There is something faintly absurd about all this
June 22, 2016 11:36 PM   Subscribe

In an age when chefs are regularly compared to artists and philosophers, Magnus Nilsson is among the world’s most renowned. But is the simple act of cooking ever worthy of such veneration? (SLGuardian) A longread article about Magnus Nilsson and his restaurant Fäviken

If our dinner plates reveal who we are, what does Nilsson’s rise to fame say about our fantasies and obsessions? The vast majority of people fascinated with Nilsson will never visit Fäviken, so they follow along at home, watching him on TV or checking his Instagram, which recently featured a picture of what appeared to be two mouldy pellets of Frosted Wheat. It was mycelium growing on a bale of straw, the caption explained, “waiting to be turned into broth before being served with a small lump of cultured butter”. That nearly no one knows what mycelium is (it’s a mushroom) doesn’t bother his followers – the thrill seems to be that somewhere in an imagined wilderness, a hunter-chef is cooking it perfectly. This is our contemporary fairytale: a Swede making magic out of mould.

It is also worth reading the linked William Deresiewicz article about "foodie stuff"
posted by Megami (31 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
My friend was just telling me about this Nilsson dude! She bought his book, and is now, subsequently, picking ..spruce to make stuff. And nettles – she's a little grumpy because we live pretty south and everything is blooming/mature by now – "if we were up North it wouldn't be too late!!" and she has some weird tree fungus sitting in her cabinet waiting to be grated.

Uh, anyway, every time theres a huge article about a chef, i can't help but think of that doc, the four horsemen (?i think, i fell asleep half way through), and according to it, one of the signs of a civilization collapsing was the superstar status of chefs, athletes etc. Which was kind of a sobering thought when you follow any media.

My dad is convinced that all Finns will revert back to picking wild berries and mushrooms when the big one comes. Should prob. get multiple copies of Nilssons book.
posted by speakeasy at 1:41 AM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

chefs are regularly compared to artists and philosophers

Since it was the chefs among Homo erectus that started the smaller jaw for a bigger brain movement, and kicked off that whole human evolution thing, maybe it's the artists and philosophers that should be striving for a comparison with chefs.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:04 AM on June 23, 2016 [13 favorites]

The Netflix documentary series Chef's Table has an episode about Nilsson. I highly recommend his episode (and really all of them).
posted by noneuclidean at 3:20 AM on June 23, 2016 [8 favorites]

Everything about that Chefs table episode annoyed me, but I still want to try his food. It looks utterly unique and delicious.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:09 AM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Everything about every Chefs Table episode annoyed me.
posted by JPD at 5:17 AM on June 23, 2016 [9 favorites]

I bought the book and while it's an interesting read on the food and culture, there was only one thing I wanted to cook, which was a split pea soup recipe. Still if I ever want to cook whale or seal, I now have some ideas.

Regarding the popularity and fame of chefs, I think it probably has something to do with inequality. I think I recall Jay Rayner saying chefs and taxi drivers were the two regular trades that did well in such a time.
posted by treblekicker at 5:29 AM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Since it was the chefs among Homo erectus that started the smaller jaw for a bigger brain movement.

Well, the processing of their creations probably also gave rise to the bigger sphincter movement, which now seems to dominate online commentary.
posted by No Robots at 5:30 AM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Met the guy here at a Scandinavian cooking symposium. I must say that the other panel member I spoke to, Andreas Viestad, was very gracious and had a dose of humility and humor.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 7:07 AM on June 23, 2016 [7 favorites]

But is the simple act of cooking ever worthy of such veneration?

Is the act of arranging words on paper worthy of such veneration? Is the act of ordering sonic tones worthy of such veneration? Is the act of smearing paint on canvas worthy of such veneration?
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:36 AM on June 23, 2016 [14 favorites]

(bias disclosure, I work for a fancy restaurant similar to Fäviken)

1) If there is an art form for the sense of sight, and the sense of hearing, why not an art form for flavor?

2) A ticket to the Metropolitan Opera can run to $700 for opening night, $100-$460 for decent seats. Haute couture gowns basically start at $50K and are also displayed in museums (for example, the Met) with that industry supporting the work of highly skilled artisans. So this kind of fine dining is closer to opera-level, rather than couture-level, expenditures to experience the craft at its height, which is comparatively democratic.

3) I think that the [devaluing, lowballing, questioning] of the cultural:monetary value of restaurants, especially by cultural critics, is related to the general devaluation of food and cuisine as a serious subject amongst academics (historical, scientific, anthropological, etc) though the tide on this is turning.

4) I also found Chef's Table pretty annoying and superficial
posted by zingiberene at 7:41 AM on June 23, 2016 [9 favorites]

That little subheading from the title seems like it's trying to stir up a clickbaity question people can argue about, but the article itself was much more chill and really quite lovely. Thanks for posting it!
posted by Greg Nog at 7:48 AM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Everything about every Chefs Table episode annoyed me.

Even the one with Francis Mallmann? The only thing that annoyed me about that was the burning envy it forged in my heart. I too want to live on a remote island in Patagonia!
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:33 AM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

I love Chef's Table! I don't understand the hate. And I fully understand the "Chef as Artist" idea. Art is an experience that is crafted with intention. Fine food qualifies.
posted by Guy Dudeman at 10:13 AM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Haute couture gowns basically start at $50K and are also displayed in museums (for example, the Met) with that industry supporting the work of highly skilled artisans.

Also, think of that famous rant in the movie The Devil Wears Prada where Miranda Priestly lays out how a haute couture collection of cerulean gowns eventually becomes a "lumpy blue sweater" in a Casual Corner sale bin. I think restaurants like this are kind of in that position. "Sous vide" cooking was barely heard of, say, a decade or more ago, when places like El Bulli, The French Laundry, and then Alinea got famous for employing it as one of their techniques. A few years later there were home sous vide machines for around $400. Now you can get a gadget for $179 that will turn any pot into a sous vide cooker. What was once ultra-high end is now readily available to any home cook.

I enjoyed the Chef's Table series. Some eps more than others, I suppose. It's total food and travel porn, sure. But some of them - like the Faviken episode - did get me thinking about the limited range of stuff I buy and cook and eat, and wanting to branch out and try more new things. And the foraging stuff that Nilsson does (along with that other place in Denmark, Noma) interests me because I wonder if, given climate change and other issues with agriculture, broadening the scope of plants we consider "food" might not become more important soon.
posted by dnash at 10:15 AM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

speakeasy, in "Good Omens," the modernized version of the "Famine" horseman of the apocalypse was a big fan of modernist cuisine. Paying tons of money to get 2 little carrots on a plate and still feel hungry :(
posted by permiechickie at 10:43 AM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am thoroughly and irreversibly Protestant in my approach to food in that I feel no need for and indeed reject the very idea of an anointed intermediary between me and the object of my veneration, and so the adulation afforded Nilsson and the endless string of other self-elected cardinals of cuisine aspiring to a papacy which can never exist strikes me as ludicrous apostasy, but an apostasy which there is no point in persecuting or even opposing, since it's more than punishment enough in and of itself.
posted by jamjam at 11:07 AM on June 23, 2016

country’s dinner table reveals a great deal about its culture’s values

uh oh. I think Trump might win the election.
posted by poe at 11:18 AM on June 23, 2016

I do a bit of home cooking from these books including Nilsson's and Michel Bras', both of which are really wonderful texts. I have their DVDs, etc, consider myself an enthusiast/hobbyist in this area.


1) The Opera ticket argument (which I used to favor), deserves stronger scrutiny. All it does is provide economic justification under the socioeconomic status quo. No actual artist would rely on this argument in an account for art, anyways, and that's the issue.

2) William Deresiewicz actually gives a very modern criteria for what should constitute art. It's one of the lasts paragraph of the Times article, and rather than serve as an argument that this haute cuisine isn't art, it should make people at least think about what some of the deeper issues are regarding this kind of cultural practice, in modern times.

Part of art and philosophy is being open to self-reflection and criticism, and these are just a couple of the avenues that chefs and their fans should learn to walk.
posted by polymodus at 11:34 AM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Opera ticket argument (which I used to favor), deserves stronger scrutiny. All it does is provide economic justification under the socioeconomic status quo. No actual artist would rely on this argument in an account for art, anyways, and that's the issue.

I see I was unclear—I don't count the economic argument as an argument for art in itself, but to put food into context with other financial expenditures for cultural products that aren't as routinely criticized as a sign of oncoming decline-and-fall-of-the-roman-empire-events (whether or not, like haute couture, they qualify as art)

I would also separate, in our analysis, the consumers of fine dining, wine, etc, from the producers, who in my experience generally have very different viewpoints, motivations, and even social classes from each other. And the dining public itself is not a monolith (the same can be said for professional cooks, though that group skews more working-class); diners at and fans of Faviken and noma (etc) include young people who have saved for many months for the experience, aspiring cooks, as well as people who talk about "flying commercial" and can and do drop $10K or more on wine for one dinner (with many gradations in between).

The is-food-art-or-craft argument has been going on, within the food and restaurant worlds, for well over a decade now (probably longer), with not much sign of letting up, and I find it rather tiresome. But for that matter, the view among well-known professional cooks skews much more to fine dining as craft than as art, and while I don't necessarily agree completely, the chefs I've met that insist they are artists rather than craftsmen tend to be pompous douchebags. Let the record show that I recognize with this the difference between correlation and causation, and that it probably has more to do with the history of how professional cooking developed as a trade and continues to perpetuate itself, than with innate qualities of cuisine.

I've read the Deresiewicz pieces before, and I find the arguments and definitions in both to be a bit tautological and not very compelling. And, demonstrative that Deresiewicz hasn't really done his homework to be a credible cultural critic of food (see, above, my comment about the systemic devaluation of food as a worthy subject for scholarship). But the invocation of Deresiewicz in TFA, in the first place, is misleading: "One of the premises that has elevated Nilsson’s work to international acclaim is that food is art and therefore deserving of painstaking care, auteurship, intellectualisation, and occasional worship." This premise is stated but not cited, and I think functions as a bit of a straw man in TFA. Some people, probably, passionately believe that food is art—but many do not, and many more are at least are open to questioning the premise, including many chefs themselves. But many of these people still value painstaking care, auteurship, and intellectual analysis (intellectualisation is a bit loaded, worship even more so) in some of their food experiences.

Maybe it's true that a premise that food is art has contributed to making Nilsson and his ilk famous, but I don't think that food = art has contributed more than food = excellent craft, and I don't think food = art is a necessary condition for making haute cuisine and other carefully- and thoughtfully-made food deserving of painstaking care, etc. (is any food worthy of worship? is any art truly worthy of worship? are food or art actually worshipped or do some writers like to indulge themselves in hyperbole?).

Clearly this is a line of questioning that hits close to home for me, and I've been thinking about it and related ones for a long time, even professionally. In my experience in that vein, there's plenty of well-thought-of and famous chefs that take self-reflection and criticism seriously, but I admit that certainly doesn't account for all of them. Can we separate fans from creators? I suppose this makes me the fulfiller of Godwin's Law, but how you answer that question is probably related to how you feel about Nietzsche and his fans.

Anyways, thanks for sticking with me all the way to the end of this comment! In conclusion, food is probably the most complex, interconnected parts of our culture, so trying to explain one part of it comprehensively is going to be difficult and frustrating!
posted by zingiberene at 1:12 PM on June 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

At the height of summer, the sun shines for 24 hours a day.

Heh. Maybe look at a map next time, Guardian. The trip from Stockholm might have felt endless, but you weren't that far north in Sweden. More like in the middle.
posted by effbot at 1:20 PM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

1) If there is an art form for the sense of sight, and the sense of hearing, why not an art form for flavor?

Is there an art form for the sense of sight? I guess porn, Disneyland, etc maybe. I assume you're thinking of visual arts like painting, but people generally seem to think of those as communicative mediums that use sight, whereas I don't really get that impression when I compare the conversations that food enthusiasts have about food with the conversations that art enthusiasts have about visual arts. The food discussions seem to be of categorically different natures, typically with more focus on the senses. And when both do talk about the same thing, say details of the techniques involved in crafting the work in question, the significance and motives of those conversations is usually wildly different.

I'm not suggesting that food isn't or can't or shouldn't be a communicative medium, but that right now at least it seems to be usually more about the senses and about the experience (more hedonistic?) in a way that makes straight comparisons with how people engage with visual arts seem strained to me, though people enjoy both kinds of engagement!
posted by anonymisc at 3:08 PM on June 23, 2016

(Hmm, I should probably add that I'm of the view that no-one who claimed "That is NOT art!" has ever been correct (and that 50 years later the incorrectness is quite often amusingly so) as I might have interjected in a manner where that's not obvious) :)
posted by anonymisc at 3:29 PM on June 23, 2016

What I liked in Deresiewicz's final argument is that he took a modern, cognitive approach to what art is, which to paraphrase is really just two things:

1) Art seems to be representational—poetry, music, dance, theatre, etc. all use higher order, symbolic communication in order to convey complex ideas.

2) Art seems to do its work through emotional complexity. Pleasure and passion are not enough. Music and poetry can convey grief, sorrow, anger, and all these other dimensions are underplayed in restaurants (putting aside jokes about unhappy customers for the moment).

What Deresiewicz's simple framework does is provide a complexity metric for food as an art medium, in terms of a cognitive-science notion of representation and a psychological notion of emotional depth. Ultimately, these aren't just Deresiewicz's standards, they are literary standards in a very broad sense: when psychology experiments show that literary texts makes readers more empathic, and that it is due to the complexity attained by fragmentary and ambiguous characterization in these novels that stimulates this difference in the reader, that is something that science can say about art. Deresiewicz's criteria are consistent with this modern conception of art. Thus, how culinary art develops going into the future, and how it engages with this intellectual space is the open question.

Food is demonstrably artisanal, but the applicable question is, can food relate to artistic properties such as the above? I've also had food that "vibrated" for me, too, so it is a possibility. Another such example is Japanese tea ceremony, which is a deeply reframing experience if you go through it. Hervé This' various work on molecular gastronomy is another example, coming from the direction of science and philosophy.

The main constraints today are social and technological—including the brigade system in exploiting labor, and food supply challenges impacting quality and accessibility of natural resources, cultural heritage and cultural commons (as opposed to Nilsson's "intellectual property"), and so on. This is where art, philosophy interact with ethics. Nilsson's approach is certainly one way of grappling with these issues.
posted by polymodus at 3:35 PM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I spent a little time on an Island off the west coast of Sweden, with such an artisan / artist of foraged masterpieces. I will never forget the duck with chanterelles. She gathered mushrooms on one island, berries on another, shot ducks on another, and fended off foxes. She grew a garden and made gravalax, her work is a part of my body. Her eyes perfectly reflected the Scandinavian skies and the care she took with everything was mesmerizing. Wedgewood plates full of tantalizing treasure, and wine from heavy Kosta crystal overlooking a granite archipelago, not exactly Botticelli's Venus, but memorable on so many more levels.
posted by Oyéah at 4:22 PM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think definitely food can be art:

- a high level of technical skill is required
- text and subtext can definitely exist on a plate
- a well put together and progressed meal has a definite narrative and point of view

Now, as with traditional art, most attempts at food as art falls woefully short, is self indulgent, and has added bonus of tasting crappy. But there are food traditions and new expressions that can be sublime and deeply meaningful.

I have tremendous respect for Magnus Nilsson - though I doubt I will ever dine at his restaurant. His work ethic is crazy. I've seen him talk about how much work it is - not just to produce the food - but to work up the energy and enthusiasm each and every night for his guests, understanding that they have made a tremendous effort and spent a lot of money to participate in his meals. He wants them to feel exhilarated and there cannot be a single bad night from him. He says that he actually makes very little money - so he understands there is a sell by date for Faviken - where it will be time to move on. It will exist for a period of time - express some deep ideas and convictions - and then pass into history. Sounds lovely doesn't it?
posted by helmutdog at 4:37 PM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Now you can get a gadget for $179 that will turn any pot into a sous vide cooker. What was once ultra-high end is now readily available to any home cook.

Any home cook who can plunk down almost $200 for an occasionally used specialty item. Which is not most home cooks? I don't mean to pick on the comment I just think it's important to note that this sort of thing is still very class based.
posted by Justinian at 5:02 PM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't mean to pick on the comment I just think it's important to note that this sort of thing is still very class based.

I don't think sous vide will ever be as ubiquitous as say a microwave or toaster oven is in the standard Western kitchen but when QVC sells sous vide machines and sous vide accessories you can be assured that this a mainstreamed trend.
posted by mmascolino at 6:29 PM on June 23, 2016

$200 for an occasionally used specialty item.

(psst hey if you want a cheaper sousvide option this is what I made to pair with my slow-cooker and it makes insanely baller steaks and tender chicken breasts and such, I use it probly like 4 times a month which is like about how often i'd say i use my cheese grater or bamboo steamer)
posted by Greg Nog at 6:52 PM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

In my opinion if you even start to discuss if something is art or it isn't then it is. But that is just me, and I won't impose my views on anyone. I will spend my money at Fävikan if I can.

My eldest daughter has saved up for special gourmet experiences since she was 14, and we are on the low end of middle class. She has never been to a rock festival. When she goes to famous restaurants, she is treated like a queen. The staff recognize her as someone who respects and reveres their work - they know she has saved up for the meal.

I get why this is important in her world. Food is here and now. You get what you get, and there are no excuses. No theory can amend a weird sauce. Specially not at 100 dollars when you are a student. She appreciates the work and the ideas, and really enjoys the service of a michelin restaurant, not least because she has worked within service.
posted by mumimor at 2:46 PM on June 24, 2016

I sniff condescendingly at sousvide.

Then it splashes just more then tepid water of uncertain purity into my eyes and we call it even.
posted by jamjam at 3:20 PM on June 24, 2016

If Chef's Table leaves you cold then I really recommend Mind of a Chef, which is from PBS and streamed on Netflix. I find it way less pretentious than Pollan's show and Chef Table. I enjoy pairing Mind of a Chef with an occasional Bourdain piece showing chefs in more human places, such as Sean Brock at the Waffle House doing a tasting menu or Alton Brown at a strip show.
posted by jadepearl at 5:01 AM on June 26, 2016

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