Is Food Art? Chefs, Artists, and Curators Debate

Welcome to the intersection of inspiration and ingestion, where the art and food worlds' creme-de-la-creme consider the question of the ages.

In 1971, the artists Carol Goodden, Tina Girouard, and Gordon Matta-Clark opened Food, a hybrid refectory and nightly art event in New York City that nourished the creative denizens of pre–shopping mall SoHo. Centered on unusual ingredients, the menu changed often—oxtail soup, frogs’ legs, and marrow bones (diners wore the cleaned scraps home as charms) one night; an early appearance of sashimi on U.S. shores another—to feed a post-minimalist milieu on a starving artist’s budget. Their stewing of the culinary and the conceptual lasted for only a couple of years in its original form, but it exemplifies how a thoughtfully conceived meal combines aesthetics, community, and consumption in a way that has long been the basis of the chef’s craft and an inspiration for artists.

Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija famously turned to cooking to create gatherings that have illuminated social and political conditions around the world. And many of his contemporaries working with an eclectic tasting menu of media and agendas have taken up food as an ever-applicable metaphor for humanity itself. On the other side of the table, chef Daniel Humm credits his interest in art as defining the formula for New York’s Eleven Madison Park—from what hangs on its walls to the composition of its dishes to the choreography of a four-hour, ten-course meal. In Humm’s hands, dining rises to the level of high art.

Or does it? The idea that a canapé can be the equal of a canvas makes some people queasy. Is food art? And why do we care? We put it bluntly to a set of prominent figures in both art and food. Their answers—delicious, provocative, and surprising—follow.

Perhaps, like paint in a tube or a slab of uncarved marble, food without context is not art.

Emma Enderby, Curator, The Shed

“If anything, food is a more intimate form of art compared to others, as it incorporates all of the senses.”

Dominique Ansel, chef

“No, but if you were to rephrase the question, ‘Can art be food?’ I’d say yes.”

Will Cotton, artist

“Sometimes, particular aspects of cooking develop extraordinarily high levels of creative expression and can be compared to other artistic disciplines. In those cases I do regard cooking as an art form.”

Elena Arzak, chef

“Good food, like good art, is aware of its environment, and can create memories and evoke feelings in much the same way.”

Max Levai, Director, Marlborough Contemporary

“Wrong question. Food isn’t art. Cooking, however, can be. Cooking is man’s most essential occupation—it’s what makes us human. We cook, they don’t.”

Ruth Reichl, food critic

“Of course food is art! To me, art should be a thrill for all of our senses.”

José Andrés, chef

“Now that our cultural focus is shifting to the value of experiences over objects, food is in the spotlight. Edible art is definitely in the ascendant (and I’m already a big collector).”

Nicholas Baume, Director, Public Art Fund

“Food has an artistic component when creating and when experimenting [with] it, but never when reproducing it. That’s craftsmanship.”

Ferran Adrià, chef

“In my opinion food is far from what is understood as real art, which it has no use in its primary synthesis. Cooking, on the other hand, has a lot of it.”

Albert Adrià, chef

“Food is not art. It can be artistic, however, by which I mean that it can be beautiful, touch you deeply through your senses, and move you emotionally, much as a wonderful work of art can.”

Madeleine Grynsztejn, Director, MCA Chicago

“Food is more like a craft; not necessarily beautiful, not pretentious, and it doesn’t need a statement as long as it nourishes, covers our basic needs, and gives us pleasure. Food’s purpose is to see us smile, not to question our existence.”

Enrique Olvera, chef

“Cuisine, like art, has the ability to communicate the values and culture of the people who create it.”

Hallie Ringle, Assistant Curator, The Studio Museum in Harlem

“Artists thrive in the presence of great chefs, and vice versa.”

Iwan Wirth, President, Hauser & Wirth

“Food is art and art is food.”

Simon de Pury, art collector and auctioneer

“In food and in cooking, art is a byproduct in the pursuit of deliciousness.”

Niki Nakayama, chef

“Food is a medium, and the act of making food is an institutional critique. If food is art, it’s behavioral, pleasurable, ephemeral, and nutritious.”

John Riepenhoff, artist

“Food is how I choose to express myself, and while I take an artistic approach with my dishes, my primary goal is always first and foremost to nourish people with my cooking.”

Camille Becerra, chef

“[The question] ‘Is food art?’ usually boils down to a craft-versus-art argument. I avoid these conversations at all costs.”

Dave Arnold, researcher and Founder, Museum of Food and Drink

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