Dec 5, 2015

The Chef and the Architect I

I've been thinking about architecture and food a lot. Shocking, I know. However, the similarities between the role of the architect and the chef are deeper than most people probably realize. Why does this matter? I think how you frame a basic idea, like "what does an architect do?" has a deep impact for both architects and society they work in, and analogies are powerful conceptual tools.

There was a short article online about the difference between a cook and a chef, and reading it, I thought, this is about the difference between draftsmen and architects.

Chefs and architects both begin with a vision. There is an idea of what the final product will be. But this is not the unhindered vision of the artist. The restaurant chef does not get to choose what to make any more than the architect, although both can specialize in particular types: provincial french cuisine / university buildings, for example.

To reach that end, both must coordinate and lead teams, to answer questions, show the way and solve problems. The vision must be communicated and distributed, broken into parts and made real. The onions chopped and sauteed, the building dimensions and form roughed out. Pork or beef, and how spicy? Concrete or steel? How nicely finished?

There are the constraints of economy and time and physics. There is a client. Here the similarity as it is breaks down: the client of the chef experiences directly the work of the Chef. In architecture, the client often does not daily interact with the final product, with as we see, often leads to terrible architecture.

Imagine a city where the residents pool their money and then the top ten contributers got to decide what everyone was going to be eating. It would be tolerable, probably, but nothing that contributes to your senses, reinforces shared culture, or brings you delight in the way that a good meal does.

Food is like the built environment in that both are necessary for life. You would literally die without them. You could, like in the movie The Matrix, live off of vitamin and amino acid fortified protein goo. In the same way, you could protected from the elements with a minimum of waterproof and insulating elements in your immediate surroundings.

Why do we cook? I imagine that cooking began as a means to transform raw nutritious elements into something that could be consumed. Civilization began when we crossed the line from bare-minimum food preparation into cooking to make something taste better than the bare minimum. Why was that line crossed?  It seems clear to me that we prefer to find pleasure in something that we must do anyway. Are not the most sublime pleasures the ones we have cultivated from basic biological imperatives? (On that note, we have serious problems in our relation to both water and elimination)

There is an idea here as well- a meal is not understood as an object. Nobody ever bought a plate of spaghetti and hung it on the wall, or framed a bowl of soup. With a good meal, I am excited by the anticipation of eating it, my senses are fully engaged from the appearance, the smell, the texture, the taste, and temperature. I think about it as a hierarchy of ingredients- the soup and the salad: the salad is made of ruccola and tomatoes and cheese, etc etc. The soup has a broth and things in the broth, like chicken and cucumber etc etc.

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