You Know It When You See It
When I’m just about finished with a painting, I like to ask friends who are not artists to give it a critique. I usually start by asking them what they love most, and if there is anything they see that really bugs them. When I paint a portrait for you, I’ll ask you the same thing towards the middle and end of the process. Invariably people who hold opinions about all sorts of things get shy about art and it takes some wheedling on my part for them to open up. Eventually they almost always offer their thoughts with the caveat that they don’t really know because they are not an artist/expert. A Sommelier friend told me that she gets the same response when she asks for opinions about wine.
I have heard artists say that they won’t accept feedback from anyone who isn’t in the art business. I believe this is the product of an insular art establishment that in recent times has been willing to accept shock value and novelty as substitutions for beauty and masterful technique. Note the otherwise respected Guggenheim museum in New York which just spent $150,000 on instructions for taping a banana to a wall. This is not to say that all modern art is bad. It isn’t. There is magnificent non-representational art, but the beauty of that work will move you without requiring the explanation of an expert. Wonderful discoveries are made in an environment of freedom and exploration. It’s good to keep pushing the envelope and trying new things and trusting our inner compasses as we go.
Leo Tolstoy said that art (to be considered art) should encompass three things. It should reveal technical skill on the part of the artist; it should show a moral relationship between the artist and the subject, meaning that the subject should be something the artist has a feeling for or cares about; and lastly, it should say something new, meaning not that it needs to be shocking, but that it should show you as a viewer something you haven’t seen before.
The human need for beauty in art and architecture is as important as our need for food to taste good—it nurtures us body and soul and moves us forward. You know good wine when you drink it, good food when you taste it, good friends when you have them, and good art when you see it. Trust yourself.
I hated cooking. It was a confusing mess of ingredients, heat, tools, equipment, instructions, pans, timing, temperatures, expectations, a ridiculous amount of math, and oh, flavor. You know, how things actually tasted at the end of that nightmare. As a former Armed Forces Officer I could help you plan an invasion (that’s not a word by the way, I just made it up) but heaven help you if you were planning on me to cook you breakfast beforehand.
Enter a brilliant and patient Chef/Friend/Savior and the concept of “Mise en place.” In French it means put in place, or everything in place, and to a chef it is a way of working, a way of life, and to my friend, practically a religion. In culinary school he had it tatooed on his arm. “Look,” said he, in that careful, kindly way one might speak to a lost puppy or the insane, ”You already do it in your studio. Think of the complex steps and technical skill required to paint a portrait. You organize your tools of course, but it goes further than that. Now that you have experience, consider the quality of the tools you choose– like the paint, canvas and supports. Think about how you plan, and how that helps avoid those things you’ve learned can go wrong. The more methodical we are the more practiced we get, which makes it easier to sort a lot of tasks. Cooking is the same. At its most basic, it’s about thinking of what you want to create, then prioritizing tasks into ordered steps to get there. When mastered, it is an art. Chefs and artists have a lot in common.” (This likely explains binge-watching Chef’s Table. Many of their stories are also my story. Different details, same journey. More later.)
He explained the philosophy of mise en place and demonstrated how to do prep and set up a work station so that my ingredients are assembled before I start cooking. This minimizes unnecessary movement, but also helps establish the flow that allows you to be fully present and focus on what you’re doing. “You wouldn’t decide to paint a portrait and then go get each tube of paint and each brush as you needed them, would you?”
Me: “Well, no… I’d never be able to concentrate.”
Brilliant Chef: Significant pause. Crossed arms. Cocked eyebrow.
Me: Slow smile of understanding… Big hug.
And now, though I do not have a tattoo, I am as devoted a practitioner of mise en place in cooking as elsewhere in life. The Meese, as it is affectionately known by those in the culinary world, is revered as more than just a practice. It’s a state of mind. It’s the idea that a high-quality process generally leads to a high-quality product. Mise en place is a discipline that allows us the mental and physical space to handle complex projects and enjoy not just the result, but every step along the way. Ask any chef– he or she will probably tell you that he doesn’t just love dinner, she or he loves the entire process–chefs love cheffing. They love the Meese because whether the goal is soufflé or salad, the objective is always excellence.
It’s the idea that a high-quality process often leads to a high-quality product.
If you would like to learn more about mise en place, there is a great book by Dan Charnas called Work Clean: The life-changing power of mise-en-place to organize your life, work, and mind. Using great chefs as examples, he takes the idea of Mise en Place outside the kitchen and shows how to work and focus better using preparation, process and presence.
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