Cafe Society


In the food world, a war has long been waged over what, exactly, it is that cooks and chefs produce. In the galleys and the prep kitchens, on the hot lines and in the bars after work, there have been discussions, arguments, names called, the occasional punch thrown; outside this insular environment, there have been panel discussions, articles (written both by windy academics who consistently get it wrong and by former cooks who get it right but are most often ignored), entire books about the secret fight for the heart and the soul of American cuisine.

On one side are the gentle, delicate souls, usually school-trained, who feel more than know that a chef is an artist, the plate his canvas, his aim the nourishment not just of his customers' bellies, but their brains, as well. Menus designed around smells (smoldering pine needles, Lemon Pledge, that sort of thing), twenty-course degustations, the ridiculous overuse of ylang-ylang, fiddlehead fern, frisée and PVC cut-downs, foods that look like other foods, or foods that don't look like food at all, the wearing of unusual facial hair: These are all trademarks of the artiste at work.

On the other side are the tradesmen — guys who, for the most part, came up the hard way as journeymen and apprentices, bouncing from kitchen to kitchen, picking up their skills a little at a time and often finding their specialty (saucier, poissonarde, mercenary grill man, whatever), through blind luck. The tradesmen understand that they are like plumbers, like bricklayers, like carpenters — that they have work to do for which they are uniquely trained and qualified, and that doing it well and without complaint is their primary responsibility. They know that just doing the job and feeding the people is noble enough; that education, enlightenment, spiritual revelation, transcendence and funny-looking lettuces are none of their business and should be left to schools, churches, Gourmet magazine and the Food Network. These are the guys who name their knives like rock stars do their guitars, who wear snap-front dish jackets when they work and only grudgingly pull on the whites to walk the floor, who run their kitchens the way pirate captains do their ships — through a combination of awe, terror and strong drink — and construct their menus around things that real people might actually want to eat: roasted chickens, grilled fish, thick steaks, sauces and sides tested across generations. Their artistic aspirations, if they have any at all, are sublimated, forced out onto the apps board, where the vaguely Asian tuna tartare or sculpture of melon balls with prosciutto will do the least damage.

There is no love lost between these two antagonistic camps. The battle breaks down mostly along semantic lines — in the insults hurled back and forth, the particularly malicious and lovely patois of the professional line. To the artist, the tradesman is a tank commander, a hash-slinger, a shoemaker, some "goddamn Buster Brown motherfucker" laying down his mise for repetitive action, for simple garniture and ease of use. To the tradesman, his opposite number is flighty, flaky, snobbish and slow: an artist. He is Picasso; he is Bob Ross making happy little trees. At a particularly grim point in my own career, when I was still young and dumb and didn't know any better, I was written off at the end of three days' worth of test-cooking as "just another faggot squeeze-bottle artist," shown the door and told to go through it. Quickly.

The battle is nasty — bitterly felt by those on the inside, pretty much discounted by those who aren't — and is likely to be the defining conflict of this culinary generation. And right now, one of the best places to see it being fought en clair is at Kevin Taylor's reinvented Palettes at the reinvented Denver Art Museum.

At first blush, Palettes is one of the coldest, least inviting rooms I've ever had the misfortune of walking into. Everything that isn't white is gray — gray-blue, silver-gray, slate gray — and everything that isn't gray or white is art, which is worse. I don't care much for art, know nothing about it; my idea of a masterpiece is an old oil-on-canvas painting of a sailing ship wracked by storms, a black-and-white photograph by Weegee, Frank Miller, high-class porno or a framed litho of a travel poster from 1930s offering a zeppelin flight from New York to Egypt and back. From our table in the fish-tank side room at Palettes, Laura and I were surrounded by huge canvases streaked with color that looked like the worst job of house-painting ever, and another that looked like monster gummi worms headed south. Seeing these, Laura leaned over and said, "You know what my favorite art in this room is? The exit sign. We should use it now."

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan