fish was smooth and sweet and buttery.  Mackerel?  This was not the world I knew.
    The sushi also included fresh water and ocean eel, a sushi roll packed with a massive mouthful of o-toro, the fattiest part of this fatty part of the tuna (Masa’s tuna, the toro and the akami, the leaner part of the tuna, arrive frozen and are kept in a Thermo freezer, a serious piece of equipment Masa keeps at –87 Fahrenheit).  We had grilled toro as well. A grilled shiitake served on sushi rice like fish whose texture ingeniously mirrored the fish.  Sea urchin, a scallop that he tenderized by crosshatching it with his knife, sweet clam, calamari, shrimp, Kobe beef grilled so that when you bit into it, fat felt like it was pouring out of the meat.  And it concluded with some sweet eel.
    There was more to the genius I realized only after he asked if we would like something else.  Greedily, I wanted to taste the shima aji, which had come early in the sushi service.  It was had been my favorite of the sushi courses.  But when I tasted it at the end of the meal, it wasn’t the same, it had lost it’s shine somehow.  Masa had known exactly how but also when to serve this fish.  It was critical to submit absolutely to Masa.
    Masa is at ease and casual at his station.  Talking every now and then or answering a question in his broken English or grunting like a parody of a Japanese wrestler.  He joined  us with a glass of each of the wines we drank.  He was working but he conveyed that he was enjoying the work.
    Midway through the meal, Bourdain, in o-toro ecstasy, said, “Put a gun to my head and shoot me right now.  I’d be fine with that.  I’d die a happy man.  You know that at this moment no one on earth is eating better than we are.”
And it was, I believed, actually true.
    “Have you had enough?” he asked finally.  We accepted that we had.  He said, “Thank you very much.”
                        
Reentering the mall after such otherworldly refinement jarred the senses.  We made it to a relaxed hangout of Eric’s and talked about the meal and it was interesting to hear what other chefs thought of this guy.
    Ripert had been to Per Se the night before and had, before we’d begun our meal at Masa, exclaimed in a rapturous whisper, “I think Per Se might be the best restaurant in the world.”  He’d had a good meal evidently, but what he had just experienced at Masa was completely new.
    “It is the antithesis of what Thomas is doing next door,” he said.  “Thomas gives you extraordinary sophistication and luxury, and Masa, he has a piece of wood and some chopsticks and a bucket of steamed rice, some china he made himself.”  Eric shook his head.  “I think it’s genius.”  Masa was a master and the culture he was bringing to New York was extraordinary, Eric said.
    Bourdain too remained reverential: “That’s what he does—he turns everything we do, every thing we know on its head.  What he is saying is you know nothing.”
                           
Masa is very much in control not just of the food but the entire environment in his restaurant.  Arriving guests are asked to turn off their cell phones.  He doesn’t want to hear them or hear people talking on them.  “That make me pissed off very much,” he says.  He will actually get angry during service if it happens.  “Hey,” he’ll say.  “Shut up with telephone, otherwise I smash your telephone.  Another person in the private room—‘Hey, what you do?  Get out of here!  Make your phone call outside.’”  Usually people apologize, he says.  “I want people to enjoy this environment, this world.  No telephone, forget it.  Like Disney Land, you step into a different world, see?”
    Anything that cuts into this environment makes his performance more difficult.  It is just that, a performance.  Chef Benno had remarked on this more than the food.  When Masa asked if he enjoyed the meal, he had replied, “It was a real inspiration to watch you.”
    “It’s part of the show,” Masa says of his presence.  “That’s why I can charge three-fifty.  If sit in some private dining room, they just see the dish, I cannot charge three-fifty.”
    “Everyday it’s a fight,” he says later.  “If they like, I win, if they don’t like I lose.  If they don’t like, I get very pissed off.”
    And this: “I want to see the people eat.  Joy.  I want hear them say, ‘Wow!’”
    If Masa cannot make it into the restaurant, his assistant will call their reservations and cancel them all.  “When I catch cold, I close the restaurant,” he says.
    I asked how he stayed healthy and maintained the energy to cook and perform six days a week, often twice a day.
    “Don’t eat too much!” he says, and then laughs his deep long exuberant laugh. HaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHa!  “Go to sleep!”  HaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHa!
    Masa is easy and funny when he’s not working.  When I was commenting on some of the dishes he served, he said, “Simple right?” HaHaHaHaHa!  “Thomas works so hard.”  He makes an expression of mock pity.  “I’m lazy!”
    Every now and then he’ll compose a complex dish with multiple components.  The current fugu dish is an example.  Fugu or blowfish is in season in the fall.  The liver of the wild blowfish can contain toxins that are lethal and the entire fish must be carefully prepared by licensed chefs.  The blowfish Masa uses are not wild but rather are grown in their environment in large pens and are not dangerous.  The toxin, Masa explained, originates in the shellfish that blowfish eat.  The pen they’re raised in keeps the shellfish out.  But as they remain in their natural habitat, and farmed seasonally, the penned blowfish have the same flavor as wild.
    For the fugu dish, he serves the flesh as sushi, three different parts of its skin (each has a different texture), its intestine cleaned and cooked and stuffed with green onion, and a piece of its liver.  Later in the meal he will serve chunks of the head deep-fried—Kei says, “It’s so good, it’s like fried chicken”— served with a ponzu-like vinaigrette.
    With all those components and the heavily worked over fish, I say, “That’s kind of like a Thomas dish.”  He nods gravely and says, “I copied.”
    Masa doesn’t use only Japanese ingredients.  Many of the clams come from around here, the scallops, too.  And the ginko nuts come from a tree in Central Park.  Masa smelled them during a walk.  Their thick soft shell has an intensely funky, unpleasant odor but, shelled, cooked, and skinned, the inner nut is delicious, sweet and nutty tasting; he serves them as they are the way you’d serve olives or cashews before the meal.  I’d never had anything like them.  His grill chef Ryan Becze goes out and gathers them from the park after lunch service.
    Ginko nuts Masa knew from Japan, but the origins of any ingredient are less important than that they fit into a Japanese style.  “It doesn’t matter, Western ingredients, Japanese ingredients,” he says.  “Only matter good ingredient, good stuff.”   He will batter and deep fry an entire golf ball sized white truffle, wrap it in rice paper and serve it as a single course.
    And this is partly the reason for the high cost.  The ingredients are expensive.  Not only does he make abundant use of the very expensive ingredients common in pricey restaurants, such as foie, truffle, and caviar, most of the ingredients are very expensive.  The shrimp he uses, for instance, arrive live, packed in damp wood chips, and cost twenty dollars a piece, a high food cost for one item.  “Even in Japan they can’t do this way,” he says.  “So expensive.”
    I think I’m getting a handle on  Masa and I say, “You have the most expensive restaurant in the biggest restaurant city in the world and you say the most important thing you do, the most important thing, is ordering the food.”
Masa takes a sip of his tea and nods.  “Very easy job.”
“Really, you’re just a crafty old cook. You figured out a way to charge the most money of any chef in the country, maybe the world, and you don’t even cook!”
    He grins wide.  “Nice, right?” he says, nodding vigorously and smiling.  “Nice huh?  HaHaHaHaHaHa! HaHaHaHaHaHa!”
                               
I asked Masa the art versus craft question.  I used to think that only in the rarest of circumstances did the chef rise above being a craftsman into the realm of the artist.  Most chefs who claimed to be artistes were full of it as far as I was concerned.  Only when a chef changed the way you saw the world, through cooking, did food truly become art, and that was rare indeed.  But also I was softening on the subject—the restaurant world was so diverse and food was changing so fast, I was willing to concede some ground on the artist issue, especially having spent so much time with Achatz at Trio.
So I asked Masa, whom I knew to be, at the very least, a performing artist, and a very good one—tickets to his show started now at $350 a seat, and there would be, could be, no understudies—what he thought.
    “Yeah, I think it’s art,” he said.  “What I do, I’m showing the people, I’m going to work clean, nicely, fast, each piece of sushi, more artistic, nice shape.  Art is not always seen.” He placed his an index finger below each eye.  “When you taste it, part of the art.  Each piece of fish.  Rice.  Fish.  Good combination.  Taste, texture, colorwise.  Eat it.  Beautiful.  Melt.  Flavor, nice flavor.  Is a wonderful art.  This is what I believe.  Not only to see the art, not only the painting.  The food is not the art. …  Mostly it’s taste.  Our job is taste.  Eat.  Beautiful.  Wow.  This is art I think.
     “If you don’t have a good personality,” he continued, “you can’t make good food.  If you are not a good person, forget it.  You have to be honest. …  More honest, more open, think more straight.  Otherwise you’ll never get it, what’s good food.  We serve direct to customer.  We don’t say any lie to the customer.  Nothing hide, just straight.  We don’t cook anything, mostly the raw fish.  If the ingredients are not good, but still OK, people won’t notice?  They serve it for the money, people get used to it?   They lower quality.  That’s the personality.  The person has to be the right judge.  This is no good, no good no, no good, don’t do that.  I tell them, you have to be a nice person, otherwise you cannot make good food.  You show the customer face, try to make more entertaining.  This kind of personality from your inside, from here.  I don’t care, it’s just for money, I don’t care the food, just serve?  Those kind of chef cannot stand over here.”   He points to his station.  “They can see our face.  Every single dish has to be perfect.
    “This is me,” he concludes.  “This is what I am.”
                        
The enduring image I have from my short time in Masa’s kitchen, was watching a lunch service.
    At this particular lunch service, there was a single customer, an older woman, seated centrally at the hinoki bar.  Masa stood before her unsmiling but looking comfortable in his loose clothing, his round shaved head glowing in the carefully lighted space.  He bowed in plying his trade, in cutting fish on his board with his gorgeous knife.  He first served the series of non-sushi dishes, ginko nuts, the uni risotto for which he’s famous, the lobster and foie shabu shabu for which he should be famous, the elaborate blowfish dish, before moving into the sushi performance that included a dozen different carefully prepared bites of toro, mackerel, grouper, shimaagi, tai, hirame, ken ika, tako, kanpachi, anago, kutamba, ebi, eel.  He cuts each piece before the woman, forms a small ball of rice and seasons it with a bit of fresh wasabi or one of a few simple sauces, folds the fish over the pillow of rice and sets it on a dark stone disc in front of her.  The woman lifts it with her hand and, with a small dip of her head, like a bow, eats it in a bite.
    The meal lasted more than two hours.  Occasionally, Masa would take a break in the kitchen, talk on his cell phone, have some tea, who knows—maybe check in with his bookie or reserve a Sunday tee time, or just relax for a moment.  But when his customer, the old woman, had been alone for the right amount of time, he would return and resume his work.
    The entire restaurant was empty but for these two people, with fine spots lighting them both up vividly against the black walls of the restaurant, Masa slicing and serving exotic fish and the woman eating what he placed before her, all of it in perfect silence.  I stood and stared transfixed from my hideout in the kitchen.  They were beautiful to behold.  A monk serving a monk.

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37 Wonderful responses to “Professional Chefs: The Chef as Artist”

  • Claudia

    Beautifully and aptly put, Jackie. As I said earlier, once a chef starts believing his own PR, that he’s an “artiste”, not a craftsman, is when he or she is headed into serious trouble. Having said that, I do believe that there are moments when the chef, a skilled and gifted craftsman, can transcend his craft and elevate it to art, and I believe MR actually addresses that in Reach. (I have to check the paragraph again, but I’ve been working around the clock and have been coming home too late to crash around the book cases . . . )

  • ...you can call me "Chef" Suzy

    PS: Come to think of it, a few years ago (before the CCA was even a twinkle in my eye) I stumbled across your book “The Soul of a Chef”, and I thought to myself “Hmmm…the title seems a bit grandiose – I sure hope this isn’t an autobiography, ’cause if it is, this “chef” guy must think he is one Big Swinging …”

  • Jackie

    Distinctions between art and craft are perhaps false dichotomy, but I agree with the notion that a chef who self-identifies as artist is immediately suspect. Masa’s story about the once-a-year customer reveals the soul of an artist. His absolute devotion to giving people like her (she obviously appreciates his craft) a transporting experience, reveals the a soul that is rare, whatever we may call it. Some chefs’ food, some writers’ words, are so clearly in service to their ego, rather than their craft or their product, that it interferes with the experience. This is not Masa. Thanks for great writing. Again.

  • ...you can call me "Chef" Suzy

    So Ruhlman: Is writing Art?

    Considering that you are a writer who is is quite obviously — one might even say “obsessively” — pre-occupied with professional chefs, I am continually amazed at your insistance that cooking is not art.

    You are just SO bound and determined NOT to cave on this “…cooking is NOT art…” thing, you are gonna defend yourself ’til the end of time!

    Methinks the man doth protest too much! Hmmm…

  • elarael

    I would say an artist is someone who puts their soul into what they offer the world in such a way that it is clearly evident and moving. An artist moves people with what they do. They stir the soul, which moves in resonance to something unspeakably fine in human nature that we all recognize, but can barely comprehend enough to be literate about.

    Anyway, not knowing what something means doesn’t discount it’s evidently immense validity in the world.

    This was Such an enjoyable post, whew. Luscious. Thank you ~

  • Louisa Chu

    Ferran Adria is an artist, says documenta, “the most important exhibition of contemporary art, drawing attention from all over the world”
    http://www.documenta12.de/aktuelles.html?&L=1

    News courtesy of Alan Sytsma at Gourmet’s blog, Choptalk http://www.epicurious.com/gourmet/blogs/foodeditors/2007/06/is_food_art_yes.html (I also blog there.)

    Alan reports that each day, two show visitors will be picked to dine at El Bulli. The exhibition starts Saturday, runs 100 days, in Kassel, Germany.

  • Nick

    This (unchanged) from http://www.thefreedictionary.com:

    Artist
    1. One, such as a painter, sculptor, or writer, who is able by virtue of imagination and talent or skill to create works of aesthetic value, especially in the fine arts.
    2. A person whose work shows exceptional creative ability or skill: You are an artist in the kitchen.
    3. One, such as an actor or singer, who works in the performing arts.
    4. One who is adept at an activity, especially one involving trickery or deceit: a con artist.

  • ruhlman

    he would trip drunkenly and collapse into the last category, slobbering incoherently that he didn’t do it.

  • ruhlman

    James Marks, thanks for that very elegant description of the braise. The braise though is not art, but your description of it may be.

    I’m with Chris exactly on this one–art changes the way you see.

    Chef is a professional title. Is artist? Sculptor and painter are. Not artist. And anyone can call themselves a chef, but not everyone who calls himself a chef can cook. Chef means leader. I don’t know what artist means.

  • Simon

    I read about Masa’s in Tony’s book and ever since then I started a Eat At Masa’s fund. It is on the expensive side for me but I know it’s going to be totally worth it. I especially love the fact that you can meet and interact with the chef – something you can’t you do no matter how much you spend at other restaurants. Great Post.

  • t-scape

    Marcel Duchamp used to take existing useful objects and present them as art. That line between an object having a purpose other than being admired precluding it from being art was crossed a long time ago. That’s why as time goes by, the attempt to define art become more and more overwhelming. Too many definitions have been challenged by now to really have a clear definition or standard.

  • Ed

    I have a question…I am sure that they are not serving a huge number of covers @ Masa. How in the hell is he going through a huge piece of tuna like that? I’m confident nary a scrap is wasted, so what does he do w/ all of it?

  • brandon_w

    Ed:

    From the chapter posted:

    “…(Masa’s tuna, the toro and the akami, the leaner part of the tuna, arrive frozen and are kept in a Thermo freezer, a serious piece of equipment Masa keeps at –87 Fahrenheit). ”

    As for the art vs craft discussion, I think Chris Hennes hit the nail on the head.

  • Ed

    Brandon,
    I read that too, but that is a REALLY large chunk in the picture! Based on the knife he is using (no saw teeth) this looks to be at the very least slacked out, no?

    Once it is slacked, should it be refrozen? If it is this pristine and his freezer is that cold, perhaps it is OK.

    The predominant high grade tuna is frozen (so much for fresh only!) but it is a little suprising in this case.

  • RI Swampyankee

    I agree, Chris, but allow me to put a fine point on your comment. Chef is a profession but it’s also an earned title. Anyone can up and call themselves artistes, but all too often the people least deserving are the most likely to claim the title.

  • t-scape

    Well, it’s like the girl at an old job I had who felt the need to proclaim “I’m intelligent”. If you have to point it out, then you probably aren’t.

    Bseides, “artiste” sounds dumb, anyway.

  • Tags

    Art and craft are synonymous, just as love and pain are synonymous. It’s not apparent at first, but a close look reveals that love doesn’t exist without the willingness to endure pain for someone. Without this willingness, it’s mere lust or convenience. Just the same, art doesn’t exist without the willingness to endure the craft, and the repetition and tedium that go with it.

    That doesn’t stop people from feigning “I love you” to get what they want. The difference is that people who call themselves “artists” often believe it.

  • Jennie/Tikka

    I think what we’re getting at here is that defining “art” is nearly as difficult as defining “chef.” They’re both a little Tao-ist, meaning both something you can’t quite put your finger on. They exists but they are not something you can look at directly. You know it when you see it but that’s about it.

    Perhaps the common ground they both share is they both represent something done exceptionally well, to the point of becoming something that engages us at all levels – including our sense of meaning and beauty.

  • Jennie/Tikka Masala

    Chef as Artist. Hmmm.

    Actually, the best chefs I know personally, are actual artists – either painters or sculptors, etc. Being a literal artist does make you a good chef – food is assumed to taste better when it looks pretty. Then again, if you’ve ever had a traditional Japanese bean-paste “pastry” (who’s name completely escapes me at the moment) you learn that looking beautiful doesn’t guarantee the food will be appetizing.

    Doesn’t mean you have to be an artist to be a Chef (or are an artist if you are a Chef)….when you aren’t artistically gifted in that area you become an expert on *ahem* rustic french cuisine, and serve everything in a copper pot or bowl. If you’ve got mad skills you plate it out on a rectangular plate 4 feet x 6 inches to show off your decorating ability. The better the ability – the bigger the plate.

    Personally, I’m a little burnt on having to locate my protein and carb in the center of my plate, then, shimmee my ass a foot and a half to locate the sauce on the end of the plate. Get’s tiring. Its even harder after several glasses of wine.

    Worst of all is the large square plates that put your beverage several meters out of grabbing range. Cases like that I’m tempted to request a gueridon to put my beverages on, to make them accessible. When the server finally clears the plate I typically say, “Thank you, I was getting thirsty.”

  • Chris Hennes

    I don’t think that something being useful precludes it being art — that method of distinguishing “art” from “craft” doesn’t sit well to my way of thinking. I am more of the mind that art is craft carried to its highest form.

  • fiat lux

    One of the subtexts in the difference between ‘craft’ and ‘art’ is that crafted items are intended to be functional, which is not the case with art. Hence the chef as craftsman. You don’t create food to put it into a museum, you create food in order to eat it.

    At its highest levels, the lines between craft and art can blur, no doubt about it. But that doesn’t change the underlying distinction.

  • Tags

    I wouldn’t call the dictionary irrelevant, nor wpuld I say it’s an irrefutable, monolithic reference. More likely, it’s the starting point for negotiations on what a word means.

    And Bob, if you need money, just let me know where to send the check. This gambling thing will ruin you :-) .

  • Chris Hennes

    When Ruhlman writes “Cooking is a craft that can be raised to artful levels, but a craft only and always” it is pretty clear that he is not talking about the definition of “art” that places it as a synonym for “craft” – I think arguing the point is just being obtuse, and ignoring what he *meant* by the statement. And what, exactly, *did* he mean? I distrust *anyone* who calls themselves an artist. A painter, a sculptor, a writer, sure, but an artist? That’s not a profession, it’s a label, and not one you should give yourself. And what is the difference between a chef and a painter or a sculptor? In many cases, a chef is both, and more. “Chef” is a profession — if a chef makes art (whatever that is…) then they may rightfully be called an “artist.”

  • Natalie Sztern

    oh james mark…i think i have fallen in love….at the very least ur writing skills are orgasmic…and i don’t care if i am corny…oh my, thank god my vacation ends this weekend…this is the best blog on the net…do u think tony will look into dubai after all?

  • Chris Hennes

    What the dictionary says is sort of irrelevant – I think we all understand what Ruhlman is getting at with the distinction. Hell, I walk through an *art museum* and am unsure whether all of it is *art* in my book. We probably all have slightly varying ideas of what art is, but I think more than anything, it is *personal*. I don’t think there is anything precluding a chef from being an artist, but sometimes it seems like the term is bandied about so much as to lose its meaning. In my opinion (and I certainly acknowledge that is is merely an opinion) something is art if it changes the way you look at the world, or at yourself — I have yet to visit a restaurant serving “art,” but it sounds like Masa may make the list :).

  • Bob delGrosso

    Michael

    Twenty bucks says that in five years you will be calling some chefs artists and what they do art. Or failing your capitulation some significant number of artists, art scholars and critics will blathering about chef artistes. The meaning of art is always changing, and right now it’s making baby steps towards including at least some forms of cooking.

    Put it on your calendar: Five years from today, you will pay me 20 bucks.

  • Shoebootie

    art[ahrt]
    –noun

    7. the principles or methods governing any craft or branch of learning: the art of baking; the art of selling.
    8. the craft or trade using these principles or methods.
    9. skill in conducting any human activity: a master at the art of conversation.

    craft[kraft, krahft]
    –noun
    1. an art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill, esp. manual skill: the craft of a mason.

    So you are saying cooking is not an art, it’s an art?

  • Kevin

    Michael,

    This quote of yours was one of the key influences in me quitting my job and changing careers:

    “…in fact all three of these chefs had stated that a main reason, if not the reason, they cooked was that simple; to make people happy. If they failed in this, the work was for nothing. Didn’t matter how good the technique was, how artful the food, or the personal standards they’d brought to bear on it.”

    At the risk of sounding corny, I keep this posted in my kitchen to remind me why I cook.

    Just wanted to say I appreciate your writing, which also led me to read Bourdain’s stuff, which I guess could be a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective.

  • t-scape

    Many moons ago, the words “arts” referred to crafts. For a long time those two words were closely linked, and I think that link still remains to a certain degree. There is a mixture of artistry and craftsmanship in a painting, just as there is in a well-made piece of clothing or furniture, or any other item not usually thought of as art. I don’t see why the same symbiotic relationship between artistry and craftsmanship can’t exist in food. In fact, to me anything in life is more interesting when it’s a mixture of different characteristics. The way Masa described how his food is art reminded me of an installation piece in a gallery – it’s not just looking at something aethetically pleasing, it’s engaging more than one of your senses in the experience. However, the question I personally find more tedious is not whether to food can or is art, but “what is art?” It’s almost unanswerable, I think.

    That being said, I agree that there are disciplines that are craft first, then art, or art first, then craft. And it’s not a given that both characteristics will be present in any given item at the same time. For example, the jacket I’m wearing is nicely made, but art it ain’t.

    And your description of Masa – the man, and the restaurant, was really engaging. It made me want to go there even more, and see what a man like that is able to create.

  • James Mark

    The beauty of food is in how fleeting it can be. Perfect instances that combine dozens of factors leading to moments that are satisfying in ways beyond normal existence. When a loaf of french country bread comes out of the oven and crackles, after mixing the dough twelve hours before, forming it in the middle of the night, putting it in the old wood fired oven at just the right time, and finally pulling it out right before it is finished so it will carryover is as beautiful as any concerto.

    A braised short rib offers these moments throughout the cooking process. Cleaning the meat so that only the marbled meat remains, streams of white fat running judiciously through bright red, pristine meat. Rendering the extraneous fat then searing the meat in it creates a scent that taps into the primal part of our mind, the comforting feeling that tonight we will eat. Cooking mirepoix and building flavor draws distinct similarities to mixing colors on the artists palette, yet where he is working only with his eyes in a static environment the cook is working within an organic one, an environment that is constantly changing as heat drives itself deeper and water escapes. Mirepoix, peppercorns, bay leaf, allspice, anise, cinnamon, proper stock (which already has forty eight hours of effort put into it), plus some of the saved braising liquid from the last batch all need to balanced in this tenuous environment. Then it sits in the oven for three to four hours. Then it rests for another hour. A six hour process, and what does it yield? Five hours ago the meat was tough and chewy, and here now is one of the best tasting pieces of beef a person can eat. The marbling melts in the mouth and the meat is so tender that one could swear they were eating kobe. The flavor is complex but not overwhelming, bringing out the true flavor of beef much as salt enhances chocolate or vinegar brings out the sweetness in a melon consommé. But then you swallow and it is gone. As Bob said, they can’t hang it in the Met. But there is its beauty, and its art. Food, like life, is a string of moments, instances in time that are as fleeting as a breeze. They come and they go. But they are what makes existence what it is. And that is where the eater sees art

  • Tags

    Well, don’t look up “art” in your thesaurus, because one of the synonyms is “craft.” Not that Masa isn’t crafty. He probably eats Krispy Kremes for the same reason I’d rather eat raviolis my Mom makes than the ones I make myself. Food tastes better when somebody else cooks it. Masa eats the craft food and makes the art food, craftily.

  • Claudia

    One of my favorite chapters from Reach. The chef as artist, yes, but certainly as skilled craftsman, as serious and spartan and as no-nonsense as a monk. But I have to go home and look up your exact words on the moment when a chef DOES elevate his craft to art – I think it had to do with innovation? Imagination? So, yes, chefs are craftsmen, first and foremost, but certainly, with Masa and maybe one or two others, they are also artists – not “artistes”, though!

    The cover of the paperback edition of Reach does, to my mind, exemplify what chefs are about – the serious, diligent, impassioned aspects of a person plying – and honing – their craft.