Softcore Prawn: Food Art & Its Origins

31 October 2012

Do you know what the most important part of a dish is? Is it the taste? The subtle balance of sweet and salty? The freshness of the ingredients?

I’ll let you in on a secret. It’s the garnish.

That’s right. That little sprig of parsley. The smear of a tangy coulis beside a delicious vanilla panna cotta. The cherry atop the sundae. Of all these little things that bring balance to the picture that is your plate. But why would such a thing be so important? How is it that we turned one of our most basic needs–the need to eat–into an art form?

It all started with the introduction of la nouvelle cuisine, a term first coined by authors describing food that was lighter, used fresher produce, and was more aesthetically appealing than its predecessor la cuisine classique. Henri Gault, a renown restaurant critic, released his ‘manifesto’ of nouvelle cuisine in 1973, describing a set of rules that would govern this way of cooking. This included reduced cooking time, less choice on the menu, smaller portions, knowledge of nutrition and diet, and a general rejection of the old cooking techniques. It was seen as a way forward, a move into the future which was brimming with technology, promise, and a new artistic flair. Unfortunately, as with all new things, this form of cooking attracted criticism due to its meagre portions, high prices, and ‘obsessive-compulsive’ attention to presentation. Originally an attempt to produce cleaner, more ‘honest’ food, it became–and to many, remains–a culinary joke. There was, however, something else that came out of the new movement; the creation of food art.

Food has played a prominent part in art for centuries, going right back to ancient Greece and Rome where they painted bowls of fruit and crops to represent wealth and prosperity. The ancient Egyptians believed paintings of food would nourish the dead in the afterlife. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when still life and realism was coming into its game, detailed paintings of tables of food (such as those by Dutch realist William Kalf) were common. This food-painting movement carried into the 19th century with painters such as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne using fruit and vegetables in their still life works. Pictures then moved into the modern contemporary style with artists such as Andy Warhol and Ralph Goings, who used the opportunity to show off their skills in lighting and composition. In all of these cases, food has been used to communicate a message, show off the bounty or the talent of the artist, or to serve as a decoration… not to eat.

The revolution of nouvelle cuisine did not just bring about a new movement on the canvas, however, It also changed the way we viewed food as a medium… food became the art. Artists such as Vik Muniz (who used a bowl of spaghetti as inspiration for one of his works), Sterbak (who made a dress out of a flank steak, à la Gaga), and Bridget Waters all used food as their inspiration and medium. Many other artists have created sculptures, paintings and models out of foodstuffs. In doing so, artists challenge how viewers not only see their food, but challenges and provokes their other senses through a myriad of creations. Unfortunately, as food is perishable, original works will not last long. This gives another dimension to the artwork; Muniz presents his work as photos, Sterbak intended the dress to decay on display, and Waters intended her artwork to be eaten.

So we return to the question: why is the garnish the most important element of a dish? Because the garnish recognises that humans eat with their eyes, and marks the journey from ‘food’ to ‘cuisine’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *